In the Eighteenth century, Rome was the second most populated city in Italy after Naples: Paolo Panini’s vedute (sights) are a vivid testimony of the density of the roman population flocking in the streets and on the squares of the capital. However, the piercing eye of the Président de Brosses, astute observant of Rome from 1739 to 1740, noticed the existence of parks, gardens and even cultivated pens circled by walls where almost nobody came. Such spaces were filled with ruins and owed all of their livelihood to herds of goats and sheep grazing peacefully. Landscape painters in the Eighteenth century were mostly foreigners who captured this peculiarity of Rome in their paintings and their watercolours, documenting a green city who kept in touch with a bucolic aspect rooted in the past.
Montesquieu was another brilliant witness of Rome during this period. Upon visiting the city of the popes in 1729, he attests to the vitality of the exchanges between the rich art collectors and the artists and agents working hard to guarantee them the acquisition of a pricely, prestigious “souvenir” to take away from the city. “The new Rome is selling the old one bit by bit” noted Montesquieu accurately.
Nevertheless, antiques museums are meanwhile having an exceptional season: by decision of the great popes of the century, the museums of the Capitol and the Vatican enriched and re-issued their collections by opening them to creators and scholars. The curator of the Cabinet des Médailles at the service of the French Crown, Jean-Jacques Barthémély, once saluted the “people of statues” which welcomed the visitors of the Capitol’s venues, and gave the name of “great book of antiquarians” to the new museum.
It’s this very “disparity” of Rome which sometimes disturbs the rational mind of its visitors from northern regions, notably from France: the Président de Brosses deems unfortunate that on the famous “Piazza del Popolo” at the entrance of the city “there is nothing but palaces and huts.
In Rome, the fact is the residences of the wealthy are set near the poor people’s and the aristocrats live among those from a modest background and the bubbling world of the clergy.
One can experience surprise at every street corner when wandering through Rome, and that’s what makes it so charming.