Via Margutta (Rome)

Wandering through certain European streets is like turning the pages of an encyclopedia of art. Dating from the sixteenth century, the Via Margutta, a narrow lane near Piazza del Popolo, is one of those streets. In this street one encounters the Fontana delle Arti, designed by the now largely-forgotten architect Pietro Lombardi, which was installed in 1927.

It is one of ten fountains built by the City of Rome in order to celebrate the capital’s neighbourhoods and crafts. The fountain, displaying easels and sculptor’s tools, is topped by a bucket of paint brushes – an appropriate reminder of the street’s lively artistic history. The street became widely known from the 1953 movie Roman Holiday, a romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, which was set at no. 51 Via Margutta. Two doors further down, in 1821, portrait painter Thomas Lawrence had founded the British Academy of Arts in Rome.

The name of the street probably originates frоm the word ‘marisgutia’ (sea drop), a euphemistic name fоr а dirty stream thаt ran down frоm the Pincian Hill. Via Margutta wаs located behind the palaces оf Via del Babuino, where numerous warehouses аnd stables were found. Іn the Middle Ages аn unknown artist opened the fіrst workshop there. Soon after, the finest Roman craftsmen painted portraits, cut marble fоr fountains аnd forged metal plates, giving birth tо а flourishing industry thаt attracted an extraordinary range of foreign artists (to this very day). These immigrants gradually replaced the shacks аnd stables wіth more solid houses, workshops аnd gardens.

On 19 February 1917 Pablo Picasso arrived in Rome for the first time. It was the beginning of a ten week visit that would redefine his art and life. From his room at the Grand Hotel de Russie on Via del Babuino, Picasso could see Villa Medici, home of the French Academy. Corot, Velázquez and Ingres – the painters Picasso admired most – were associated with this sixteenth-century villa of which the artist made sketches and watercolours. Picasso kept a studio at 53B Via Margutta where he produced a large number of designs for ‘Parade’, a ballet with music by Erik Satie and a one-act scenario by Jean Cocteau. The ballet was composed in 1916/7 for Diaghilev’s ‘Ballets Russes’ and Picasso designed the costumes and sets.

In addition, he made several studies for his famous ‘L’italienne’, a Cubist painting of a local woman gazing on a vermillion St Peter’s Basilica in the distance. He also met Olga Khokhlova here, the beginning of a long and unhappy relationship. During the early 1950s, nearly penniless novelist Truman Capote lived in Rome in an expensive penthouse on the Via Margutta.

Willem de Kooning spent the winter of 1959/60 in Rome working in Afro Basaldella’s studio, also on the Via Margutta. At no. 110, close to Piazza del Popolo, is an appartment Federico Fellini shared with actress Giulietta Masina. The street is still very much alive. The festival ‘100 Pittori in Via Margutta’ takes place every year at the end of October and the beginning of November with the aim of showing original works and promote new talent.

In the 1600s, Italy was universally acknowledged to be the home of art. Throughout the century, young Netherlandish artists undertook the difficult journey to Italy, either over the Alps, or sometimes by sea. Most of them headed for Rome, some to Venice, and a few to Genoa and elsewhere. Travel to Italy had become a rite of passage for young artists from the Low Countries after publication of Karel van Mander’s Schilder-Boeck (book of painters) in 1604. A poetical tribute to the city in the 1624 Amsterdam publication Delitiae urbis Romae hails Rome as the miracle and treasure of the world, the city of all cities and a cradle of creativity:

Roomen is des Werrelts wonder,

Roomen is des Werrelts schat:

Roomen is der Steden Stadt.

Roomen sluyt in haer besonder

Wat de Werrelt oyt vermocht:

Is in dit Thresoor gebrocht.

From the beginning of the sixteenth century Dutch, Flemish and some German immigrant artists were referred to as ‘Fiamminghi’ in Italy. They had come there to study and copy the work of the great masters of antiquity – amongst them were such outstanding talents as Jan Gossaert, Jan van Scorel and Maarten van Heemskerck. Once there, they found that their own style of painting was admired by many Italian patrons and they were invited to paint background landscapes on frescoes in churches and estates. In the course of the century their numbers increased. In Venice alone, some 150 Dutch artists lived and worked there during the sixteenth century. Some artist made notable careers. Jan van Scorel was employed by Pope Adrian VI (Utrecht-born Adriaan Florenszoon Boeyens, the last non-Italian Pope until John Paul II, 455 years later);

Bartholomeus Spranger worked for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese; Hendrick van den Broeck joined Giorgio Vasari in the decoration of the Sala Regia of the Vatican. Italy did not just attract painters. Many Flemish luthiers found employment here and their skills were sought after. In early seventeenth century Rome there was street named ‘Via dei Liutari’.

In the early 1670s, Maastricht-born flower painter Carel de Vogelaer moved to Rome. Known as ‘Carlo dei Fiori’, he shared a house with fellow Dutch painter Anthonie Schoonjans in Via Margutta. Both became members of a notorious group of artists who had been active in Rome for half a century. The club of ‘Bentvueghels’ (Birds of a Feather) was formed in the early 1620s by Dutch and Flemish artists for mutual support and company. They grouped together in the parishes of Santa Maria del Popolo, Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, San Lorenzo in Lucina and Santa Lucia della Tinta – the so-called foreigners and artist’s quarter.

The Bentvueghels terrorized Rome for nearly a century, from about 1620 to 1720. They are also known as the ‘Schildersbent’ (painters’ clique). The original members of the group are depicted in a series of drawings made around 1620 (which are held at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam). Among those appearing in the drawings are Van Poelenburch (bentname: Satyr), Bartholomeus Breenbergh (Het Fret), Van Baburen (Biervlieg), Paulus Bor (Orlando) en Cornelis Schut (Brootsaken). The group, which included painters, etchers, sculptors and poets, met for social and artistic reasons, but was notorious for its drunken rituals. The ‘baptism’ ceremonies were grand occasions. Paid for by the initiate, these involved a feast in honour of the new member who was given his bentname. These names often referred to classical gods and heroes, such as Bacchus, Cupid, Hector, Meleager, Cephalus, Pyramus, Orpheus, etc. Sometimes, the nicknames were witty or semi-obscene in keeping with the general activities of the society. Pieter van Laer for example was ‘Il bamboccio’ or ‘ugly puppet’ because of physical deformities.

The celebrations, sometimes lasting several days and nights, concluded with the group staggering to the church of Santa Costanza on the Via Nomentana, , just outside the walls of Rome, to continue their drinking orgies. They had nicknamed it the Temple of Bacchhus after a relief of that God on the sarcophagus. On either side of the casket members scratched their names. This homage of Bacchus has also been recorded in a drawing. The naked figure with leaves on his head in the centre is Bacchus, offering wine to a member. The names scrawled beneath the drawing are the ‘bentnames’ of the artists involved. This practice was finally banned by Pope Clement XI in a decree of 1720, but throughout the duration of the fraternity Bent artists fostered their addiction to wine, women and wild living in drawings and paintings depicting group meetings.

A painting by Roeland van Laer depicts a tableau vivant in which the figures form a drunken pyramid, topped by a prostitute triumphantly balancing a wine jug atop her head as she stands on the shoulders of two men. Over two hundred artists claimed association with the group at one point or another, including many prominent names such as the Italianate landscapist Cornelis van Poelenburgh, Utrecht Caravaggist Dirck van Baburen and Rembrandt pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten. The earliest-known publication listing the members of the Schildersbent was produced by Arnold Houbraken, an artist and engraver who never travelled to Italy, but who used the Bentvueghels membership list as a source for his 1718 study De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen. Whenever possible, he gives the bentname of the painter in his biographical sketches.

The journey to Italy was time consuming. Urecht-born Jan van Bijlert (bentname: Aeneas) was a pupil of Abraham Bloemaert. He was first recorded as staying in Rome in 1621, when he was living in the Via Margutta with three other Netherlandish painters. He was a founding member of the ‘Schildersbent’. He had embarked on his travels around 1616. Often encompassing a difficult and in many cases dangerous journey, artists would literally spend years getting to Italy, using their artistic talents to pay their way. Houbraken in the volume of De groote schouburgh mentions the example of Jan Philip Spalthof who made the journey from Haarlem to Rome on three different occasions travelling on foot. Many of these artistic pilgrims did not make it all the way to Italy, and others never attempted the trip back once they got there. What they had in common by the time they arrived in Rome, was a feeling of confidence in the ability to live by their own work and effort. During the long journey they had gained practical knowledge of selling their paintings and sketches directly to potential clients.

Membership of the Accademia di San Luca (Academy of St Luke) in Rome had little relevance for them. It was a hindrance rather than an encouragement. These immigrant artists ridiculed the current assumption that the artist should be dignified person, and that art can be taught by following a standard set of rules. Initial disputes arose in the 1620s and 1630s when the Bent artists refused to pay voluntary alms (and later a mandatory levy) to the Accademia. Theoreticians such as Salvator Rosa were disgusted at members of the Schildersbent not only for their behaviour, but especially for producing paintings called ‘bambocciades’ of crude every-day life occurrences and for the cues they took from Caravaggio’s realism which proved to be popular amongst Roman customers and sold for high sums of money, thus further undermining the dominance of religious and history painting as well as the authority of the Accademia. In his satire Pittura, Rosa blamed the Bamboccianti for the decline of art, scorning their vulgar images and immoral behaviour. The fact that aristocratic patrons continued to purchase works by these artists was bemoaned by both painters and religious leaders.

The name of Bamboccianti was introduced to characterize the work of genre painters from the Low Countries – many of them were also members of the Bentvueghels. The name originates from Pieter van Laer’s bentname ‘Il bamboccio’. Artists from the Low Countries transposed their home traditions of depicting everyday life images on small size cabinet paintings to the lower classes of Rome and its countryside. Typical subjects include food and beverage sellers, farmers and milkmaids at work, soldiers at rest, beggars and prostitutes. In contrast to the grand Italian baroque style, they introduced rogues, cheats, pickpockets, drunks, gluttons, and prostitutes. To hurt sensitive academic feelings even further, Amsterdam-born the Karel Dujardin liked to place his ‘sordid’ subjects in idealized settings of the Roman Campagna.

Once returned to the Low Countries, artists used their experience in to add an Intalian flavour to their work. Italianate painting was fashionable and made good money on a booming Dutch art market. Italianate artists, such as Nicolaes Berchem, Jan Both, Albert Cuyp, Karel du Jardin, Jan Weenix, and others, were hugely popular in the seventeenth century – although, even in the eyes of contemporaries, it must have looked somewhat strange to see Albert Cuyp’s Dutch cattle grazing in an Italian landscape under Mediterranean skies. It was an early expression of the ‘Mediterranean Passion’, a lasting and loving fascination of northerners with Southern Europe.