View of Rome from the Arco Oscuro street
View of Rome from the Arco Oscuro street

View of Rome from the Arco Oscuro street

Author: Żamett Albert , 1821 - 1876

Created: 1858.

Material / technique:  oil on canvas.

Dimensions: 45,5x44,7 cm (a circle in a square).

Signature: A. Zamett/1858 (in the bottom center of the picture).

Kept in a private collection, A View of Rome from Arco Oscuro, a landscape by the celebrated 19th century Lithuanian painter Albert Żamett (Žamett, Zameytt, 1821–1876) could be regarded as one of the most characteristic of the painter’s works. As evidenced by the signature and the date, the painting was done during the last year of his ‘Italian period’, bookending, in its own peculiar way, the whole of the experience of painting landscapes he had gained whilst in Rome. The canvass immortalises a particular piece of scenery just as it creates an idealised, perfectly beautiful image of the Eternal City where lush nature, prominent architectural landmarks, tiny human figures, and the overarching ambience of a warm, tranquil evening masterfully portrait co-exist in perfect harmony. The landscape is done with a great degree of precision but is not boring: spot-on and expressive, the painting and the effects that its colours produce help build and convey a spatial perspective, taking the eye of the beholder from the lush greenery in the foreground on towards the silhouette of St Peter’s Basilica painted against the clear sky further in the back. The look then returns to the painting’s plane to admire the swooping stone-pines, their leaning tops appearing to form an umbrella over the Basilica’s dome: serene and magnificent, they are a sign of patronage and blessing granted to all of God’s creation.

Albert Żamett was known for his Italian landscapes, in which he managed to persuasively convey the unique qualities of the landscape of that country, especially the tight bond between its architecture and nature. In their tracts on Żamett’s landscapes, 19th century authors would often note the characteristic exceptional mood of serenity and harmony and would accentuate the role of air and light, the superb portrayal of ambience, and the lighting effects that captivated viewers so much. During his visit to Żamett’s workshop in Rome in 1858, Kraszewski later remembered having seen a large number of warm, bright, wonderfully colourful studies of Italian nature and finished landscapes that might have included the canvass in question [J. I. Kraszewski, Kartki z podróży 1858–1864. Warszawa, 1866, p. 483-484]. The correspondent from the Kurjer wileński daily who visited they painter’s workshop soon after his return from Italy in 1859, too, admired the paintings he had brought with him, which allegedly bore so much truth in their portrayal of nature, so much colour, space, and life that one just could not take one’s eyes off of them [Gieranonski, O. Wilno. Kurjer wileński. 1859. No 14, p. 164]. All these accolades can also be used to describe the landscape of A View of Rome from Arco Oscuro, a typical painting from Żamett’s ‘Roman period’ in many ways. By the way, the painter would often pick the format of tondo, or oval for his pictures – that is why the circle within the square fits the context of his work quite seamlessly.

Born in Vilnius where he learned the fundamentals of arts, Żamett attended, as an auditor, landscape painting classes of Professor Maxim Vorobyov (1787–1855) at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts in 1841–1847. In 1849–1858, he studied and worked in Rome, where the character of his landscape painting evolved into its final shape. He painted a lot of views of Rome and other places in Italy; most of the paintings have been acquired by foreign collectors – hence, Żamett’s paintings in Lithuania are far and between (in the 19th century, the largest compilation of his landscapes in Lithuania was kept in the collection of the Tiškevičius family – the patrons of this painter – in Raudondvaris). The painter would paint some of his favourite motifs over and over again, which has resulted in a number of similar compositions amidst his landscapes. It is worth mentioning that Żamett continued to paint Italian landscapes when he returned to Vilnius as well, relying on the paintings he had brought back from Rome. It was in Vilnius that he must have painted a view of Rome – very similar to the painting in question – that is currently kept at the National Saratov Art Museum in Russia (A View of Rome, canvass, oil, 46 x 46 (tondo), signed A. Ƶamett 1859, inventory No Ж-519) [illustration 1]. Importantly, the piece in Saratov is considered to be one of the three landscape paintings of the surroundings of Rome that earned Żamett the title of an academician in 1859.

The canvass in Saratov was clearly painted on the basis of the landscape in Vilnius, which had been done back in Rome. Still, it would be wrong to refer to the 1858 landscape as a sketch for the 1859 version, or a study, for both landscapes are completely finished, stand-alone works of art, interpretations of the same motif. The canvasses are highly comparable in their format, with slight variations in the elements of the composition, the design of the trees, the figures of the staffage, the colour scheme. Truth be told, physical tests indicate that the colours of the landscape in Vilnius could have been altered to some extend during subsequent restorations or renovations of this piece of work, although the scope of the repainting is minute (see the test report by Rapolas Vedrickas dated 18/4/2023). Polish literature on art history from the turn of the 19th century mentions Arco Scuro in the Surroundings of Rome, a painting by Żamett that was put on display at a retrospective painting show in Lvov in 1894 (the painting was property of Count Franciszek Mycielski and is now considered lost). Dated 1855 (the last digit being in question due to its being indistinct in the signature, with the date of 1855 was inscribed on the reverse of the canvass nonetheless), the canvas is only known from its description, which, however, is enough to realise that the arrangement was very similar to the 1858 variant that is currently located in Vilnius. The landscape is described as circular in shape and 47 by 47 centimetres in size, depicting a narrow road between rocks overgrown with stone-pine trees with the dome of St Peter’s Basilica visible against a beautiful blue sky in the distance [Maria Nitka. Polish Painters in Papal Rome of the 19th Century. Catalogue, Polski Instytut Studiów nad Sztuką Świata WydawnictwoTako Warszawa–Toruń 2014]. Which means Żamett revisited the same motif at least three times. Notably, the location of Arco Oscuro (the Dark Arch) portrayed on this canvas was popular with painters who worked in Rome in the 18th and the 19th century, and has appeared in landscape paintings on more than just one occasion 

It is a narrow street in the region of the Pincio hill that winds its way across a craggy terrain, its name deriving from the chapel of Santa Maria dell’ Arco Oscuro, home to a picture of St Virgin Mary, venerated by the faithful. Said picture used to hang under the overpass connecting the so-called Poniatkowski Villa with Villa Giulia and in the late 18th century was moved to a tiny chapel cut in a rock beneath the overpass, dubbed the ‘dark arch’ for its location and obscurity.

The arch with the chapel that gave the little street its name appears in Żamett’s painting as well: you can see it at the bottom of the road going down, on the same vertical axis as St Peter’s Basilica. Apart from the visual appeal of the surrounding area and ethnographic charm etched in the rustic forms of worship, it is also quite possible that this picturesque place near Rome called to Żamett with its historic ties to Stanisław Poniatowski (1754–1833), the last grand treasurer of Lithuania and nephew of Stanisław August Poniatowski, the last monarch of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. After he took residence in Italy in the late 18th century, the nobleman bought various in the land, including Villa Cesi in Rome, which has been referred to as the Poniatkowski Villa to this day. Still, regardless of the reasons behind his choice of this landscape, Żamett managed to portray it on canvas very persuasively indeed. Comparing Żamett’s picture with the landscapes of the same location done by his peers, one can see how different the artists were in their interpretations of the same corner of Rome. Żamett’s composition stands out amidst the rest in its refinement and stronger visual effect. Its historical ties with the nearby Poniatkowski Villa give this Roman landscape additional semantic undertones and tether the history of the Eternal City and the collapsed Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth together with invisible bonds (dr. Rūta Janonienė).