If one goes into the Great Room at Marble Hill, one can see some of the most fascinating paintings at Marble Hill. This unique set of five fantasy Roman landscapes by Giovanni Paolo Panini, dated 1738, were purchased (or possibly commissioned) by Lady Suffolk for the Great Room. We know from 1767 inventory, drawn up when Henrietta Howard died, that she owned these five paintings and they were indeed hung in the Great Room there in her lifetime. The paintings were dispersed when the Cunard family were intending to demolish in 1901 (the house was only saved at the eleventh hour). Amazingly English Heritage managed to recover these paintings. With the help of old photographs showing them in situ, two of the canvases, which were purchased by the British Rail Pension Fund in 1974, were identified and placed on long-term loan to Marble Hill. Ten years later, the overmantel was purchased at auction in New York, and in 1988 the final pair were located in a private collection in the South of France, and were purchased along with the two previously on loan.
The names of these paintings are 1.Landscape with the Colosseum, 2. Landscape with the Arch of Constantine, 3. Landscape with Pantheon, 4. Landscape with the Column of Trajan and 5. Statues in a Ruined Arcade. There are few great houses or even public galleries in England that can say they have five paintings by Panini in their collection. Capricci are paintings showing a landscape or an imaginary scene with both imaginary and real features as opposed to Vedute which is defined as a topographical landscape painting. The most obvious examples of Vedute are those by Canaletto, particularly of Venice.
Panini actually had a highly distinguished artistic career and not only as a painter of Vedute and Capricci. He was born in Piacenza in 1691 in north Italy and trained there. He studied under Gaspar van Wittel, Giovanni Ghisolfi and Salvator Rosa. From van Wittel he learnt the minute and almost topographical rendering of townscapes as well as precision in draughtsmanship. Rosa’s paintings demonstrated how views could be animated with human figures, while Ghisolfi provided models of the Capricci a genre to which Panini contributed many examples of his own. Panini was the first painter to specialise in capriccio views of Rome and it was the evocation of the spirit of the city (as opposed to real views) which created a vogue among British 18th century Grand Tourists wishing to take home a souvenir of Rome.
He had gone to Rome in 1711, but his first commissions were relatively modest. The first documented commission was for the Villa Patrizi near the Porta Pia (the palace was pulled down in 1911) where he worked between 1719 and 1725 frescoing the vaults, overdoors and windows. However his reputation grew and in 1719 he was nominated to the leading academy of art in Rome, Accademia di S Luca, where he taught perspective drawing. Every entrant to the Academy had to paint an entrant painting and his was his first oil painting, Alexander visiting the tomb of Achilles. In 1722 he received an important commission from Pope Innocent XIII: the decoration of the mezzanine apartment in the Palazzo Quirinale. This commission was particularly prestigious because, at that time the Pope was not only the spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church (as he is today) but the secular ruler of the Papal States. A few sections of this painting survive, depicting views of villas and gardens against a background of sky and seen through imitation balustrades. He now started concentrating on landscape painting. From 1725 to 1726 he was painting frescoes in the Galleria Nobile and the Galleriola of the Palazzo Alberoni. He also painted the frescoes in the Villa Montalto Grazioli in Frascati between 1720 and 1730, which is his most complete surviving fresco cycle.
From then on he specialised more and more in painting Vedute and Capricci particularly of Rome, which then made him famous and very popular among tourists specially those doing the Grand Tour. Many of his paintings were Vedute of the ancient Roman ruins. He ran his own highly successful workshop and worked for the rest of his life in Rome. However he did not just paint Vedute and Capricci. He received a number of major commissions. In the 1740s he recorded the visit to Rome of the Spanish King Charles III, with two paintings: the Visit of Charles III to St Peter’s (1745) and Charles III received at the Quirinale by Benedict XIV (1746). In 1745 Panini was also commissioned to paint important portraits such as the portrait of Pope Benedict XIV with Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga. He was also honoured by becoming a member of the Académie de France in Rome. His last known work was a painting of the Colosseum, which he painted in 1764, the year before he died.
Writing for the Marble Hill Society
English Heritage notes:
Statues in a Ruined Parade. The Great Room at Marble Hill contains a unique set of five imaginary views of Rome by Panini. Positioned above the doors and mantelpiece, they are thought to have been either purchased or commissioned for the room by Henrietta Howard. In this painting the direction of the light and the line of the perspective when seen from the doorway of Mrs Howard’s bedchamber both suggest that it was painted for the room.