"Now, at last, I have arrived in the First City of the World!" wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe of his first visit to Rome, in 1786.
Already a major literary figure in his native Germany, Goethe was overwhelmed by the glories of the fabled city by the "palaces, ruins, gardens, wildernesses, small houses, stables, triumphal arches, columns." He was enthralled by the Pantheon, that great domed survivor of ancient Rome, and was held captive by the Sistine Chapel, returning again and again to feast on Michelangelo's Last Judgment.
In Europe, the 1700s were a time of relative prosperity and, more significantly, peace, which toward the end of the century would be shattered by Napoleon. In the decades before the appearance of the Napoleonic forces, Rome became the focus of what was grandiosely labeled the "Grand Tour." The city was a magnet for traveling royalty and aristocrats, for untitled but importantly monied travelers, for writers hoping to enlarge their experience of the world and, above all, for artists in quest of education, polish and clients.
Most of the Grand Tourists were British. They usually stayed for months, meeting the stellar literary figures in residence, making their way through elegant art-filled palazzi, examining breathtaking collections of ancient sculpture, and stalking the spectacular treasures of the Vatican. A new exhibition, on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through May 28, celebrates 18th-century Rome showcasing works by such artists as Pompeo Batoni, Giovanni Panini, Antonio Canova, Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, Angelika Kauffmann and Giovani Batista Piranesi and demonstrates that during much of that era, the Eternal City was the true art capital of the Western world. The show, "The Splendor of 18th-Century Rome," will also travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where it will be on display from June 25 to September 17.