Laura Green ‘18
The Smith College Museum of Art’s latest exhibit, titled “When In Rome: Prints & Photographs, 1550 – 1900,” has been several years in the making. The exhibit is the combined effort of the Smith College Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery, as the exhibit is largely made up of pieces borrowed from Yale.
The exhibit displays prints and photographs of Rome, during the era of The Grand Tour through Europe, when many young adults took the rite of passage of traveling to the great sights of Europe. These prints and photographs are grouped by Roman monument, juxtaposing elaborate visions of Piranesi’s Rome compared to the stark photographs of Roman monuments in decay from the 1800s. Because visitors can see a one-to-one comparison of each major site in Rome, Giovanni Piranesi’s exaggerations become obvious, from the idyllic vines growing out of marble columns to workmen leading donkeys through the square.
Piranesi, famous for his both preservation and idealization of Rome through engravings, is a major staple in this exhibit. “He created most of the prints in the exhibit. His singular style is much more romantic and beautiful than that of the other artists displayed.” The elegantly disintegrating stone makes one nostalgic and proud of Rome’s past and present, which was clearly Piranesi’s intention.
The photographs, on the other hand, are cold and lifeless. There are no people present (although that might have had something to do with the long exposure time of 19th century cameras, which blurred any movement over several minutes time). There are no vines or weeds and the monuments are not nearly so imposing. The photographs served the same function as the prints, being souvenir objects. However, they feel purely documentary, not like the embellished Piranesi prints.
For me, this exhibit has been a long time coming. When I was a first-year, I took the first year seminar “On Display” with Professor Barbara Kellum, which explored the question of how and why people collect prints, particularly in museum settings. One of our assignments was to research, as a group, the collection of prints and photographs depicting one monument in Yale’s collection. My group was in charge of analyzing the depictions of the Arch of Septimius Severus.
Two years later, when I walked into the gallery, I still felt a fierce ownership over those images of the Arch of Septimius Severus. I remembered our field trip to New Haven, seeing the prints for the first time in person. Visiting the exhibit was my second time seeing the prints, but it was as if no time had passed. became nostalgic for more than just Rome’s great past.
The exhibit was well thought out in terms of making the experience of Rome come to life. A touch screen on the wall allos visitors to explore Rome through a map with the marked landmarks. This is a fun, convenient way to see how the monuments interact and to situate yourself in space.
“When In Rome” is a fascinating study about how photography changed souvenir art and art in general. The prints are a beautiful advertisement for Rome. Get ready for some serious wanderlust!
“When In Rome” will be on display until December 30.