On Pannini’s Interior of an Imaginary Picture Gallery
with Views of Ancient Rome
, 1756-57, oil on canvas,
Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Germany

[to left: an excerpt from the center of the full painting]

The painting portrays a huge imaginary gallery holding veduta images of just about all the “views” of Roman architecture worth studying—both ancient and modern. Not reproduced in black and white but in oil paint on canvas, and each one magnificently framed. Plus sculpture and painted images of sculpture.

In the center foreground, below left, two apprentice artists learn their art by making copies of these copies. The images are packed as closely as possible on the walls, they become the walls, covering even the actual building’s supporting pilasters. And, at ground level, paintings so numerous they can’t all be shown; they are stacked together leaning against the wall (see behind the table with flowers on it near the center) and must be gone through by hand.

All these scenes that should be seen on a young gentleman’s “Tour of Italy.” Such a Tour was fashionable in the mid-eighteenth century, a kind of graduation and initiation rite into the world of Culture and upper-class status for gentlemen, with all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining.... Except that here, this Imaginary Gallery in Rome has replaced the Tour book about Rome and even, perhaps, the Tour of Rome itself.

After preparing for the Tour by studying the sites represented in the veduta book (the Colesseum, etc.), one would normally then go to Rome and, following the book’s itinerary, see the sites or sights one by one and make the appropriate comments, store away the appropriate memories. But now there’s a Virtual Tour---see all the sites at once, with much less trouble, arrayed on the walls before you! You’ve studied reproductions of the famous scenes, now see the actual reproductions for themselves! Any visit to the even more solidly “actual” ruin itself would perhaps produce but an after-image, a blurred and blurring double?

Or is it only the serious artists who would frequent this Gallery, to study the best reproductions possible, along with a few stone fragments of the Actual? Perhaps not: Pannini’s scene includes both young artists in the foreground and well-dressed gentlemen in the middle, receiving a Tour.

Not just the birth of the modern museum may be sited here, but the birth of the modern art-Tour on tape, the voice-over.... (see the guide, pointing things out). A palacial building filled with images of ruins....


Now consider another angle of this excerpt from Pannini's painting. In the oval lunette near the ceiling of the central hall, held up by a muscular angel, there is an image of a second huge hall which, like the first one, recedes in perspective to a hidden vanishing point. See the top of the image to the left, which is from the center of the painting. An enlarged detail of the oval lunette and angel is to the right.

Suspended in the lunette, this painted hall holds no paintings. Inside its imaginary space is a different time of day than in the “real” hall: it seems later in the day, as a deepening shadow edges down the painted walls. The main feature of the lunette image: rows of sculpture standing at attention, receding away. They are all in heroic poses, and they are all about to be steeped in shadow. Or, rather, they give us this sobering illusion. Because, since it’s a painting, the shadow will never fall farther; it will always hang just as it is, impending, imposing, while of course the light and shadow in the “real” room below will always be shifting and changing.

The young painters underneath this scene study an art of infinite multiplication. Not just images of things but images of images, arrayed for their convenience all in one place. They also attend to the art of paradox. This House of Art is place of imposing solidity and accumulation: the walls rise up, the roof arcs, the floorplan opens endlessly out, towards the back and to the left, the images multiply. And yet it is also a place of openness: sunlight streams down from openings in the ceiling, and in the distance we can see blue sky, piazza/galleries that are inside and outside both at once.

Yet in the midst of all this multiplication and sunniness and endless possibilities intrudes an emptiness. Most of the “views” this magnificent Palace of Art houses are images of ruins, buildings or structures once as grand as this one. The lunette's image stares down from on high. It is not just another painting within Pannini's painted gallery, but a painting (the only one) that reproduces the whole of Pannini's work, but in a darker hue, somber rather than heroic. It suspends itself over the entire gallery and casts its shadowed counter-statement over all. It suggests that when you multiply images infinitely, the result is not cultural bounty but infinite regress, a sense of infinite loss---like a house of mirrors in which the mirror-images repeat themselves precisely yet in ever-diminishing size.

What was it that our "views," our painted images, were trying to capture, after all?

Pannini’s painting ostensibly celebrates the infinite presence of the heroic past and how such presence provides for the birth of new art out of copying the old. Yet this painting also depicts the opposite: how the infinitely present past is also an illusion, a substitute image for a different sense of the past, which is a nightmare vision of the past receding into its vanishing point, shrinking, unknowable: vedutae veiled.

The young painters work easily and quickly, dashing off sketches and talking all of while of art’s ideals. Above them, ignored by them for now, strains an angel to hold the lunette up, its reverse-mirror image, its infinite despair. It is the angel of Art, but also of Ambivalence. It holds a different kind of Tour.... More like a Plunge....

A final thought.
“Interior of an Imaginary Picture Gallery, with Views of All the World....” Imagine this Pannini painting as a prophecy of the World Wide Web, with you in the foreground....

But where on the Web can be found an own image of itself as infinite regress, as shadow?

For more orthodox discussion of this painting and Pannini's work, see Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century,
Ed. Edgar Peters Bowron and Joseph J. Rishel. London: Merrell, 2000; in association with the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Pages 416-29 on Pannini, especially 425-27.

BACK to main "Ruins and Prophecy" page