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The Assassination of Julius Ceasar; The Death of Virginia. Pen and point of brush and brown ink over chalk with white heightening, laid down on the original blue mounting paper with double borderline in pen and black ink. Each ca. 56 x 99 cm. The first sheet monogrammed at the lower right corner: V.C. Ca. 1800.
Vincenzo Camuccini’s career usefully exemplifies what is often the fragile and short-lived nature of fame. In Rome at the beginning of the nineteenth century Camuccini was considered one of the most important and influential artists of the day with a reputation that could only be compared to that of Antonio Canova. By the end of the same century, however, he had already fallen into complete oblivion (figs. 1 and 2). Even today his name is known only to connoisseurs of Italian art around 1800. A comprehensive essay on the life and work of Vincenzo Camuccini by Ulrich Hiesinger (“The Paintings of Vincenzo Camuccini, 1771–1844”, The Art Bulletin, 60, no. 2, 1978, pp. 297–230) was not published until 1978.
Camuccini’s biography mirrors the social and artistic transformations in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. He received his earliest education as a painter under Domenico Corvi in Rome, but he was essentially an autodidact, who studied the work of Raphael and Michelangelo with particular intensity, and was drawn to antiquity by the writings of Winckelmann. Through his brother, the painter and collector Pietro Camuccini, who was close to the circle of Angelika Kauffmann, Vincenzo met Antonio Canova. In the 1790s Camuccini belonged to an artists’ brotherhood with the beautiful, though somewhat pretentious name of the Accademia de’Pensieri, where he associated with such like-minded artists as Luigi Sabatelli, Giuseppe Bossi, and Pietro Benvenuti.
In 1798 the upheavals of the Roman Revolution persuaded Camuccini to leave the city for a short period, but a few years later his reputation was already on the rise there. With the death of important predecessors like Anton Raphael Mengs and Pompeo Batoni, an artistic vacuum opened in Rome. Camuccini cleverly used this moment to introduce a new stylistic language indebted to French Neoclassicism in the manner of Jacques-Louis David.
Camuccini’s list of public positions and awards is long and impressive and is evidence of the immense prestige held by the artist during his lifetime. In 1802 he became a member of the Accademia di S. Luca and he was already its president by 1805. Due to his official position, Camuccini’s Neoclassical ideal became the determining influence on Roman artistic life after 1800. The French reign in Italy was another factor that served Camuccini well. In 1810 the artist traveled to Munich and Paris where he was received by Napoleon and where he later met David. Camuccini’s close contacts with the French occupiers clearly did not harm his position in the Vatican, since in 1803 he was named director of the papal mosaic manufactory by Pope Pius VII. In 1809 Camuccini was appointed director of the Vatican paintings collection and in 1814 he became inspector of fine arts, an extremely influential position that he retained until 1843.
The two large drawings of the Assassination of Julius Caesar and the Death of Virginia are connected to two history paintings that established Camuccini’s fame as a painter and gave him his breakthrough in the Roman art world. The colossal scale of the paintings alone (400 x 707 cm) conveys some sense of the untamed energy and the rather grandiose ambitions of the young artist. The progress of these vast paintings, commissioned in 1793 by Frederick Hervy, Earl of Bristol, and now in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, took many years and was delayed by a series of interruptions and misfortunes. Camuccini worked with utmost precision and consideration, preparing innumerable studies, examining antique models, and consulting with the archeologist Ennio Quirino Visconti. This painstaking working method meant that it took him three years to complete the design cartoon for the Julius Caesar painting alone. When the cartoon was finally exhibited in Rome in 1796, it had a huge public impact. Even Goethe commented on it: “The lifesize figures in this work are drawn with much power. There is neither a lack of taste in the clothing, nor do the figures lack movement, nor do the heads lack diversity and expression … “ (quoted in Hiesinger, p. 299, note 10). The execution of the painting was begun in the same year and was much developed by 1798, the revolutionary year in which Camuccini left his birthtown for a few months. When a year later the finished painting was finally introduced to the public, it was greeted with little enthusiasm; even worse, the work was uniformly criticized for its heavy coloration. Camuccini reacted promptly by destroying the painting. The second version of Julius Caesar was apparently not begun before 1804 and, again, it took many years to complete.
At the same time that Camuccini was working on his first version of Julius Caesar, he was also starting on the second large painting the Death of Virginia. The genesis of this work was far less problematic and much faster. The cartoon was finished by 1801 (fig. 5) and the completed painting was exhibited for the first time in September 1804 when it was very positively received by the public. However, Camuccini’s patron, Lord Bristol, had died in 1803 without ever having seen either of the paintings completed. More years passed before both paintings found their final destination. None other than the daring Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s general and, since 1808 king of Naples and Sicily, purchased the Virginia directly from the artist and was also considering the acquisition of the pendant piece before he was dethroned and executed in Naples in 1815. Ironically, the Julius Caesar was ultimately purchased by Murat’s enemy and successor, Ferdinand I, and both paintings where finally united in Naples in 1818.
With these colossal paintings Camuccini set a new standard in monumental, minutely rendered history painting based on Roman Republican themes. A sense of historical authenticity became almost a hallmark of the artist’s work. These immense tableaux-vivants (Hiesinger) were intended to astonish the viewer much in the manner of the historical cinematic epics produced in the 1950s by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio in Hollywood. Camuccini’s interest in representing both historical accuracy and dramatic intensity at times lends his art a somewhat confusing combination of dogma and theatricality. This becomes especially evident in the Assassination of Julius Caesar. The scene is overburdened with historic detail at the cost of dramatic concentration. The figures, based on antique prototypes and organized in a frieze-like manner, gesticulate rather pathetically and lack compositional coherence against the relatively empty and huge background. In the Virginia, on the other hand, these problems seem to have been overcome. The composition appears more powerful and has a stronger dramatic impact since the protagonists do, in fact, convincingly interact. Camuccini’s design and figure types here are indebted to Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican Stanzas, while the intensity of the scene owes much to the work of Jacques-Louis David. The more elaborate architectural background also contributes to the compositional balance of the image.
It is not surprising that Camuccini repeated his two most famous and economically successful compositions in different versions. A number of bozzetti and replicas by him in various techniques and sizes exist in museum collections in Naples (Museo di Capodimonte) and Venice (Galleria dell’Accademia), for example, as well as in several private collections. While a few of these works appear less concentrated and more careless in handling than the original paintings, the present sheets, probably made around 1800, are distinguished by their very detailed and careful execution and their unusually large size. They perfectly illustrate Camuccini’s artistic goals and the Neoclassical ideal of his time. An indication of the status Camuccini gave to these sheets is indicated by the presence of his monogram on one of them. Like a little oil- sketch in Rome the image shows the assassination of Caesar with just a few deviations from the final version. For instance the assassin on the left holds up his sword, while in the painted version in Naples he points the sword downward. The very meticulous linework suggests that both drawings might have served as the original presentation sheets for Camuccini’s patron.