Works by Bellotto now on view

Bernardo Bellotto (1720-80), 'View of Florence towards the Ponte Vecchio'. On loan from Russborough, courtesy of the Alfred Beit Foundation. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland

Bellotto’s views of Dresden and Florence now on view in ‘Masterpieces from the Collection’

One of the most notable characteristics of the life of the aristocracy in 18th-century Ireland was the Grand Tour. This rite of passage involved a prolonged trip to continental Europe and most specifically to Italy to admire the great achievements of classical times and post-Renaissance culture. The most tangible and long-term manifestation of this social educational phenomenon was the impact on the architecture of the country house, the large mansions occupied by Ireland’s wealthy landowners. In a relatively stable political climate, the aristocracy felt able to abandon the chateaux fort (fortified castle) model of their ancestors and opt for a more elegant design paradigm based on the example of their continental cousins, for the most part drawing on the example of the great Italian architect Andrea Palladio. In tandem with this revolution in architecture came the burgeoning taste for decorating the new à la mode mansions with works of art by the continental masters.

One of the finest examples of this practice is Russborough, built by Joseph Leeson, later 1st Earl of Milltown. This charming country residence, with its central block handsomely set into a colonnade flanked by two additional wings – all faced in Wicklow granite – was designed and constructed in the 1740s to the design of the German-born architect Richard Castle (Cassells). The house was furnished with elegant furniture, most of it was specially commissioned, which complemented the wonderful works of art purchased by Joseph Leeson on his trips to Europe in 1744 and 1751 and similar items purchased subsequently by his son and descendents. In 1902 the Dowager Countess of Milltown gifted the contents of Russborough to the National Gallery of Ireland.

More recently, in 1952, Alfred and Clementine Beit purchased Russborough as their home and moved their outstanding art collection there from London. The key elements of this world-renowned collection had been assembled by Sir Alfred’s uncle, also called Alfred, who had made his fortune in mining in Southern Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. The exceptional quality of the items acquired by Alfred senior can be attributed to Alfred’s immense wealth but also to the fact that he was advised in his purchasing by Wilhelm von Bode, the Director of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin and one of the great connoisseurs and experts of European and oriental culture.

In 1976 Sir Alfred and Lady Clementine established the Alfred Beit Foundation, placing the house in public ownership. Some ten years later, in 1987, the couple gifted seventeen exceptional old master paintings, including Vermeer’s sublime Lady Writing a Letter, to the National Gallery of Ireland. The balance of the collection, which boasted masterpieces by Oudry, Vernet and van Ostade, remains at Russborough. Also at Russborough are two topographical views of Florence by Bernardo Bellotto, the nephew of Canaletto. Tragically, A View of Florence looking towards the Ponte Vecchio, was one of two pieces stolen during a raid on the house in 2001. On its recovery in September 2002, it was found to be seriously damaged.  In the intervening years, conservator Ele von Monschaw, under the supervision of Simone Mancini, Head of Conservation, together with the assistance of colleagues at The National Gallery, London, worked on the restoration of the canvas to address the damage. This process is now complete and thanks to the cooperation of the Alfred Beit Foundation the two Bellotto paintings are being placed on public view for the first time in the company of the Gallery’s two views of Dresden by the same artist alongside Giovanni Paolo Panini’s festive rendering of the Piazza Navona in Rome.

The Beit Foundation pictures were painted by Bellotto (1722-1780) during a brief sojourn in the Tuscan city in 1740 when the artist was just eighteen years old. Four other views of the city dating from the same period are known, two in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest and two in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. According to the most recent research (The Burlington, January 2012), the Beit Bellottos were commissioned by the Marchese Andrea Gerini (1691-1766) a member of an old Florentine family of bankers and merchants.

The two views of Dresden which form part of the National Gallery of Ireland collection date to around 1750, some three years after the artist arrived in the city where he was employed by Augustus III, King of Poland, Elector of Saxony, one of the most celebrated patrons of art of his day. The canvases represent reduced versions of substantially larger compositions which were painted in 1747 and 1748 respectively and which today hang in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden.

Panini’s impressive view of the Piazza Navona (NGI collection), which dates to 1731, records the temporary decorations commissioned in 1729 by Cardinal Melchior de Polignac as part of the festivities organised to celebrate the birth of the dauphin to King Louis XV. The elaborate columns, triumphal arches and other elements were designed by the artist Pier Leone Ghezzi and executed in papier mache for the most part. The original, larger version of this composition hangs in the Louvre.

Bellotto’s views of Dresden and Florence, and Panini’s view of the Piazza Navona, are on display as part of the Gallery’s current presentation, ‘Masterpieces from the Collection’.