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

The gardens and the Casino of villa Chigi - Massinaghi

Oil on canvas, 74 x 135 cm.

Signed and dated Gaspar Van Wittel 1719, lower left, upon the wall.

Private Collection, United Kingdom.

A. Cremona, S. Santolini, 5 March 2015.

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, a recognition few painters could even aspire to, in 1711.

The present view is very unusual and significant in subject for it depicts a no longer existing site: the Casino Chigi, also called Massinaghi, on the Aurelia, just outside Porta Fabbrica in Rome, towards the Church of the Madonna del Rosario, with the slope of the Valle dell’Inferno at the left-hand side. We can immediately note on closer examination that a significant institutional event is unfolding, thus indicating the importance of this site: at both ends of the entrance gate we notice platoons of horseback guards blocking off the entrance to the main street while some other guards at the other end, are denying access to coaches and pedestrians.

The Pope’s Swiss guards, shown wearing a typical blue, red and yellow uniform and the red sedan chair, visible across the yard, provide us with enough clues to help us identify that the event is a papal visit. In fact, the man standing at the window can be recognized as Pope from his conspicuous papal crosier, and we know that on this painting’s completion (1719), Clemente XI Albani was the active Pope. Further to this, it is possible to identify that a papal engagement is taking place from some of the guard’s attire, dressed in the rank of “Guardia dei Cavalleggeri” or “Cavalieri di Guardia di Nostro Signore”; these men were responsible for the personal safety of the Pope.

The Pope is depicted standing at a window in sunny daylight, caught in a moment of contemplation, whilst looking ahead at a well-groomed garden, where he can see groups of clergymen and laymen in conversation and others strolling around the grounds of the estate.

This compositional motif echoes that of View of the Convent of San Paolo ad Albano, (signed and dated 1710, now at the Galleria Palatina, Florence), where Van Wittel depicts Papa Albani standing at the window of the convent overlooking a bustling scene of coaches, people and guards entertaining on the grounds,  and from that same window, one can see into an interior where a papal reception is in preparation. 

The Casino Chigi is located at the west end of the St. Peter Basilica, out of the Vatican walls; the point of view is unusual as it seems to be painted from a worm’s-eye view, perhaps this is because the painter intended for the painting to be seen from a low view point.  As a result, it is therefore almost impossible to recognise all the Roman sites described. Nevertheless, we are still able to identify the fortified towers of the Leonine Walls, the dome of San Peter, the bell towers of Trinità dei Monti and the towers of Villa Medici in the background, and on the right, Villa Lante sul Gianicolo, Villa Aurelia, while on the far left the Quirinale is represented.

It seems that Van Wittel’s attention is almost exclusively focused on the papal visit. A possible explanation for the choice of subject is perhaps in order to pay homage to Cardinal Annibale, the nephew of the pope, who was indeed an avid patron and supporter of Gaspar van Wittel. Thus, this painting could be considered as a visual manifestation in celebration of the Cardinal’s distinguished family. 

Thanks to a planimetry dated to 1807, we are able to identify the exact location of the casino, though no longer in existence, all that remains is the original entrance gate on Via Aurelia 307. Inventory records reveal that the name of the villa was Casino di Massinaghi, and that the Tenuta del Casaletto had annexed it. Other documents recently discovered in 1713, mention that an individual by the name of Antonio Massinghi sold a vigna out of Porta Fabrica. On this note, it is possible that the Chigi family then came into possession of the casino in that same year. Following this lead, an iron Chigi’s coat of arms has been identified on the top of the balustrade which envelopes the main garden, as well as fragments of the family’s heraldic motif on the contiguous parapets in the form of a mountain and an eight point star, made visible all the way around. In connection with the Pope, Augusto Chigi in 1707 married Maria Eleonora Rospigliosi, nephew of Clement IX, and was elected with the appointment of Marshal of the Holy Roman Church by the Pope in 1712, thereby acting as guardian of the conclave -  a role that might have motivated the occasion of the papal visit that is specifically recorded in this painting.

Van Wittel's view also offers us an additional example of eighteenth-century delight in casino architecture to add to our collection of already known examples from this period. The villa communicates the values and desires of eighteen century architecture "to appear more contained, where the garden, from the villa's architecture, becomes the home complement, however limited, of course, due to the practice of reusing existing buildings reduced but, above all, to the desire to own buildings, in keeping with the "Court", modelled on the great princely villas. The building becomes a real vacation home, a place of "retirement", and is in fact based on the English model of eighteenth century estates, where every comfort is fulfilled and where the owner can spend en privé  his relaxing moments and throw "cultural" salons, away from his official engagements ... Nobles, and wealthy bourgeois Cardinals chose to invest their time in independent projects of "finishing" vineyards and country estates that already existed, a tradition so characteristic of the Roman district dating back to the 15th century, although abandoning the pomp and bombast in favor of convenience ".

Not only is the painting an exquisite example of high-quality garden landscaping but also functions as a visual document recording an unprecedented view of Rome, now completely effaced as a result of urbanisation. In fact, there exists only one other known surviving record of this site in the form of a seventeenth- century drawing by Sebastiaen Vrancx, now preserved in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth. The antecedent, enables us to visualise a more refined image of how the site would have appeared at an earlier date in particular, with its oratorio della Madonna del Riposa directing the viewer’s attention to the views of St. Peter’s dome, soaring from the bridge across the city line.