Antonio Joli (1700 - 1777)
Queen Maria Amalia of Saxony Visiting
Trajan’s Arch in Benevento, 1759
Oil on Canvas - 77.5 x 131 cm
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
Photo : Prado
1/1/12 - Acquisition - Madrid, Museo del Prado - The Friends of the Prado Foundation donated a veduta by the Italian artist representing Queen Maria Amalia of Saxony Visiting Trajan’s Arch in Benevento to the Spanish museum last November. This painting reflects the new attraction of travellers on the Grand Tour for Antiquity, while at the same time praising royal protection of the arts. Alas, the artist arrived a bit late in southern Italy to impose himself at the court. Indeed, the canvas was painted in 1759, the year Joli settled permanently in Naples, shortly before Charles of Bourbon and Maria Amalia left to return to Spain ; the king and queen of Naples and Sicily had inherited the Spanish throne on the death of Ferdinand VI, Charles’ half-brother (in fact, they invited Mengs to go to Spain - see news item of 8/12/11).
Constructed in 114 at the entrance to the city of Benevento in Campania, the arch of Trajan looked out over the Via Appia Traiana built by the emperor to connect Rome and Brindisi. The conscientious precision with which Joli represented the site is softened by the golden light which instills a poetic aura on these grandiose ruins, its monumental size underscored by the tiny human figures the painter added to the composition. He seems to describe here the meeting of two Histories, ancient and contemporary ; Maria Amalia is listening to the guide’s explanations, surrounded by a small group of courtiers including the Marquis of Tanucci, the king’s prime minister who was fascinated by Antiquity. On the right, an artist is drawing scenes while also listening to the remarks of a specialist. One of these scenes, which in the 18th century had been interpreted as the rape of the Sabine women, represents in fact Achilles and Penthesilea, another shows a boar, in reference to Diomedes, the mythical founder of Benavento who had joined in the Calydonian hunt and brought back the beast’s teeth. The majestuous arch rises amid the ruins of other Roman buildings, notably the theater on the left ; the Doric temple on the right is probably the fruit of the painter’s imagination, inspired by the rediscovery of the Paestum temples a few years earlier and which he had also painted.
In order to faithfully reproduce these historical vestiges, Antonio Joli looked at engravings, notably those published in 1754 in the Thesaurus Antiquitatum Beneventanarum by Giovanni Vita. The arch was also represented by Piranese in an engraving entitled Veduta dell’Arco di Benevento nel Regno di Napoli, currently exhibited alongside the painting.
This is because the Prado is organizing a small exhibition until February 26 around this new acquisition in order to evoke the artistic context in which the canvas was painted and how it now fits into the museum’s collections. It presents a dozen works, notably three others by Antonio Joli which already belong to the Prado and date from the same year. One illustrates The Abdication of Charles III (one of the rare interior scenes painted by the artist), the others evoke Charles of Bourbon Departing for Spain seen from the port and another from the sea. This ensemble shows how the artist was able to combine veduta and historical painting. Other works round out the exhibition, produced by Joli’s predecessors, all major figures of veduta painting such as Panini, Vanvitelli, Piranese, each offering a different vision of Antiquity, from the capriccio to the sublime. Finally, a portrait of Queen Maria Amalia of Saxony by Giuseppe Bonito evokes this monarch who was educated in the "Florence of the North", as the Dresden court was known, and who had an erudite interest in Antiquity. The above works are joined here by two engravings from the prestigious publication Le Antichita di Ercolano esposte (1757-1792), the first attempt ever to set up an inventory of the antiquities and buildings discovered during the archelogical digs carried out in Herculaneum.