Giovanni Battista Lusieri is known today, if at all, for supervising the removal of the Elgin Marbles from Greece to London. But in the late 18th century he was among the most sought-after landscape artists, noted by Lord Byron as “an Italian painter of the first eminence” and assiduously collected by English and European aristocrats passing through Naples and Sicily. There he met Lord Elgin and, although he didn’t speak a word of English, was offered the post of painter in residence at a salary of £200 a year and ended up running Elgin’s team of archaeologists, craftsmen and architects.
The Scottish National Gallery’s show is the first – anywhere, ever – devoted to Lusieri, whose reputation was already diminishing at his death and never recovered. His achievement stands as a man caught between Classicism and Romanticism: born in Rome in 1754, he loved ancient monuments but also volcanos, and depicted both in limpid, crystalline watercolours admired for their meticulous detail, flawless perspectives, sparkling light effects and panoramic scope.
“The Bay of Naples from Palazzo Sessa” is his most spectacular, and is monumental for a watercolour: 9ft long, composed of six large sheets joined together, it depicts the broad stretch of water from Castel dell’Ovo to Mergellina and Posillipo, with the waterfront buildings reflected in the sea in brilliant light. High vantage points and all-embracing vistas combined with precise detail similarly characterise the watercolours “View of Rome from the Juniculum Hill”, “Panoramic View of Palermo”, with the city silhouetted against the sea and intensely tactile rock surfaces in the foreground, and “Herculaneum Gate, Pompeii”.
Unique is a painting Lusieri refused to sell: “Vesuvius During the Eruption of 1794” – a stark, theatrical confrontation of fire and water, with peripheral detail unusually eliminated. Although he loathed the fashion for “pictures that are created in the main part from imagination”, this piece is romantic in sensibility – and compelling.
Until October 28, www.nationalgalleries.org