August 28, 2012

The City Beautiful

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Back in the hills of upstate New York, you may still be thinking about a favorite neighborhood or street, or the peculiarities of people at home. You may see your hometown in a certain way and believe that you’ve always seen it as such. But the truth is that your perceptions constantly change. What is the accepted image of a city at one moment could be its opposite the next. It is exactly this mutability that dominates The Johnson Museum’s new exhibition, The Mirror of the City: The Printed View in Italy and Beyond, 1450-1940.

The “view” is a term with its own history, rooted in 16th century Italy. That era was witness to a growth in interest about classical antiquity, which encouraged graphics artists from across Europe to visit Rome and create images of the ruins scattered across that city. By making etchings of these landmarks on copper plates, the artists were able to print reproductions whose popularity led them to be sold across the continent. In Italy these depictions came to be know as “vedute,” or views.

Views are much more than mere depictions of place; they express the times at which these representations are made. Each view presents a unique understanding of the city it documents, and so tells us about contemporary modes of perception as much as the city itself. Accordingly, when artists began to turn their attention from remnants of Roman glory to the modern aspects of the same city, in accordance with changes in taste, their images reflected the epoch’s ways of thinking.

Taking up ideas held by Enlightenment thinkers, Italian artist Giuseppe Vasi created a series of etchings in the mid-18th century entitled “On the Splendors of Ancient and Modern Rome.” The Enlightenment championed scientific and rational thought. Vasi’s series of 200 etchings show the same rationalist tendencies by attempting to catalogue the city, or create an encyclopedia of its architectural beauty. Vasi’s etchings, showing elegant bridges and rich city squares, have been bound in large volumes. The several images on display showcase Vasi’s ability to bring the viewer’s attention to the beauty of architecture. What we often see only in passing turns into an object of contemplation, an effect achieved by many of the etchings in the exhibit but which Vasi perfects. In the bound volumes, text accompanies the etchings, elucidating the subject and helping the viewer maintain a slow advance through the work.

By compiling etchings into books, artists were able to visually capture an entire city with their “vedute,” though not always with the encyclopedic precision of Vasi. Another Italian artist of the 18th century, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, also made etchings of Rome. His etchings show the high drama and idealism favored by the Romantics, who largely opposed Enlightenment ideals. Interestingly enough, these qualities appear in the cityscape rather than in its citizens. An image shown in a gilt volume of Piranesi’s etchings, a gift from Pope Clement XIV to the Duke of Cumberland and held by Cornell’s Rare and Manuscript Division, gives a dramatic depiction of the Piazza del Popolo. Though its effects are achieved mostly through a stark contrast of light and shadow, the “view” still attains an emotional quality never seen in Vasi’s work. Instead of compelling us to contemplate a single architecture, Piranesi has us follow the splendor of a scene.

The exhibition does not restrict itself to images of Rome, though it may be the 18th century etchings of the timeless city that steal the show. A fine specimen is the well-known pair of prints by 18th century English artist William Hogarth entitled “Beer Street” and “Gin Lane.” Instead of giving his attention to the buildings of London, Hogarth creates a social commentary by showing the denizens of the town at their best and at their worst. The violence and death shown in the latter print reflect contemporary opinions on the evils of gin. The depictions of people give these prints a narrative quality rarely seen in the etchings of Rome.

A sizable number of prints from 18th century France lampoon Paris’s burgeoning middle-class, or the bourgeoisie. Of all the images in the exhibition these lend the firmest depiction of a city where people live and breath. This is largely due to the entirely human manner in which these artists drew their subject. The caricatures we find with Honoré Daumier, for example, make evident the satirical intervention of the artist in their creation.

What we finally take away from the exhibit is a realization that cities are not their material dimensions any more than they are the people who inhabit them. While a place like Rome may have a well preserved past it does not prevent us from seeing the city in new ways. Ultimately, we must remember the human character that gives every street and building its color.

Original Author: Ian Walker Sperber