GASPAR VAN WITTEL, called VANVITELLI (Amersfoort 1652/53 - 1736 Rome)


Rome, Piazza Navona with Palazzo Pamphilj and the churches of Sant'Agnese in Agone and San Giacomo degli Spagnoli

Oil on canvas, 60 x 108 cm

Private Collection, England; With Thos. Agnew & Sons, London, 1976

Federico Zeri, 8 April 1996;

Giancarlo Sestrieri, 8 April 1997.

Born in 1652/53 in Amersfoort, near Utrecht, Gaspar van Wittel first trained as a painter in the workshop of the local artist Matthias Withoos (1627-1703), who specialised in landscape and still life compositions. As was customary for many Dutch artists of the period, at the end of his apprenticeship van Wittel travelled to Italy, arriving in Rome probably in 1674. The first record of the young artist’s presence there dates to 3 January 1675, the day he joined the local guild of Netherlandish painters, the Schildersbent. Like all members of the guild, he was given a nickname, ‘De Toorts’ (‘The Torch’), but he subsequently came to be known mainly by the Italianised version of his name, ‘Vanvitelli’, or as 'Gasparo dagli Occhiali', a reference to the spectacles he was obliged to wear due to his cataracts. Throughout his long and prolific career van Wittel enjoyed the patronage of some of the most prominent Italian families of the period - such as the Colonna, Sacchetti, Albani and Ottoboni in Rome and the Caracciolo d’Avellino in Naples - and was admitted to the prestigious Accademia di San Luca in 1711, a recognition few painters could even aspire to.

 This splendid and well-preserved canvas is one of Vanvitelli's finest representations of Piazza Navona. Originally the site of the stadium of Emperor Domitian (51-96 AD), after 1477 the Piazza had for centuries hosted an important public market, as illustrated in the present picture. Nine other versions of this view are known today (G. Briganti, 1996, nos. 36-44). The earliest recorded one is a tempera on parchment, dated 1688, executed for Prince Lorenzo Colonna (1637-1689), while the latest is an oil on canvas dated 1721, Vanvitelli’s only representation of the Piazza flooded, on the occasion of public naumachie (Private collection, Prague). A preparatory drawing executed in pen and ink and watercolour on squared paper is now preserved in the Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele, Rome (op. cit., D312).

 Immediately on the left hand-side of the composition is Palazzo Pamphilj, which was commissioned by Pope Innocent X Pamphilj (1574-1655) and completed in the mid-17th Century under the direction of architect Girolamo Rainaldi (1570-1655). The palace’s main gallery was famously designed by Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) and frescoed by Pietro da Cortona (c. 1596-1669). Adjacent to the palace is the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, which had been founded, according to tradition, on the site of the saint’s martyrdom, and was completely rebuilt by Borromini in 1657. Further in the distance is Palazzo de Cupis, while the small turret of Palazzo Altemps is visible beyond the roofs of the buildings located at the northern end of the square. On the right hand-side of the picture is the church of the Spanish community in Rome, San Giacomo degli Spagnoli, with its façade designed by Bernardo Rossellino (1409-1464), a masterpiece of 15th Century Roman architecture.

 At the heart of the composition is the celebrated Fontana dei Fiumi by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), completed in 1651. The central part of the fountain, made of travertine stone, is decorated with the statues of four river gods – the Nile, the Danube, the Ganges and the Río de la Plata – and with the arms of the Pamphilj family. Surmounting this base is the granite Obelisco Agonale, a Roman obelisk modelled on Egyptian precedents that originally stood in the countryside estate of Emperor Domitian (51-96 AD) at Albano. Moved to the Circus of Maxentius in 311, the obelisk was unearthed there centuries later and placed on the Fontana dei Fiumi by order of Innocent X. On each side of this monument are the two fountains of identical shape commissioned by pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1502-1585) in 1575-76. The one closer to the picture foreground is known as Fontana del Moro, owning to the figure of a moor, designed by Bernini, that was added to it in 1654. At the opposite end of the square is its counterpart, which was decorated with a statue of Neptune in 1878. It is interesting to note that the three fountains are located on the same axis and that in order to represent them all Vanvitelli used Palazzo Lancellotti as his viewpoint, since, thanks to its position at the southeastern end of the square, it granted him a diagonal view of the Piazza.