The Scottish National Gallery’s major summer exhibition “Expanding Horizons” runs through the Edinburgh Festival season to Oct. 28.
Born in Rome in 1754, the son of a silversmith, Giovanni Battista Lusieri made a name for himself as a landscape painter with a virtuosity that exhibition curator Aidan Weston-Lewis likens to the great Venetian artist Tintoretto.
He noted that the “long forgotten artistic genius” Lusieri was also highly unusual in Italian art for preferring water colors -- which makes his large landscapes even more impressive. Among the exhibits is a huge panorama of the bay of Naples on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
“The breathtaking view must rank as one of the most spectacular exhibitions of the art of watercolor ever created,” notes the catalogue, in itself a valuable addition to art history.
Neapolitans witnessed two major eruptions of the Mount Vesuvius volcano in the 18th century. Lusieri recorded the fiery blasts of the 1787 eruption in graphic detail.
It was in Naples and on the island of Sicily, to where the king and other Neapolitans fled as French Emperor Napoleon’s armies marched through Italy, that Lusieri received a life-changing introduction. He had painted a portrait of the British diplomat Sir William Hamilton, whose wife Emma became mistress of Admiral Lord Nelson, victor of the great naval battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Hamilton was so impressed by Lusieri’s work that he recommended him to the visiting Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
Elgin hired Lusieri as his resident artist and agent in Athens, where the British lord was a connoisseur of ancient Greek antiquities. The artist’s initial task was to draw, measure and record artifacts -- including the sculptured marble frieze on the ruins of the Parthenon. Elgin received permission from the Ottoman authorities, then ruling Greece, to remove the sculptures under Lusieri’s supervision. They are now in the British Museum and a bone of contention between Britain and Greece, which seeks their return.
Lusieri died in 1821 and a large amount of his artistic work was destroyed in a shipwreck en route to Britain. Much of the work and supporting documents used in the exhibition come from the collection of the Elgin family in Scotland.
As Britain prepares for the Olympic Games in London, one item on display in Edinburgh could hark back to the origins of the Olympics in ancient Greece. On view is a finely wrought bronze “Dinos” bowl, which were often presented in Classical Greece to winners of athletic or equestrian contests.