Between the Elbe and the "little Rhine"

Written by  Andrea Emiliani
Relations between Dresden and Emilia in the mid-eighteenth century.
In the crowded group of artists and intellectuals who unite the Dresden of Augustus III of Saxony and Emilia, the figure of Giovanni Ludovico Bianconi stands out. Bianconi was an aristocrat who left the "picciol Reno", the "little Rhine" that snakes its way through the Bologna-Ferrara region for the banks of the Elbe to take up the position of doctor to the Elector.

Under the influence of Frederick Augustus and his collector's tastes, the artistic values of Enlightenment Europe came into circulation. The experience of Dresden exemplifies some of the events which distinguish the century, its progress in culture and economics, the contradictions between universalism and national ownership, the laissez-faire liberalism and ownership. All this in parallel with the ideology of a higher public ownership, such as had sustained, from humanism onwards, the idea of artistic patronage.

Here we should consider the stir caused after 1745 by the famous "Modena sale", and by the sensational transfer of Emilian paintings and historical culture to the Gallery of Augustus III of Saxony in Dresden. The episode aroused great interest, despite the fact that at this period the art market was dominated by a rather lively ethos; I believe that in Italy the sale had the effect of accelerating the protection of the local heritage. The excavation of Herculaneum and Pompeii, the decision by the Bourbon king Charles III to move the Farnese collections from Piacenza and Parma to Naples, and the Modena sale itself took place at almost the same time, and hastened many legislative decisions and measures to safeguard the patrimony.
It is also the case that Augustus III's "investments" in collecting Italian art brought unexpected fame to all art in the Po valley, making this early "déracinement" the canonical example of a new mobility in collecting and the art market, which would extend from the search for paintings and spread to typical ecclesiastical arts such as altar tablets and altar cloths.

This was happening, on the other hand, during the very years 1749-1750, when Benedict XIV decided to help Cardinal Valenti Gonzaga to establish the Pinacoteca Capitolina through the acquisition of the Sacchetti and Pio collections. The Pontiff's approach was one of supporting the public aspect of collecting, which in Italy is above all represented by church art.

This brings us back to Giovanni Ludovico Bianconi, whose vision of a Bologna Pinacoteca in the Salone del Podestà and in Enzo's palace reflects the Pope's convictions. The Modena sale revealed to collection to be fundamentally a "mixed" museum and not merely heraldic, but also rich in associations with the public heritage, and the Vatican's policy was rapidly made clear in abandoning the simple idea of a museum as an antiquarium and embracing the new concept of the museum as a home for great paintings, also able to house important ecclesiastical artefacts.
The history of Dresden relates how, as early as 1741, Augustus III was forced to find a new solution for his most important paintings, which had previously been stored in the Palace's stable block. It was during 1742 that Francesco Algarotti, arriving from Prussia, also presented a project for establishing a large and dignified Gallery.

The intellectual and cosmopolitan Algarotti would record with approval the urbane dignity and classical ways of Frederick, while in Berlin his fellow sovereign was recreating ancient Athens. This despite the fact that his museum project went unnoticed at the court. At Dresden, as in Frederick II's Potsdam, Algarotti's museum projects came to nothing. In fact in April 1745 Knöffel himself was entrusted with the royal project for converting the Judenhof stables into a gallery.

This decision may have been influenced by the news sent by Ventura Rossi from Venice revealing active and very promising contacts with poor Francesco d'Este, weighed down by the troubles of the war and occupation and the consequent heavy expenses; and forced to hide his famous pictures underground. This was the collection which, since at least the time of Francesco I, had included altar paintings - as in fact the Correggio Night previously in San Prospero in Reggio Emilia (1640), two other Correggio paintings from Modena churches, the Deposition by Cima da Conegliano from Carpi and finally the Virgin between two saints by Parmigianino from Santo Stefano in Castelmaggiore (1646).
Political matters were also becoming complicated on the Elbe, squarely in the middle of the complex strategic game being played out by Augustus III between Frederick II's Prussia and Austria. The Peace of Dresden in Christmas 1745 was the first warning signal for Augustus's exuberant spending policy. With the second occupation of 1756, the period dominated by this most unusual ruler came to a end.

Francesco Algarotti arrived in Dresden on his return from a fresh meeting with Frederick II of Prussia, who had first invited this philosopher, man of letters and taste and connoisseur of European experience to his court in 1740. However, despite proclamations of friendship and privilege, the writer had left Frederick the Great's court in 1742 for Dresden, where he was introduced by Giovanni Ludovico Bianconi: and it was at this time that he attempted for the second time to present his plan in which, together with the veneration of great artists of the past, he hoped to introduce his very up-to-date concept of commissioning work from living artists and thus establishing museums which were "programmed" , as well as built up from paintings from the antiquarian market.

The restrictions imposed by Augustus III's minister Count Bruhl on Algarotti's departure for Italy were awkward but absolute, but the trip nonetheless resulted in the acquisition of 21 paintings there. But it is likely that news of the Modena sale and its colossal scale came as a thunderbolt to Algarotti, who was lingering in Venice in search of his paintings.
his worldly and cosmopolitan intellectual figure returns to the story only in March 1747, when he made fresh contact with Frederick II's court in Berlin. He remained at the Prussian court until 1753, when he returned to Italy, dying in Pisa in 1764.

After his return to Italy Algarotti, who was now beginning to age, remembered his museum project which had been approved by neither Augustus III nor Frederick II, and which he now revealed to have assumed a somewhat unusual form. Writing from Riolo in September to the landscape artist and perspectivist Prospero Pesci, the writer sent him a drawing in his own hand which depicts no less than the Piazza Dan Domenico in Bologna; and he asks him to correct it, replacing the Saint's church with "a great museum TO house sculptures AND paintings".

The important aspect for us, given the technical prominence of the project and its history, is the detailed description of the architectural model chosen. A great opportunity missed by the two dominant figures of Mitteleuropa in the Age of Enlightenment, both the structural concept and the architectural form of this museum are nevertheless of compelling interest to us today.
At a first glance it is clear that the museum design consists essentially of a square building around a central courtyard, with a Corinthian loggia at the centre of each side, flanked to the right and left by two galleries lit from five arches placed between Corinthian pillars. These galleries lead to two rooms which in turn are lit by from above by four domes at the corners of the building. At the centre of each side there is a larger dome which illuminates a room situated behind the Corinthian loggia.

Pesci kept his word and on 12 February of the following year, 1760, Algarotti received a "Piazza San Domenico redesigned." Unfortunately, Pesci's painting has not to date come to light. We can, however, read the long description of the planned Dresden museum set out in the 1759 letter to Pesci, and this technically rather specific account can be used as the basis for a maquette which takes us back in by analogy to the architectural and scenographic design of the time, the idea of a whole life spent as an international traveller and dilettante of genius.

If we then return to the description of the 1742 Hubertsbourg Project, which focused on the contents, we can obtain a complete model of what might be described as the connecting link between the two cultures, the predominantly pictorial-spatial Bolognese culture and the Saxon culture of international art collecting.