the publication of an important volume of 19th-century art draws attention to a long and fruitful collaboration between Sweden and the Holy See.
The recent presentation on October 9, 2014, of the volume Disegni del Secolo XIX del Fondo Ashby nella Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (“Drawings of the 19th century from the Ashby Collection in the Vatican Library”) by Barbara Jatta and Pier Andrea De Rosa at the Salone Sistino (Sistine Hall) in the Vatican Library complex, caps not only their two-year research, but also the cataloguing of this important collection, now available online. Moreover, as pointed out in the keynote address by the Prefect of the Vatican Library and member of the panel of speakers Msgr. Cesare Pasini, the volume winds up what can be termed a trilogy of the works which were collected by the renowned British archeologist Thomas Ashby (1874-1931) and which the Vatican Library purchased in 1933.
Ashby’s interest in classical studies and passion for the ancient monuments of Italy led him to move to Rome, where he lived for many years, becoming director of the British School in Rome from 1906 to 1925. Precisely in these years archeology was becoming a modern discipline with its own rigorous methodology, and his early years in Rome coincided with a period of intensive excavations in the city’s monumental center, laying the foundation for our present understanding of its topography.As a most enthusiastic and assiduous visitor to the excavations in the Roman Forum area, during his visits he used to take detailed notes which, together with his sketches and photographs, were sent to British journals on a regular basis, summarizing the most recent discoveries. Some of his photographs are linked to the activities and excursions organized by the members of the British and American Archaeological Society, whose members included Ashby himself. He may be considered among the founders of modern archeological topography.
Back to the presentation, the first leg of the trilogy was prepared by a Belgian scholar, Didier Bodart, who published Dessins de la collection Thomas Ashby à la Bibliothèque Vatcane as part of the series Documenti e Riproduzioni, the same series of the volume by De Rosa and Jatta. But out of more than 1,000 drawings and some 7,000 prints of the Ashby collection, Bodart only published the core of the most ancient drawings, some 500 folios.
The second leg, this time again by De Rosa and Jatta as part of the Documenti e Riproduzioni series, appeared in early 2013: I disegni della via Appia di Carlo Labruzzi alla Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (“The Drawings of the Via Appia by Charles Labruzzi in the Vatican Library”). This book presents the entire corpus of 226 watercolor paintings preserved in the Vatican Library, produced by the Roman painter Carlo Labruzzi to illustrate the places on the Via Appia which he visited on his journey from Rome to Benevento in the fall of 1789. These drawings also belong to the Ashby collection for the simple reason that the British archeologist made all of them known to the public at large (until then only a small portion had been published) after he had bought them on the UK antique market in 1903.
What was being presented on October 9, therefore, was the third leg. With this volume, the two authors have sought to document the results of their research, which began two years ago, into about 500 19th century images from the British archeologist’s collection. With its extraordinary watercolor drawings and topographical sketches, the new volume is a faithful reflection of the cultural taste and inclinations of the famous scholar, featuring images of 19th century Italy from top to bottom, from Piedmont and Lombardy to the country’s southernmost island, Sicily.
Among the authors of the works, mostly British, there are well-known names such as Edward Lear, William Oliver, Thomas Dessoulavy, Nugent Dunbar, and Andrew Wilson, but also prominent figures of the Italian 19th century art milieu, like Luigi Rossini, Achille Vianelli, Abbott Antonio Uggeri, Antonio Senape and Carlo Labruzzi.
Besides helping to shed more light on the mosaic of characters and aspects pertaining to the history of landscape art and vedutismo (usually a highly detailed large-scale landscape-cityscape painting or print also generally associated with the Grand Tour) the volume consists not only of works focused on Rome, which was widely seen at that time as Capital of the Arts, but also of reproductions of places, so to speak “minor,” in Calabria, Sicily, Umbria and Campania regions, very rarely, if at all, depicted before the advent of the camera due to their difficult access.
The other panel speakers included His Excellency Msgr. Jean-Louis Bruguès, OP, Librarian of Santa Romana Chiesa (SRC, Holy Roman Church); Professor Mario Bevilacqua of the University of Florence’s department of architecture; archeologist Pietro Zander, Fabbrica di San Pietro (the office in charge of the preservation and decoration of the Vatican buildings); and Ambrogio M. Piazzoni, Vice-Prefect of the Vatican Library and moderator.
Mario Bevilacqua and Pietro Zander, in particular, highlighted from their professional angle the importance of the images and drawings in the volume as a valuable, historic memory and therefore a sort of bibliographic reference indispensable for studying the topographical changes and transformations that occurred in those places during the 19th century.
Msgr. Jean-Louis Bruguès voiced his most heartfelt gratitude not only to the two authors present, art historian Pier Andrea De Rosa and the Vatican Library’s curator of prints, Barbara Jatta, for having so effectively fulfilled such an invaluable and demanding task, but also to the EMC Corporation and Postel, the two companies that supported the initiative, in the persons of Michael Freed and Mark Fanizzi, and Pierangelo Scappini and Stefano Santini respectively. Among other things, the latter has also supported the printing of the valuable volume.
“It is not always the case for the business sector to happily marry with that of culture,” Msgr. Jean-Louis Bruguès said. “Precisely for this reason we are particularly pleased that this evening such a rare type of conjunction concerns a project of the Vatican Library.”
These unpublished drawings depicting Italy of the 19th century, he went on, enable scholars, but also simply curious people, to have a glimpse of rare images regarding places, some little known, on the peninsula. “I must say that I, too, as a Frenchman, learned much about the beauty of Italy through these original drawings.”
The event was also graced by the presence of religious personalities, such as the former archivist and librarian of Holy Roman Church and current president of the referring commission for the Vatican economy, Cardinal Raffaele Farina, and the former Secretary for Relations with States in the Secretariat of State (or foreign minister) of the Holy See and president of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State and of the Governorate of Vatican City State, Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo. Also present were Sweden’s former ambassador to the Holy See Fredrik Vahlquist, and former Italian ambassador to Sweden, Anna della Croce Brigante Colonna. The presence of the former Swedish Ambassador to the Holy See is a reminder that for the work required to turn the Salone Sistino into a reading room for printed books, when between 2007 and 2010 the library completed a 9 million Euro renovation to upgrade the facility, generous aid was received from two Swedish foundations: Jacob Wallenbergs Stiftelse and Stiftelsen Konung Gustaf VI Adolfs fond för svensk kultur. “This last donation,” Msgr. Pasini pointed out in the Vatican Library’s official newsletter (No. 12, 2013), “has the distinction of coming from the foundation of the King of Sweden himself, and is the crowning glory upon the fruitful collaboration begun in 2008 by the then Ambassador of Sweden to the Holy See, Fredrik Vahlquist, a great and faithful friend of the Library.”