Celebrate the City
‘Giuseppe Vasi’s Rome’ at the J-Schnitz shows off the Eternal City
by Suzi Steffen
|La vedute della Basilica di S. Paolo fuori della Mura ed adiacenze dal Monte, e dal Fiume Tevere, 1771
|Church of S. Maria in Trevio, from the series Delle Magnificenze di Roma antica e moderna (Book VI, Plate 104), 1756
Ah, tourist postcards and brochures. They tease with their Photoshopped perfection and overwrought descriptions of a city or country’s wonders. We know they’re not 100 percent true to life, but given enough money and time, who could resist that glow on the limestone of Dublin, the moon shining down on the Brooklyn Bridge on a perfect night, the pyramids of Giza arising out of the shimmering sands?
Then, of course, there’s Rome. City of empire, city of republic, city that gave its name to one of the world’s largest religions, city of Mussolini, Eternal City, city of the gladiators, city of the Spanish Steps, city of art and architecture and design and myth. “Giuseppe Vasi’s Rome,” the fall exhibit at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, combines the joys of Rome with the joys of knowing that even 18th century travelers found something like postcards of Rome to send home to those left behind.
For the wealthy young men of Europe in the 18th century, tourist brochures arrived in the form of prints and paintings of stops along the Grand Tour, which culminated partly with a stay in Rome. If not postcards to the parents, the travelers of the time might pick something heavier, a painting or a framed print or lovely bound books composed of many prints, perhaps to entice friends to get their rear ends at last to the great, central city.
Their Rome brochure Photoshopper could have been Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an artist fond of the grand views, a man who so altered some images that when the German writer Goethe made it to Rome, he was disappointed by what he found. But their printmaker, the artist whom exhibit co-curators James T. Tice and James G. Harper say was a man who so deeply loved his city that he showed tiny details of many neighborhoods, was likely to be Vasi.
Eugene and Rome
Rome’s a far stretch from Eugene. We don’t have seven hills, a founding myth involving a man fleeing the end of the Trojan War, a wolf suckling abandoned twin babies, city walls or ancient ruins and Baroque paintings in every chapel. We do have a university and a university museum that’s learning to live up to its potential, the co-curators say, under the leadership of museum director Jill Hartz. One thing that the major remodel of the early 2000s accomplished was a security and climate control upgrade, and in this show, the museum realizes the benefits of that work.
“Logistically, here we are making a major loan exhibition,” says James Harper, the art history half of the curatorial team. “If you look at the list of the people and museums lending us work, it’s on the scale of a small National Gallery show.”
That list includes the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Getty Museum in L.A., Rome’s Studium Urbis, the Yale Center for British Art, Houston’s Museum of Fine Art, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in Hartford, Conn., and many private collections. In addition, thanks to the Marion Dean Ross Endowment (created specifically for the purchase of art), co-curator and professor of architecture Tice bought a copy of those very books, prints worth more than $40,000, in Rome and brought them home to Eugene “very carefully,” he says.
Harper can also tell a tale of bidding on a print for the exhibition — this time from his couch, online, after a lot of what he calls almost miraculously quick work by the UO’s approval apparatus when he found the print in a catalog.
Speaking of catalogs, the guys and the museum, along with several other scholars from colleges as far-flung as the University of Illinois, Princeton and Smith, wrote essays for and created a catalog for the show, a major undertaking that Harper believes will alter the way the art historical world looks at Giuseppe Vasi. Indeed, the show travels to Princeton after closing at the UO, so if you miss it in Eugene, take a red-eye flight to that other, generally more academically renowned coast to see the exhibition that began right here.
And if you can’t do either, which would be a shame beyond compare, definitely get online and check out the marvelous world of free information brought to you in a thick, layered fashion by Tice and others at the UO.
Maps and Legends — and iPads
Tice, who’s a research fellow at Stadium Urbis in Rome, is no stranger to the city or its representation. A couple of his previous projects, completed with the Erik Steiner of the UO Department of Geography’s InfoGraphics Lab, provide eye-poppingly fascinating looks at the city.
To be a little geeky for a minute: Maps look easy to end users when they work well, but conceptualizing a city doesn’t mean a simple matter of drawing a bird’s-eye view look on a piece of paper. Good maps appear transparent — yes, this looks exactly like where I am! I can see this landmark precisely where the map says it is! — but require a lot of work from the cartographer.
That said, in 2005, Tice and Steiner took mapmaker Gianbattista Nolli’s 1748 Map of Rome (or La Pianta grande di Roma) and made it into a living document, a remarkably branched and enjoyable web of knowledge at http://nolli.uoregon.edu that could take your brain and suck it in for hours.
That website led to even more electronic wizardry, and in another smart combination of 18th-century and 21st-century technologies, Steiner and Tice created a site using Vasi’s vedute (views) of Rome — http://vasi.uoregon.edu (obviously!). As Tice writes, Giuseppe Vasi utilized what he learned from Nolli’s plan views in creating his urban views — his street-level depictions of everything from pubs to churches to houses in the neighborhoods of Rome.
Vasi chronicled the city so exhaustively between 1747 and 1761 that his 238 prints, collected in a book called Della Magnificenze di Roma, made up 10 volumes worth of work. But he wasn’t the only artist working in views of the city at the time; obviously, selling prints to the Europeans (and some from the U.S. as well) on the Grand Tour meant big business for the vedutisti of Rome in the 18th century. We may not be able to go on the Grand Tour, tracing the remains of the Roman Empire and the great artists of the Renaissance and Baroque, but most of us can make use of the museum exhibit’s six iPads, one of which holds a specific app that compares Vasi’s work to that of other vedutisti.
The iPads unlock in a way that the museum’s PR person described to me as “a pattern of touches, [as] when Hagrid took Harry into Diagon Alley.” Each one, which Tice, Harper and the InfoGraphics folks (especially Ken Kato) worked on for uncounted hours, hosts a different set of information. “Imagine walking up to a work of art,” Tice says. “There’s a wall label, which, because of patience and endurance, has to be brief.” But the iPads create “dynamic wall labels,” Tice says. They’re ADA compatible, and though the apps can’t yet be downloaded onto personal iPods or iPads (sadly for those of us who would like to use our own devices in the exhibit), the show’s up for a few months before it moves to Princeton, so that should provide nearly enough time for every child, woman and man in the Eugene/Springfield area to play with the tech in the midst of the warmly mounted prints.
In Living Color, or At Least Ivory and Black
The iPads don’t take away from the experience of seeing the prints, which frankly might sound a bit boring or perhaps didactic to those who haven’t seen them. But art has a way of looking a lot different in person than it sounds on the page, or appears on the screen.
Let me describe this scene: The co-curators and I had spent an hour over coffee discussing the show a couple of weeks before it opened, before we descended a well-guarded museum elevator into the vault to see the Vasi prints that were ready for the show. When Jean Nattinger, the museum’s registrar, let us in and started to pull out the rolling walls on which the recently mounted prints have been hung, Jim Tice’s face changed to a look of pure happiness, and Jamie Harper started skidding, running from print to print, trying to take in the glory of standing in front of the pieces finally at the JSMA. When we walked up to a massive, detailed map of Rome, which contains nearly 390 numbered sites for Grand Tour aristocrats to visit (they could, and did, buy the 10-volume Della Magnificenze if they wanted to know more about specific places) we were all struck dumb by the force of Vasi’s ability. Perhaps, as both curators willingly admit, Piranesi was a greater artist; but Vasi loved Rome with a passion that shines through the prints. So do Harper and Tice, who each have stories about the city and Vasi’s views of it that show their affection for and admiration of the printmaker I like to think of as an early creator of those “In the Know” guides to cities by people who live in them.
Indeed, Tice stood at each of the 238 places at the same time of day (as deduced by the lighting in the prints) depicted in the Della Magnificenze; and in the Papé room of the museum, visitors can compare about 20 of his views to those of Vasi. With an international symposium, programs just about every Wednesday of the fall term and other assorted things to do (see sidebar), the show packs in academic and popular appeal.
“Frank Lloyd Wright said that Eugene has to live up to its natural beauty,” Tice says. “Just as we have our Bach Festival — German music: What does it have to do with us in Eugene? — well, what does Rome have to do with Eugene? Everything. Rome has stories we can use and transform and make our own.”
Prospetto dell’ alma città di Roma (Detail), 1765
So Much to Do!
Vasi exhibit spins off a zillion programs
This major show at the J-Schnitz requires the coordination of campus and community to share music, theories, films and the joy of knowing more about the Eternal City. You can find even more events at jsma.uoregon.edu; we plucked out some faves. All events at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art unless otherwise noted.
Sept. 24 Opening Reception, 6 to 9 pm
Oh yes, you want to be there. The J-Schnitz’ receptions have come to be known for their artistic lighting, their artistic drinks, their (free) artistic food and their popularity with people who wear a lot of black. (Liven it up with your funky colors, Weekly readers and Fair-goers!) This one will also sport lines of people dying to try out the Sekrit iPad Keyz. No, we won’t tell you the combinations! Go find out for yourselves.
Oct. 6 Curator’s Gallery Talk: James Tice, 5:30 pm
Jim Tice, prof of architecture, knows his stuff, and the man followed Vasi (centuries later) around Rome, taking photos from the exact spots Vasi made his prints. You want to hear what he has to say.
Oct. 20 Lecture: “The Idea of Rome,” John Nicols and Nick Camerlenghi, 5:30 pm
All roads lead to Rome, or so those in Europe would have it (and Roman roads and aqueducts hold up so well, they’re probably right). Nicols, a history and classics prof, and Camerlenghi, art history prof, explain how the very concept of Rome transformed art, philosophy, writing and politics.
Oct. 23 Curator’s Gallery Talk: James Harper, 2 pm
If Jim Tice knows the architecture of Rome better than the back of his hand, Jamie Harper’s love for the politics of Rome and the maneuvers of Vatican City’s residents should infuse this second curator’s talk with high energy.
Oct. 27 Lecture: The Musical Grand Tour, by Marc Vanscheeuwijick, 5:30 pm
What would those wealthy college-aged and 30-something young men on the grand tour have listened to on their iPods, er, if they’d had them in the 18th century? Vanscheeuwijick, School of Music and Dance prof, will reveal the playlists of the boys of the Grand Tour.
Oct. 29 Tour of InfoGraphics Lab and Knight Library Map Collection, 3 pm
OK: limited to 20-25 participants? Clearly, you need to sign up fast for this exploration of mapping on the UO campus with Ken Kato and Erik Steiner of the Department of Geography and Vasi co-curator Jim Tice. Call 346-6410 to register.
Nov. 3 The Literary Grand Tour, 5:30 pm
Romans and other Italians had (sometimes unflattering) thoughts about the lads on the Grand Tour. Find out more from Italian prof Nathalie Hester and literature/honors college prof Mai-Lin Cheng. Hott (in his day) poet Byron included in lecture!
Nov. 12-13 Symposium: “Una Roma Visuale: New Research on Giuseppe Vasi and the Art, Architecture and Urbanism of Eighteenth-Century Rome”
Um, yes, this is the big one. The PR says “scholars of national and international reputation” are coming. See you there? Keynote at 5:30 pm on Friday, Nov. 12, and then the symposium on Saturday.
Nov. 17 Oregon Meets Italy A Culinary Grand Tour, 5 to 7:30 pm
Food and wine tastings; music of Rome, Venice and Naples by the spectacular faculty of the UO School of Music and Dance; guided tours of the Vasi exhibit at 5 and 7 pm by UO art history students. Noms for the tongue, nose, ears and eyes. Win!
Nov. 20 Lecture: City Views — Venice, Dresden, and London, 2 pm
What about other cities? Apparently the two co-curators James weren’t enough; the two co-lecturers Kenneth (German/comp lit prof Kenneth S. Calhoon and landscape architecture prof Kenny Helphand) apply some of the exhibit’s lenses on Rome to images of Dresden, Venice and London.
Dec. 11 “Roman Holiday” Family Day and Holiday Open House, noon to 3 pm
Free! Arts and crafts for kids, theater by kids and a scavenger hunt grand tour of the museum galleries. Did we say free?
What Rome Can Teach Eugene
I asked Jim Tice to expand on his statement to me that Rome has a lot to teach Eugene about urban design and expansion.
Here’s the list Tice sent back:
• The city can be a work of art.
• The city should embody the highest aspirations of its citizens through its physical form.
• A city (especially one like Eugene) should live up to the beauty of its natural setting.
• The city should not “just happen.” It should be guided by a vision of a better place to live.
• The city’s past should be a living legacy that inspires the future. Individual buildings are less important than building ensembles.
• The space of the city — its squares, streets, and parks — should be designed as carefully as its buildings.