‘Instagram’ for 18th-Century Tourists

"The Palio Race in the Campo in Honor of Grand Duke Francis of Tuscany and Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria" by Giuseppe Zocchi, 1739

Excerpt from this article:

As a mantra, “pics or it didn’t happen” carries a clear whiff of internet-age modernity. But in many ways, the sentiment behind the phrase precedes smartphones, Snapchat, and selfie sticks by some 275 years. Eyewitness Views: Making History in 18th-Century Europe, a new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, looks at the Enlightenment-era phenomenon of vedute, or view paintings: astonishingly detailed cityscapes of Venice, Rome, Paris, and other tourist hotspots. These canvases were highly collectible luxury souvenirs, pictorial portals that would later transport the visitor (and friends back home) to that faraway place and moment. Their strict perspective lent itself to formal gardens, neoclassical arcades, and canals lined with palazzos.

But vedute were more than glorified postcards, the Getty curator Peter Björn Kerber argues in his sumptuous exhibition catalog. They also served as proof that one had personally encountered the cultural and architectural marvels of Western civilization—a kind of proto-Instagram. Many vedute included portraits of the tourist or diplomat who had commissioned them. Others depicted newsworthy events the visitor had witnessed firsthand, from royal weddings to volcanic eruptions. Though dwarfed by their surroundings, the figures in these paintings are identifiable by details of dress or by their positioning, slightly larger than life or perhaps illuminated by a strategically placed shaft of light.

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