The show “Grand Tour” at Gallerie d’Italia in Milan is based on a simple but striking premise. It brings back to Italy artworks and artefacts once taken home by young European upper-class men as souvenirs from their Italian Grand Tours in the 1700s and 1800s.
Centrally located, facing Milan’s glamorous Teatro alla Scala, Galerie d’Italia is housed in the former Banca Commerciale Italiana. Stepping into the grand central hall is overwhelming. We find ourselves amidst grandeur, ornament, and a crowd of mostly well-to-do Milanese visitors. The artworks on show are not eclipsed by the splendor of the setting, but rather seem at home in it. Some of them are real antique sculptures, some creative assemblages of antique fragments by 18th century Roman artists like the large candelabra by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose work met the growing demand of Grand Tourists for “authentic” souvenirs.
The adjacent gallery spaces present 1700s and 1800s paintings of Italian landscapes, cities and antique sites, featuring Italian painters like Canaletto and Panini as well as foreign painters like Ducros or Wright of Derby. A large panorama of an erupting Vesuvius in moonlight by Volaire is a telling document of the time. Not only does it capture the 1770s eruptions but also tourists visiting the spectacle and their fascination with the picturesque.
In a final sequence of galleries, the focus lies on the portraits of Grand Tourists, ranging from life size paintings of rich English noblemen by Pompeo Batoni to more intimate depictions like Anton Raphael Mengs’ portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann.
The show reveals the surprising degree to which artistic production in 1700s and 1800s Italy was driven by and aimed at wealthy patrons and scholars of antiquity from Britain, France, Russia, Sweden and the German states. It also illustrates the crucial role Italian and foreign artists played in creating an image of Italy that Grand Tourists could bring home with them to their native countries. Today, the catalogues and postcards on offer in the small museum shop pale in comparison to the “original” souvenirs.
gv. & jm.
Galleria d’Italia, Milan