Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1754–1821) was hailed during his lifetime as one of the most gifted of all living landscape artists and his exquisitely crafted works were eagerly sought by collectors. But within a few years of his death his reputation descended into an obscurity from which it has only recently begun to re-emerge. This was the first ever exhibition devoted to Lusieri’s career.
Lusieri was one of very few Italian artists to have adopted watercolour as their favoured medium. From the outset, his work exhibited the meticulous detail, precision and faultless perspective that remained the hallmarks of his style throughout his career, combined with a panoramic breadth of vision and an astonishing ability to render brilliant effects of light. The latter part of Lusieri’s career was spent mainly in Athens as Lord Elgin’s resident artist and agent. In that capacity, he was closely involved in supervising the removal and shipping of the celebrated marbles from the Acropolis, now in the British Museum.
Giovanni Battista Lusieri was born in Rome on 14 October 1754 and was baptised in the basilica of St Peter’s three days later. Nothing certain is known about Lusieri’s artistic training, although he probably learnt to draw from his father, who was a silversmith. From a passing comment in a letter he wrote many years later, we learn that his ‘renowned teacher’ was a portrait painter.
Lusieri’s surviving Roman works span just four years, from 1778 to 1781. Most of Lusieri’s clients were evidently foreign visitors to Rome, but only one is known by name. Philip Yorke, later 3rd Earl of Hardwicke, has emerged as his most important early patron, acquiring at least ten works from him.
Naples and Around
Lusieri arrived in Naples from Rome at the end of 1781 or early 1782 and took lodgings in the old town below the hill of Capodimonte. He was shortly joined in the same street by the Welsh painter Thomas Jones (1742–1803), and the two artists became firm friends and sketching companions. Lusieri established himself quickly in Naples, numbering Queen Maria Carolina and the Russian and German ambassadors to the Bourbon court among his clients within a few months of his arrival.
Stimulated, like so many landscape artists, by the sheer beauty of Naples and its spectacular natural setting – with the bay and its islands and the looming presence of Mount Vesuvius – Lusieri set to work producing a series of sweeping panoramic views which document the city from diverse vantage points. Their breadth of vision and ambitious scale is combined with his customary meticulous attention to detail.
Lusieri found a ready market for his views of the city and its surroundings, especially among the many wealthy British tourists, and for a number of years he became one of the most popular and sought after landscape artists in Italy. But this comfortable situation changed completely with the Napoleon’s invasion of Italy in 1796 and the progressive advance of his troops down the peninsula. At the end of 1798 the royal family and its entourage – including Sir William Hamilton and possibly Lusieri himself – left Naples for Palermo in Sicily, where a court in exile was established.
The precise circumstances of Lusieri’s move to Sicily are not known. He may have arrived with the royal entourage in December 1798 and begun work on his Panoramic View of Palermo and the Concad’Oro. Before long the artist moved on to Taormina, where the majority of his surviving Sicilian drawings were made. Lusieri later recorded that he had been mistaken for a French spy and arrested by the local authorities; he may have accepted the official position of Royal Painter of the Antiquities of the Demone and Noto Valleys in eastern Sicily, which included Taormina, to avoid further molestation.
It was while he was working at Taormina that Lusieri was approached by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, to accompany him on his embassy to Constantinople as official draughtsman, and they signed a contract in October 1799. Together with Elgin’s private secretary, William Richard Hamilton, Lusieri assembled a team of architects, moulders and draughtsmen, but their departure for the eastern Mediterranean was delayed, and they spend the early months of 1800 drawing and measuring the monuments of Agrigento.
Lusieri spent the second half of his career, from 1800 until his death in 1821, working in the eastern Mediterranean in the service of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine. Apart from a forced retreat to Malta due to the war in 1807-9, Athens remained the artist’s main base for the rest of his life.
Although employed in the capacity of painter, Lusieri soon assumed a much broader managerial role over the team of artists and craftsmen Elgin had assembled. Lusieri became Elgin’s principal agent on the ground, negotiating and supervising the removal, packing and transport of works of sculpture and architecture from the buildings on the Acropolis, notably the Parthenon.
Lusieri’s collecting and archaeological activities left him much less time for his art. He began a large number of outline drawings of Athens and its monuments, some of them huge in scale and immensely detailed, but he completed very few, much to Elgin’s frustration. Only six finished works survive from his twenty years’ activity in Greece. Almost all of his outline drawings were lost when the ship transporting them back to Britain long after his death was wrecked off the coast of Crete.
During his later years in Greece Lusieri often led a rather isolated existence, starved of news and funds for long periods, but he is mentioned fondly by many travellers to Athens as a very genial host and most knowledgeable guide.