Pompeo Batoni in Lucca.

Author:Simon, Robin

The exquisite city of Lucca is famous for its romanesque architecture, for one. of the best restaurants in Italy, and for being the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), whose 250th anniversary has been noisily celebrated all over the world. The city now has another favourite son, Pompeo Batoni (1708-87), not that is has seemed to care very much about him hitherto. With a spectacular exhibition (6 December 2008-29 March 2009) in honour of Batoni's tercentenary all that has changed. The show, in the restored Palazzo Ducale, was an unequivocal triumph, to the relieved amazement of the organizers, the city fathers and the regional government, all of whom had plenty to lose: because it was the first art exhibition on this scale ever mounted in Lucca. This act of faith--really, a leap in the dark--was amply rewarded, with hordes of visitors, major international attention and press coverage and, no doubt, economic benefits for the fine chefs and hoteliers of this enchanting town. Furthermore, the exhibition was bigger, better, and set in more splendid surroundings than in its previous venues. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (21 October 2007-27 January 2008), it was very well displayed and accompanied by a good conference. At the National Gallery in London (20 February-18 May 2008), in contrast, it was rather cramped, insufficiently supported by proper educational initiatives and as a consequence rather poorly attended. All of this suggested a failure of nerve on the part of the gallery, which let down the outstanding work of the curator, Edgar Peters Bowron, whose lucid and civilized catalogue is a model of its kind and looks set to remain the most appealing guide in English to this attractive although ultimately elusive painter. In London, a conference was only finally mounted thanks to the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. In Lucca, the vast spaces of the Palazzo Ducale were cleverly articulated by discreet design while affording plenty of room to display many of the huge altarpieces and allegorical canvases that formed as large a part of Batoni's output as his well-known Grand Tour portraits. The exhibition, which had a separate catalogue edited by Liliana Barroero and Fernando Mazzocca, with contributions by others including Bowron, made some efforts to set Batoni within the traditions of pious 'arts and crafts' from which he emerged. This was rather canny, since Batoni was occasionally capable of straying into cloying...

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