For 18th c. British gentlemen on their leisurely Grand Tour of Italy, there were certain "must-see" items on their agendas: the Colosseum by moonlight, Venice during Carnival, Naples when Mt. Vesuvius was shooting sparks into the sky...and a stop at the studio in Rome of the painter Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787) for an elegant portrait to ship back home.
While Batoni painted historical and Biblical scenes as well as portraits of Italian clerics and ladies, he had his greatest success painting lush, life-sized portraits of young foreigners in classically-inspired settings. These are only three of the many, many that survive in collections around the world and on the walls of British country houses.
While indulgent parents back home might grumble at the cost of sending their scions oversees for (supposedly) educational trips that might last a year or more, they must have proudly hung these portraits in their libraries and drawing rooms. Here was the painted proof that their sons were worldly gentleman of learning and accomplishment, of confidence and self-assurance. And, much like a modern selfie, a portrait by Batoni was also proof that the gentleman had actually *been* to Italy.
Batoni knew his patrons' tastes well. In addition to trappings like maps, busts of ancient emperors, weighty tomes, a looming column, and a faithful dog, he also must have offered the suitably exotic "foreign" costume for the portrait. Whether the costume worn in each of these portraits - a fur-lined red velvet coat (worn or draped over the shoulders like a cloak) and red velvet breeches, a white silk satin waistcoat, and a black silk ribbon from the wearer's queue trailing nonchalantly forward around his collar – actually existed in the studio to be worn while posing, or was simply painted in by Batoni doesn't really matter. The beautifully textured velvet and fur indicate a rich, luxurious experience that could only be had in Rome.
So here are three portraits, three gentlemen, one costume, and one painter. Which painting do you think best captures the spirit of the Georgian gentleman having his Roman Moment? (As always, click on the images to enlarge them.)
Top left: Portrait of Richard Milles (1735-1820), by Pompeo Batoni, c. 1760s. National Gallery, London. Right: Charles Compton, 7th Earl of Northampton (1737-1763), by Pompeo Batoni, 1758. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Bottom left: Portrait of Edward Dring, by Pompeo Batoni, 1758. Private Collection.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.