Hubert Robert's View of the Port of Ripetta in Rome

French painter Hubert Robert was born in 1733 and spent most of his life in Paris, however he was enrolled at the French Academy in Rome.  Robert spent a total of eleven years in Rome; it was there that he befriended Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose workshop was located near the Academy.  The two artists would often go outside to sketch together; both men shared a love of ancient Rome and were drawn to the ruins.  During the years that Robert was in Rome he made hundreds of sketches filling several notebooks,
 Architectural Capriccio with Figure among Roman Ruins, Pannini, c-1630

He also befriended Giovanni Paolo Pannini while studying at the French Academy; Pannini was the professor of perspective .  Robert ended up working in his studio and Pannini became the biggest influence on his artistic style.  Pannini took on the role of a mentor for Robert and the younger artist proclaimed him to be the greatest painter of ruins in the world.  Pannini frequently painted fictitious cityscapes of Rome or “capriccios” which showed a variety of famous ruins grouped together in one spot, these paintings became popular with patrons on The Grand Tour of Italy.

Robert applied to be a member of the French Royal Academy in Paris and was accepted based on his 1766 painting View of the Port of Ripetta in Rome, which was exhibited in the Salon of 1767.  Robert’s painting is a unique style of capriccio, he is “redesigning Rome” by creating a scene pieced together from actual monuments both ancient and modern.  Rather than grouping together buildings to make a tourist capriccio in the style of Pannini, he dramatically changes the urban landscape.  The influence of both Piranesi and Pannini is evident, but with this painting Robert created a style all his own.  

View of the Port of Ripetta in Rome, Hubert Robert, 1766

The Port of Ripetta did exist in another fashion during the time that Robert lived in Rome.  The port was built in 1703 under the rule of Pope Clement XI and was designed by the architect Alessandro Specchi.  An accurate view of the port can be seen in an engraving by Piranesi which was done in 1753 (not shown here).  The port was built on top of a steep muddy bank (the very word Ripetta means little bank) which was already being used for the unloading of small commercial ships traveling to Rome down the Tiber River.  At its height the Port of Ripetta was quite busy but did not last very long; its usage and popularity had already waned by the later part of the eighteenth century.  By the time of the unification of Italy, river trade had declined and Rome’s population was growing, therefore there was a greater need for additional bridges to span the Tiber.  The port was completely dismantled in 1889, less than 200 years after it was built, today one end of the Ponte Cavour sits in its place and a piazza bearing its name is located nearby.  

In visually analyzing the work the viewer will notice that Robert has combined the architectural styles of several time periods in his view including ancient (the Pantheon), Renaissance (the Palazzo dei Conservatori from the Campidoglio to our left) and modern (the Port of Ripetta created only fifty years prior).  The city of Rome of course has combinations of architectural styles everywhere, but in Robert’s work the way they complement each other makes them appear to all have been planned at the same time.

Also notice that Robert has turned the port itself into a ruin with crumbling steps and the marble wearing off of the high harbor wall to reveal the bricks underneath much like the current condition of the Pantheon.  In this detail he seems to suggest that they were built at the same time.  The two architectural spaces seem to fit together nicely, the rounded wall complementing the cylindrical shape of the Pantheon.  Robert may also have done this to comment on the materials used to build the steps.  While most of the stone used for the steps was newly quarried, parts of it were quarried from both the Forum ruins and from the Coliseum and this fact was well known.  The Pantheon sits on flat ground and is today hidden from sight from a distance by other buildings, unlike the Coliseum.  Robert seeks to give the Pantheon a more prominent spot in the city which is fit for its majestic appearance.  By putting the viewpoint near the bottom of the picture we get an increased sense of the grandeur of this monument.
 The Pantheon in Rome, built in 126 AD

What is interesting is that in this work his main architectural feature is a monument which combines pagan and Christian meaning.  The Pantheon was a Roman temple for all the gods currently used as a church.  This unique work nearly gave Robert an opportunity to act as an architect, this redesign of an urban space hints at his later interest in architectural work such as in assisting with the design of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre.  This interest can be seen throughout Robert’s career and his studies at the Academy.  In his sketchbook from 1760 he has already created several small pen and ink wash capricci.  His interest in reviving ancient architectural proportions and in combining Christian and ancient symbolism are evident even then.   

Who did Robert have in mind as a viewer for his Roman capricci?  Possibly he imagined the viewer as someone who preferred to look back on a view that symbolized Rome rather than one that documented it.  There were also political associations with the symbolism of ruins which may have contributed to patronage.  In the eighteenth century Rome and ruins were tied in with the idea of Neoclassical art which became popular after the excavations at Pompeii.  Neoclassicism in later eighteenth century French painting represented the ending of the Bourbon monarchy, using classical imagery to symbolize the pre-imperial Roman republic in calling for France to reject the monarchy and form its own republic.  

Robert’s work can be viewed with multiple significances.  His architectural spaces combine the sense of proportion from both the ancient world and the late Baroque time in which he lives.  His use of architecture both adds to a romantic view of a classical world and can also be seen as a link between the knowledge of the past and the ties to the papal and possibly Bourbon rule of the present.

Imaginary View of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre in Ruins, Hubert Robert, 1796, Louvre

The use of ruins in Robert’s work can be seen to represent the constancy of man rather than to be used as symbols of destruction and decay.  The use of multiple figures at work or at play in his ruin paintings illustrate how mankind continues to participate with one another throughout the centuries.  That same concept led him to paint one of his more well known works while he was redesigning the Louvre to be a public art museum after the French Revolution, Imaginary View of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre in Ruins.  In this work he imagines this building in the future, and the cycle of tourists and ruins continuing indefinitely. 

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