The 2014 RBA Rome Scholar was Tom Greenwood who has written a short account of his stay:
Before taking up the RBA Rome Scholarship I had never visited the city that for centuries ruled much of the civilised world. My knowledge of the Romans came mostly from Goscinny, Uderzo and Ridley Scott. Additionally, my painting technique had been learned almost entirely in the studio and I knew substantial adaptations would be needed if I were to successfully paint 'plein air' amidst all that is on show outside in Rome.
As such, I resolved to tackle the plein air challenge first off, then explore the city and try to learn as much as I could for the middle of the trip and then return to some selected spots to paint again. My first glimpse of the Tiber instructed me that it would be a source I would return to almost daily and it was on its banks that I first attempted to paint in Rome. The result was not successful. The searing heat, complete lack of shade and gusty wind left me with sunburn, a lost hat and very little of artistic merit. Suffice to say, the painting did not make the return journey to the UK. That evening was spent watching instructional plein air painting videos on YouTube back at BSR.
The next attempts were gradually more successful; the beautiful dappled light in the Borghese Gardens and a lemon bush in the Director's garden at the BSR both came with many shady places to take breaks in and easy access to water fountains for refreshment. In fact, that great leap of civilisation in Rome, the free water fountains, which persist throughout the city as working monuments to the old empire never failed to uplift the spirits of a parched painter, no matter how poorly the work was progressing.
A second small painting of a clearing in the Borghese Gardens and I began to feel like I was making progress, roughly halfway through the second week, so I decided to take a rest from painting and explore the city properly. Rome has so much to see. I must have barely scratched the surface, taking in the Galleria Natzionale D'Arte Moderna, Pantheon, Trevi fountain, Spanish steps and church of San Luigi di Francesci, Capitoline Museum, Forum, Palatine Hill, Colisuem, Pallazo Barberini, Da Vinci Museum, St Peter's and the Vatican, nearby Tivoli with the villas of Hadriana, Gregoriana and D'Este, the Estruscan Museum at Villa Giulia, Trastevere, Pizza Navona and too many churches and piazzas to list them all.
What did all this cultural learning teach me? What were the crowds in the Vatican, meticulously recording everything on their iPhones, really taking away with them, along with their 10 euro rosaries and novelty mugs? How should I feel about being kicked out of the Forum for painting (painting is now prohibited in that place which inspired Corot, Leighton and so many others)? More than anything else, Rome forces one to reflect on the nature of time. Where else in the world can the centuries been seen so clearly one after the other? Strangely, it took the words of Byron, to help me to understand the myriad of things I'd seen. I'd taken a trip to the nearby Latian coast to try to clear my head and was reading The Pilgrimage of Childe Harold. Byron, the contemporary of Canova, who loved Rome, lived there and was loved by the Romans in turn, right at the end of his pilgrimage, having seen all of Europe, travelling mainly by sea, finally found all the great monuments of man humbled by the sea itself:
"There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne'er express yet cannot all conceal."
The words went straight the heart of my confusion. It was Nature, that subject of so much of the art I had been seeing, rather than the art itself, which really held the source of inspiration and awe. In the presence of raw, directly observed nature, all the works of the great masters seem like a small, dirty window through which to glimpse the view.
With this humbling but uplifting thought I resolved that nature would be the subject of the rest of my trip. I would return to the trees and dappled light of the Borghese Gardens and the Tiber to produce two larger paintings, attempts to capture the confusions and profusions of illumination through the leaves in the garden and the deep swirling turbulence of the great river. Ultimately, neither would fulfil their ambition wholly, but I felt comforted by Byron's words, resolved to revere rather than try to overcome those uncapturable mysteries of light, movement and form. Above all I had realised that no viewer of any painting, no matter how great the effect produced, is as fortunate as the painter himself, who gets to see the view directly and has the both the time and the will to study it.
The last few days of the trip I could not paint, as the oils would not have dried in time to be packed up for the flight home, so I had a last chance to do a bit more sightseeing. As well as taking long walks around the city to simply soak up the atmosphere I stopped to see Velasquez' portrait of Pope Innocent X in the Doria Pamphili. Velazquez' use of soft, blurred, yet distinct and specifically shaped edges blew my mind. The logical progression of Da Vinci's sfumato took over a century to be realised by Velasquez, but in this painting it is so clearly a leap beyond everything that had been produced in between. Due to the size of the image, the subtlety of edge variation cannot be seen adequately on a computer screen: the painting has to be seen life-size to be observable, and I would have not visited the gallery but for the recommendation of a fellow guest at the BSR. I cannot help but wonder what other lessons Rome has in her great archive, just waiting to be discovered.
I cannot thank the RBA enough for giving me that month of pure observation, time and study in Rome and would recommend it to anyone.
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