The desire for pictures of ruins, real or imaginary, and for scenes drawn from Roman history increased steadily in the eighteenth century, keeping pace with a romantic interest in the ancient world. Excavations at Herculaneum, begun in 1738, and at Pompeii, in 1748, roused both scholarly and popular enthusiasm throughout the western world and were followed by the beginning of scientific archaeology in Rome. The early excavations at Herculaneum and the life, art, and monuments of Rome and other Italian cities were observed by the Frenchman, Charles de Brosses, on a tour in 1739. His delightful Letters on Italy, based on the visit, were not published, however, until 1799, years after his death. Critical interest in classical art and history found literary expression in the work of Winckelmann, pioneer among art historians; in Lessing epoch-making Laokoön; and in Gibbon History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, conceived in 1764 among the ruins of the Roman Capitol.
The Roman past was used, also, as propaganda by the revolutionary intellectuals of France to strengthen their case for a republican government, although, ironically enough, most of the works that inspired them came from a period of despotic empire.
Although the characteristic contribution of the eighteenth century to the painting of the Roman scene was the landscape with ruins fantastically arranged, Antonio Canaletto, who visited Rome in 1719 for a stay of several years, was comparatively accurate. Best known for his views of his native Venice and those of London painted during a sojourn in England, he did, however, produce a number of delicately rendered paintings and engravings of Rome and her monuments.
Outstanding among the painters of the more imaginary landscapes with ruins were Giovanni Paolo Pannini of Piacenza and Hubert Robert of Paris. Pannini, who may have studied with the stage designer Ferdinando Galli Bibiena in Piacenza, came to Rome about 1717 and was later invited to teach perspective in the French Academy there. His work combined a formal antiquarian approach with the theatrical magnificence so characteristic of baroque art. Hubert (known also in France as Robert of the Ruins) came to Rome in 1754 and studied at the French Academy, where he was strongly influenced by Pannini. To the accuracy of detail and strong classical feeling absorbed from his teacher he added something of the atmospheric quality of Claude Lorrain's work, a characteristic French delicacy and lightness, and an interest in the contrast of ancient ruins with contemporary life that prefigured the dawn of romanticism. In the work of both men actual monuments were usually accurately drawn but regrouped and interspersed with fanciful or composite structures, not with the intent to deceive, but for the satisfaction of romantic taste or the artist's fancy. The combination of Italian landscape and ruins with scenes from everyday life was still more noticeable in the paintings of Joseph Vernet, whose genre pictures were popular souvenirs for the wealthy traveller.
The eighteenth century saw also a continually growing demand for engravings and etchings of Roman scenes and monuments, less expensive and more easily housed than paintings. Giovanni Battista Falda's work in the seventeenth century was followed by that of Giuseppe Vasi. In 1786 Goethe noted, on his first visit to Rome, the influence of such pictures in producing a sense of familiarity with places far away: 'All the dreams of my youth I now beheld realized before me: the subjects of the first engravings I ever remember seeing (several views of Rome were hung up in an ante-room of my father's house) stand bodily before my sight.' These Roman views, he noted later in his autobiographical Truth and Poetry, were 'by predecessors of Piranesi', and doubtless included some by Vasi.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who worked in Rome from about 1740 to his death in 1778, was undoubtedly the most widely known among eighteenth-century etchers of Roman monuments. Smollett, the English novelist, writing of the various engravings to be found in Rome, noted: 'The most celebrated are the plates of Piranesi, who is not only an ingenious architect and engineer but also a learned antiquarian, though he is apt to run riot in his conjectures.' At the century's end the painter Pierre de Valenciennes, with French perfection of phrase, characterized the work of this fantastic baroque genius: 'Piranesi did not tell the history but the romance of Rome. . . . He pictured Rome a wonderful city such as the imagination of one excited mind might conceive without any rational knowledge of archaeology.' Nevertheless, despite riotous fancy and frequent disregard of proportion and probability Piranesi's etchings are often scrupulously exact in detail.
Toward the end of the eighteenth century the artists who dominated the Roman scene were sculptors rather than painters. Antonio Canova, the Venetian who settled in Rome in 1779, though essentially classical in his rendering of form, was not untouched by the growing romantic movement. This rising tide of emotional interpretation, however, passed by Bertel Thorwaldsen, the Dane who worked in the city from 1797 to his death in 1838 and whose fame drew artists from all Europe and from the New World as well.
But perhaps the most outstanding personality to visit Rome in these years--or, indeed, in the course of the whole century--was neither a painter nor a sculptor but a poet. Goethe, archetype of all northerners who have responded to the lure of Italy, had longed to visit this homeland of classic culture for years before he was able to realize his dream. He came to Rome for some months in 1786 and returned in 1787 after a stay in Naples and Sicily. The direct record of his experience lies in his sketches, his correspondence, his Italian Journey, his Roman Elegies, and his Truth and Poetry. His nostalgic memories of the sunny land have haunted men's minds ever since, in Mignon's song from Wilhelm Meister, written a few years after his return to Germany:
'Know'st thou the land where flowering lemons grow,
And through dark leaves the golden oranges glow?'
The far-reaching indirect result of Italy's classic culture on his later work seems to be prophetically suggested by Tischbein's portrait of the poet in the Roman Campagna in 1787.
Eighteenth-century Rome drew her visitors not from European lands alone. Americans, too, began to take their place among those who, in Cassiodorus' words, found Rome 'unfriendly to none, since she is foreign to none'. Before the New World colonies had separated from the mother country, their citizens had shared the English enthusiasm for Roman culture and Roman monuments. The sons of well-to-do families, especially from southern plantations, had travelled to Italy as part of the Grand Tour essential for an English gentleman's education.
American artists, too, soon followed the example of their fellows overseas. Benjamin West spent three years in Italy, chiefly in and about Rome, before he settled in London in 1763. Several anecdotes told by his early biographer, John Galt, suggest that the city welcomed him as warmly as has ever been her wont. There is his widely quoted remark about the Apollo Belvedere, 'How like he is to a young Mohawk warrior'. There is also the story of an old improvisatore, singer of extemporaneous songs, who, upon hearing that West was an American, 'immediately unslung his guitar, and began to draw his fingers rapidly over the strings', finally beginning his song with 'the darkness which for so many ages veiled America from the eyes of Science'; invoking 'the fancy of his auditors to contemplate the wild magnificence of mountain, lake, and wood, in the new world'; and ending: 'Rejoice then, O venerable Rome, in thy divine destiny, for though darkness overshadows thy seats, and though thy mitred head must descend into the dust, as deep as the earth that now covers thy ancient helmet and imperial diadem, thy spirit, immortal and undecayed, already spreads towards a new world.'
John Singleton Copley spent some months in Rome in 1774-1775, and painted there his fellow-countrymen, Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Izard of South Carolina, indicating their presence in the city by the old device of placing a well-known Roman monument (the Colosseum) in the background. Both West and Copley were essentially painters in the British tradition who chanced to be born west of the Atlantic. Study in Rome was, to them, as to their English fellows, largely a means toward satisfying British taste and achieving success in England.