Tim Cornwell: Delicate draftsman but despoiler of art
THE rights and wrongs of the 7th Earl of Elgin’s behaviour in stripping the Acropolis of its marbles have been debated for two centuries, almost since the days they were dug out of or sawed off the monuments of ancient Athens and crated home in British warships.
Almost overlooked has been the man who actually carried out the job – paid £200 a year first to record and make casts of the Athens sculptures and then, in a notable case of “mission creep”, to remove the best of them.
It was the Italian artist, Giovanni Battista Lusieri, who was Elgin’s agent on the ground, and on a salary of £200 a year he successfully shipped home 15 of the metope panels and 75 metres of the Parthenon frieze. He was praised as “indefatigable” and conscientious in his efforts.
Drop into the ground floor rooms of the Scottish National Gallery, any time between now and October, however, and you get an unexpected insight into Lusieri’s separate talent as a painter.
It’s rare, as Aidan Weston-Lewis, chief curator of the Scottish National Gallery points out, to genuinely discover, or rediscover, a brilliant artist – particularly on the doorstep in Fife.
That’s surely what he has done in this show, billed as the first serious, solo, look at the work of Lusieri, who died in Athens in 1821. It’s the kind of find where you urge friends to see it, to test if they agree.
Expanded Horizons: Giovanni Battista Lusieri and the Panoramic Landscape is an unexpected breath of fresh air, of bright Mediterranean sea and sunlight in the midst of a miserable summer.
The exhibition’s star attraction is Lusieri’s panoramic view of the Bay of Naples, painted in about 1789 in watercolour on six sheets of paper joined together, stretching nearly three metres across.
Borrowed from the Getty Museum in California, it is a vision of clarity and detail, from ships in the bay to couples wandering city walls, a rising light and glimmering reflections of boats and shorefront harbours. Lusieri painted it 20 years after the death of Canaletto and for an amateur like me it’s hard not to make the connection.
The Getty work inspired Weston-Lewis to put the show together. It involved, among other things, more than 20 visits over about five years to Broomhall, the Fife home of the Elgin family, in whose collection a motherlode of Lusieri’s work remains.
Alongside other sweeping panoramas of Italy and Sicily, finds have included Lusieri’s “ship portraits”, fine line drawings of corvettes and barques, and the watercolour of a short-eared owl, which according to Elgin family legend used to roost in the Parthenon.
In 1798 the seventh earl was appointed Britain’s Ambassador Extraordinary to the Sultan of Turkey. He was looking for an artist to join his entourage, in particular to record and explore the architecture and sculpture of Athens, under Turkish rule.
Lusieri’s paintings of monuments show his ability to capture “every vein of marble” in his close-up sketches and paintings. But when the orders changed he set to with a will, often deliberately painting the famous marbles in situ before he had them taken down from the Acropolis.
The traveller Edward Daniel Clarke noted how Lusieri captured “every grace and beauty” of the sculptures. But Clarke also famously described how one section of marble came crashing down, “scattering white fragments”, causing the local Turkish commander to weep.
It is chilling to read of Lusieri organising the saws and ropes he needed to complete his work of carving up the carvings, stripping down the Acropolis in order, it would be claimed, to save it. Other visitors described how the ground shook as the Parthenon “was despoiled of its finest sculptures”. One thing missing in this show – focused on Lusieri’s art, not the marbles – is before and after pictures of the Parthenon.
In words that still set Greeks’ teeth on edge, this fine artist wrote to Lord Elgin regretting “some barbarisms” he had carried out, noting how breakages sometimes made it easier to ship the the sculptures. It leaves the irony of how a fine and delicate Italian draftsman carried off one of the most controversial hauls of art in history, on contract to a Scottish earl.
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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