Entitled “Villages, Shepherds and Wanderers”, the roughly 30 artworks, thematically chosen from the vast holdings of the Uffizi, brilliantly play into the setting of Santo Stefano di Sessanio as they represent the myth and reality of country life with a surprisingly thought-provoking mixture of ancient Roman sculpture and seventeenth century painting.
The delight derives from the artworks themselves as well as their settings. The pieces, all beautifully restored and properly lit, appear like jewels to the entering visitor. The majority of works are displayed in a purposefully designed pavillion in the Municipal Hall which creates the sensation of being in the Salone of an eighteenth century Villa. However, Santo Stefano itself is also woven into the show with the placement of a number of paintings in two historic structures within the village that the visitors “wander” to discover.
The show includes a variety of famed Northern European as well as Italian Baroque painters, all working within the then-developing genres of representation of “place”, either real or imagined. Among the Northerners, all of whom lived in Italy and Rome and were inspired to record it, there are works by the likes of Il Bamboccio, with his views of life in the roman countryside, Claude Lorrain, Van Swanevelt, Moucheron, and Gaspard Dughet.
The Italians are represented by Salvator Rosa, Guercino, Valentini and Filippo Napoletano, among others. As this partial list makes clear, these are artists of the highest quality, an assertion born out by the works in the show. Admittedly due to the subject matter and relatively small size of most of these canvases, they are often overlooked in the large museums in favor of the larger or more famous pieces. But this is precisely the advantage to such a show as this in Santo Stefano, fewer pieces of similar genre not overwhelmed by the must-see masterpieces nor the sea of tourists crowding in. Rather a quiet, unencumbered setting where the visitor can get close-up to discover normally overlooked details and unforeseen connections between works that would otherwise have never been made.
So as a consequence of delight comes enlightenment. Certainly one of the most interesting surprises of this exhibition is the juxtaposition of Baroque paintings and Ancient Roman reliefs. The old saying, “Napoleon’s armies travelled at the same speed as Julius Caesar’s”, reminds us that life in Europe from antiquity to the Industrial Revolution had not changed much. And this goes particularly for life in the country, as these pieces makes clear. Reliefs such as: A shepherd resting; the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum; botteghe scenes of cloth goods being sold in a shop; are all ancient Roman images whose counterparts will be found in the paintings from a millennium and a half later.
The final enlightenment comes during and after the visit. As one walks through Santo Stefano with its views of the surrounding landscapes of the Gran Sasso, of the shops and people and animals, suddenly what one sees begins to compose itself into living, moving works of art. There is an almost mystical fusion between the art in the exhibition and its fantastic setting. The villages, shepherds and wanderers of Ancient and Baroque Italy magically come alive in the Santo Stefano of today. The world that once was, still is. And this beautiful, thoughtful exhibition brings us to the realisation.
Entrance – €6,00, Entrance Times 10-30-20.30 | Exhibition runs from 7 July -30 September 2012. Stay overnight at Villa Valsi for €30
About the Author
Paul Tegmeyer is an American Art Historian who has lived in L’Aquila since 1983 with his wife Rita Visioni who owns the apartment rental Villa Valsi in Santo Stefano di Sessanio. His area of specialisation is the Italian Renaissance. He began teaching the Ren. to Baroque Rome course at ICCS from 1990-92 and again from 1997 on. He also been teaching at John Cabot University in Rome since 1991. Since 1997 he has also conducted the Rome Seminar for the Smithsonian Institute.