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The Watercolourist

Deborah Jay

Training, acumen and an ill-starred constellation would take Giovanni Battista Lusieri in late November 1799, a historic moment in the course of Anglo-French conflict, from celebrity to ignominy and set in motion a struggle which still dogs Britain today. His pivotal and yet tragic role in the extraction of what are now known as the Elgin Marbles, acquired by the British Museum in 1816, remains largely unacknowledged.

According to the diocesan register, Giovanni Battista Callisto Giustino Baldassare was immersed in the baptismal font of the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome a few days after he was born on 14 October 1754. His father, Mattia Lusieri, a silversmith from Pesaro, had come to Rome three years earlier with his wife, son and daughter. Little is known about Giovanni Battista’s early years. The imagination has to conjure his world.

At that time, the Eternal City comprised some hundred and sixty thousand souls huddled together in the area defined by the Porta del Popolo, the old Forum Boarium, the Trastevere, the Tiber, the Baths of Diocletian and the slopes of the Hill of the Quirinale within the ancient Aurealian wall. Rome was generally safe, thieving, kidnap and abduction practically unknown. There is nothing to suppose that Giovanni Battista had anything other than an unexceptional eighteenth century Roman childhood. On that assumption, he spent the mornings receiving some formal if ineffectual education, largely in Latin, from friars of one of the local orders learned in dogma. In all likelihood, he spent much of the rest of his time in his father’s workshop. He saw how to fashion all manner of silverwork. Most popular were crosses, chalices, precious reliquaries and ritual objects for use in Church, tea services, forks and spoons. Also in demand were salvers, bowls, chains, snuffboxes, whistles, mechanical utensils, swords, bridle buckles and saddle nails, and accessories for sedans and other conveyances. His father might also have made agricultural and surgical implements, and components for ships and weaponry. He would have worked not only in silver, but in many metals – principally copper, brass and gold – and with precious gems of agate, amethyst and rubies. The workshop buzzed with activity, pervaded by the smell of sweat and molten ore, hot from the furnaces. The din of pounding and teasing of metal was unrelenting, concentration punctuated intermittently by short exchanges or expletives when material proved resistant or lack of care caused waste. Such specialised expertise required time, infinite patience and a calm temperament. Having laboured hard to obtain the stamp of approval in the form of an official silver-mark from the Papal authorities, Mattia watched everyone closely, anxious to maintain high standards of craftsmanship. Working fast was scorned: Rome waited for excellence, a stranger to deadlines.

The young Giovanni Battista started helping his father with small items requiring repair or alteration. Then, having begun to show some promise as a draughtsman, the novice progressed to preparing designs for customer requests. A steady hand was required for engraving monograms, family crests and inscriptions. Increasingly essential to the silversmith’s trade in the second half of the eighteenth century was a printing press. Prints were used routinely for silverwork commissions and for notices, labels and illustrations. In his father’s workshop, Giovanni Battista learned precision and a high degree of finish required at various stages of the process of silversmithing. He also understood the commercial side of the trade, the management and flattering of clients, the importance of being on good terms with everyone and of keeping tight control over finances. This preparation was to stand him in good stead, though he would not necessarily recognise when enough was enough.

As Giovanni Battista reached adolescence, his father sent him out to make deliveries on a horse and cart, typically shared with neighbouring trades. These jaunts revealed to him the world between the confines of the alleys around the Castel Sant’Angelo, the countryside and possibly the other towns within a day’s journey from Rome, like Frascati or Castelgandolfo, locations of the Pope’s summer residences.

Working days, of which there were barely one hundred and fifty in the year after taking account of religious holidays, started around eight in the morning and ended around eight at night, allowing for the obligatory, often lengthy siesta. During the afternoon when the city was asleep, Giovanni Battista wandered out along narrow lanes beyond his parents’ modest three-storey house near the Ponte Sant’Angelo. Loitering around churches, fountains and squares, he was fascinated by the artists, mostly foreign, who had set up their easels to record the architectural feast before them. Some could speak a smattering of the Italian language as spoken in Tuscany, having studied the texts of Boccaccio and Dante. Others conversed in Latin with the factotums who helped them carry, load and unload equipment and run errands.

Perhaps the aspiring watercolourist caught the attention of one of the foreign gentlemen artists on the Piazza Navona or at the base of the Spanish Steps and engaged in conversation. Possibly a more consummate artist gave him the benefit of his experience. Whatever the influences, he soon began to demonstrate a clear preference for sketching sculpture over portraiture.

The steady trickle of milords, as the Romans called the foreigners, which had started some twenty years before Giovanni Battista was born, began to increase when the fragments of the Forma Urbis Romae, the ancient city plan engraved in the 3rd Century CE, was exhibited at the Capitoline Museum in 1741. The Bourbon king, Charles III had found the Severan Marble Plan packing up his inheritance in Parma to transfer his capital and court to the Bay of Naples. For the first time, Romans were able to see how Rome had existed at the height of its prosperity in ancient times. It was clear that there might lie undiscovered much more of the remains of the city’s former splendour than the naked eye could see.

Idealistic, mostly aristocratic and frequently ill-informed travellers were the pioneers of what became known as the Grand Tour. This trajectory soon constituted an indispensable rite of passage for the educated of means in Northern Europe, particularly those of a literary or artistic bent. Covering their mouths and noses with Brussels lace handkerchiefs, they baulked at the malodour – l’aria cattiva. Giovanni Battista and his compatriots were rarely ill and thought the pestilential air, to which the tourists were much more vulnerable, positively beneficial to well-being. Newly arrived visitors were aghast at the largely unpaved roads, thick with dust in heat and mud in rain, the gutters suppurating with refuse and excrement in which errant pigs wallowed. Some newcomers wanted to turn back to their Northern comforts.

Tourist disenchantment was to be avoided at all costs. The aristocratic visitor with his entourage, heavy purse and readily available credit was an opportunity. He or she might keep an inn-keeper, a coachman, a stablehand, a postilion, a washerwoman, a tailor if not several and many more besides in gainful employment for a significant period. If the aristocrat were particularly well-heeled, there might even be in prospect some foreign travel, a longer term stipend and occasionally even a pension. It was imperative to seize the day and ensure these precious commodities did not lose their focus.

The locals were stupefied that the newcomers gave the relatively recent additions to the city no more than a passing glance. Michelangelo’s and Bernini’s gate, the obelisk of Sixtus V on the Piazza del Popolo, the magnificent staircase of the Campidoglio and the steps and terraces of the Piazza di Spagna, were dismissed after quick inspection. Instead, the travellers rushed to see the ancient remains, unprepared for the sights which greeted them. They had not anticipated the ravages wrought by flood, earthquake and man. The temples, baths and amphitheatres which their privileged classical educations had led them to expect to see whole were mere fragments, plundered by Renaissance and Baroque masters to feed their art. The ancient sites were for the most part buried under rubbish and earth overgrown with weeds. The visitors found that what remained had been corrupted. The Pantheon and Baths of Diocletian had been turned into the Churches of Santa Maria ad Martyres and of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and Hadrian’s tomb had been converted into the Castel Sant’Angelo. Trajan and Marcus Aurelius in Carrara marble had been supplanted by St Peter and St Paul in bronze on their respective columns.

Just as the locals were perplexed, so the new tourists were uncomprehending as regards what seemed to them the locals’ seeming indifference to his ancient heritage. The typical Roman was comfortable among his ruins, his normality reflected in the horned oxen lying beside obelisks in the fora and goats grazing among broken statues nibbling at grapes pushing up through fallen marble. He expected to see finds rehabilitated in a fresh environment. The wealthiest and most illustrious in society had always collected the finest of everything, so to see mosaics, statuary and bas-reliefs lifted from ancient sites and displayed in the homes of the powerful was nothing out of the ordinary. Giovanni Battista had no qualms about travellers muddying their hands in the undergrowth and trawling through derelict buildings for souvenirs.

Antiquities were not all the wealthy foreigners planned to take home. They also wanted images of the places they had visited. One of the first artists to exploit the demand was another Giovanni Battista. Piranesi pumped out fantasised scenes which spawned a fashion which would keep artists and printers in work for centuries. But Giovanni Battista Lusieri refused to work from what he called miserable sketches created largely from the imagination. He preferred to complete his compositions on location, reproducing light and shade with far greater accuracy than had ever been seen before. His faithful, highly detailed landscapes were to take the art world by storm both on and beyond the Italian peninsula leading to his appointment to the Royal Bourbon Court of Naples.

But royal patronage did not equal the challenge represented by Lord Elgin’s brief to record for posterity all previously uncharted archaeological wonders lying between the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, and Athens. According to the terms of the agreement reached, Giovanni Battista, by now affectionately known as Don Tito, would be paid a princely annual salary of two hundred pounds and all his expenses, and was tasked with hiring a team of craftsmen of his choosing. It seemed he had everything to gain and nothing to lose. A retainer by a permanent patron particularly at a time of political uncertainty, Napoleon having occupied Rome and Naples exiling the Bourbons to Palermo, seemed the stuff of dreams. From now on, Giovanni Battista would be able to devote himself exclusively to his art. Or so it seemed.

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