The Mauritshuis presented the exhibition Dreaming of Italy in the spring of 2006. The exhibition highlighted artists’ love of Italy - the country of light, warmth, art and culture – throughout the centuries. The many facets of Italy’s appeal are disclosed by means of approximately 50 exceptional masterpieces.
The works of art originated in France, England, Germany, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century. Many of the artists, such as Claude Lorrain, Poussin, Turner, Corot, Ingres, Böcklin and Feuerbach had rarely been exhibited in the Netherlands. They created very different visions of the country of dreams, Italy, ranging from precisely drawn ruins to swift sketches in oils, from profound symbolic scenes to paradisiacal landscapes.
The Mauritshuis organized this exhibition together with Professor Henk van Os (University of Amsterdam).
Karel du Jardin, Italian landscape with a young shepard, c. 1660. Mauritshuis.
Dreaming of Italy
‘Northerners’ have dreamt of Italy for centuries. Bliss awaited them behind the mountains. This sunny, attractive country with its rich culture and multitude of artistic expressions was an inexhaustible source of inspiration. Initially, in the sixteenth century, artists were particularly fascinated by the remains of classical antiquity found there, which they wanted to study and document. Seventeenth-century artists, moreover, were drawn to the exquisitely beautiful landscape. Subsequently, the country was increasingly perceived as a locus of harmony: the grandness of the landscape, the simplicity of the people, and the natural religious awareness form an inextricable unity. Ultimately, at the end of the nineteenth century, Italy was the very best place to dream, where artists became conscious of an equally intense and unfulfillable longing.
Ruins and golden light
The earliest travellers to the south were devout pilgrims seeking the burial places of martyrs. Sixteenth-century humanists wished to discover the centre of European civilisation. Artists such as Maarten van Heemskerk headed to Italy to document the imposing remains of antiquity. This was followed by other, new experiences. For example, the natural surroundings of these monuments began to increasingly capture attention in the seventeenth century. The golden light south of the Alps became a prominent feature in the paintings of the Frenchman Claude Lorrain and the Dutchman Jan Both. The scenes of Claude Lorrain in particular long determined the image of the painted Italian landscape. The local people, too, steadily appeared in the paintings, whether prominently, or as a part of the lush natural surroundings.
Until the end of the eighteenth century artists tended to depict the same sights or play with recognisable monuments and well-known panoramas. Drawing was done out-of-doors, and painting indoors. However, this changed around 1800. Many sought their own spot and tried to hone their own views. Oil sketches were made outdoors by, for example, Thomas Jones, Corot and Blechen. Everyone now wanted to pursue their own dream of Italy or at least evolve a unique vision of its monuments and landscape. Not surprisingly, the repertoire expanded vastly and is as varied as the painters themselves.
New dreams about Italy also emerged. The beauty of Roman liturgy and the piety of the country folk enraptured some artists. Others discovered cohesion between art and society in Medieval Italian cities that had vanished from contemporary life. Hence, for artists Italy became the impetus and the point of departure for an inexpressible and unattainable yearning for an ideal world, a paradise lost. Feuerbach’s Iphigenia is the most important example of this. In this painting, the mythical longing is the core issue and Italy represents nothing more than a decor.
Henk van Os is the author of the catalogue, which was published as a handy travel sketchbook. All of the paintings and drawings exhibited are illustrated in large format and in colour. Waanders Publishers, 128 pages,