Letter from JAMES BARRY to EDMUND BURKE, written 6 January 1769, at Rome

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 108-17

The letter is undated. Since Barry is responding to news of the foundation of the Royal Academy (10 December 1768) and writes about his visit to Naples to attend to his friend John Runciman who died there in the winter, the date is probably early in 1769. Barry mentions having written to Burke on 6 January in his letter of 8 April 1769. Pressly argues for 6 January (Pressly, 'On Classic Ground: James Barry's "Memorials" of the Italian Landscape', Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, 54 (2), 1995, 27, n.9).

Fryer includes four drawings by Barry of subjects mentioned in the letter. Since Barry says that he could not find at least one of the drawings he meant to send, these were probably added by Fryer. [img] [img] [img] [img]

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Dear Sirs,1

I have been eight days at Naples since I wrote to you last. I hope to be able to spin out a letter, with describing to you such things as I made memorials of in my sketch book,2 which is, I dare say, all you will expect from me, as Addison3 has taken up whatever is poetical, and Sharp4 all that is unfavourable, virulent, and scandalous, on the subject; so I will even stick to my sketch book, and begin with the fine picturesque situation of Marino, rocks, old trees, Monte Jove, Lago d' Albano, the Campania, Rome, and the sea, all in the view about you;5 from Villetri you have the Mediterranean and Circe's island 6 before you, a most perfect piece of the Appian way near Terracina, with foot passages and a low sort of stone posts (allow the phrase) on the sides. I could tell you how many stones broad it was, and the distance between the posts, &c. but I cannot find the drawing. The sides of this Appian way, from Rome to Naples, are full of monuments7 of the old Romans; but at Itri, a miserable little town, in the Neapolitan territory, are monuments, which, though in ruins, gave me a most heart-felt pleasure. One is a piece of raw hide, a little broader than the sole of the foot, tied on in the manner of the ancient sandal. I bought a pair of them, which I will put on to shew you the villany of our cursed gothic shoes, which by separating the foot from the leg by the line, which the termination of the upper leather makes upon the stocking, cuts off the foot from the leg, and loses that fine idea of one limb, which is kept up in this vestige of the sandal. Another monument is the manner of tying up the hair of the women. I gave one of them money, made drawings of it,8 loosed it, and made drawings again, so that I know every thing about it, and shall be of great use to our ladies, when I come home; blessed be the poverty of this people, and long may it continue to their latest posterity. It has preserved them, (though in the state of ignorance) the elegant notions of their forefathers; it has kept it out of their power to flaunt about after the deliriums and new fangled whims of fashionable people in great cities, and you shall not be able in your Londons, Paris, Romes, &c. to cull me out such an object as one of these women, standing near a fountain, with her sweet antique formed vase on her head. At Naples, also, is to be seen, amongst the vulgar women, the same way of tying up the hair as in many bustos, the cloth which ties across it in other heads of antiquity, and the rete, net, or cap, enclosing all; and even without quitting the vulgar women of Naples, I will shew you amongst them all the different head dresses of the nine muses on the Sarcophagus in the Campidoglio.9 With respect to the men of Naples, (I mean still the vulgar) were they ten times more bloody, more ignorant, and more superstitious, than they are said to be, their carnavalcarnival dance, (which I saw) with their castanets and tambours in their hands, bringing to mind the old fawns and satyrs; this dance alone should with me atone for all. I now recollect that we have also at Rome after the vintage a sort of Bacchanalian procession in the evenings, the vintage people, with flambeaus of the twigs of the vine, with tambourines, &c. singing and dancing through the streets. To be sure, all our judges of music condemn their song as harsh and tasteless, but away with such judges; there is to me more meaning, joy, and real propriety, in the bawling Bacchanalians, than in ten thousand of the best of their giddy, quibbling, trifling, Eumellis, Pechinis, &c.10 I find the love of antiquity growing upon me every day. Good God, what will become of me by and bye, when I leave Italy? but I will not run away from my subject. At Herculaneum11 I saw that the moderns, with all their vapouring,12 have invented nothing, have improved nothing, not even in the most trifling articles of convenient household utensils; our candlesticks are poor things compared with the stands for their lamps, and there is even an antique kitchen, (tea urn) such as we use on tea tables to hold boiling water, with a place in it for the fire.13 The deuce abit deuce a bit is there any thing new in the world! There is also a little bronze model of a chariot, and my friend Mr.Creagh14 is in the wrong, for the ancients had a pole to their chariots. I have made a drawing of it. Bronze bustos, nobly executed, two bronze figures of racers just starting, a drunken fawn lying along a cag15 of wine and joyously snapping his fingers, a sleeping fawn, a Mercury in a gesso;16 the original is said, with many other things, to have been sent to Spain; but the elegant forms of the vases, dishes, lamps, and vessels, of all sorts, are neither to be conceived by one that has not seen them, nor described by one that has. Of the pictures, the Satyr's kissing the woman who is lying along,17 and the companion picture, I have called my two Titians,18 a sort of a little frieze of dancing women, slightly touched, evidently intended for nothing more than the tout ensemble;19 but for so much, Raffael20 never was any time of his life master of so much elegance, spirit, and cleverness of execution. Two other conversation pieces of women, children, &c. which I also call my Raffaels. There are many other pictures I like, and some things in all of them; but without the affectation of a new opinion, I honestly think the large pictures of Chiron, and Achilles,21 and the other large pictures, which are the most talked of, are the least valuable: perhaps they might appear so much inferior to the rest, as they are brought nearer to the eye, than the painter intended they should be, which makes the inaccuracies of them so striking: but as you well know that these were but paintings upon the walls in a village, and were to be considered in no other light than as ornaments contributing to the coup d'oeil,22of a room, so there is no danger that the works of the ancient painters (which were always portable, and on wood) will suffer in the least from any objections these may be open to.

I shall say but little of the ruins of Baia,23 the fine views, taking in Ischia, Caprea, Pausilippo, Vesuvius, &c. the Appian way,24 and the ruins of palaces, seen under and above the water, and the fine temples of Mercury,25 &c. on the sides, and the mount Falernum, and the other mountains which enclose the lake Avernus.26 I have on the sides of the lake, made a sketch, which takes in the temple of Apollo, (as they call it) the lake and the Cumean Sybil's grotto.27 This grotto is a most dreadful place, being regularly hewn through the rock into the bowels of the great mountain, God knows how far; through small passages on the sides you go into chambers, out of which there are other passages, some choaked28 up with earth, others filled with water; but on throwing in stones, the disturbed waters gulp, and rebellow, from one recess to another, seemingly without any end to it; and supposing these passages to have gone, in the direction they seem to have, but a very little way farther, one must unavoidably come into the sulphurous fumes and hell-like stufas of Nero,29 in which I have almost sweated to death; they are in the mountain, next door to this Sybil's cave. I must confess, I was struck with this notion on the spot, that art and nature could never have united in forming a more proper theatre than this must have been to act Virgil's hell in; and it is not impossible but the ancient priests and priestesses might have been inclined to juglingjuggling; but deep learned points are not what I shall allow to myself, as I can be more affirmative when I speak of the two beautiful temples in the bottom of the bay of Baia, one circular, open at the top,30 and in every respect like the pantheon. It is sunk in water and earth almost up to the cornice from which the dome springs. There is also another ruin hard by, in which is a room called the chamber of Venus.31 I will insist upon it, and no one shall contradict me, that the English will be the most glorious people in the world, if they introduce this manner of stuccoing32 and ornamenting their ceilings. Ornaments, light and few, and basso-relievos,33 in the highest parts not more raised than about an inch, designed by elegance itself; the highest moulding of the panels not appearing to exceed half an inch, nothing cut in. In short this room is the standard of ceilings. I am no longer for painted ceilings of any kind. There is also at Rome, in the vineyard, where is the Minerva Medica, an ancient sepulchre,34 stuccoed in the same taste, but inferior. Mr. Hamilton, our ambassador at Naples,35 said he would have what remained of this ceiling of Venus moulded of, as some villains are every day demolishing and running away with pieces of it.

At the Capo de Monte at Naples,36 is the finest collection of pictures, gems, medals, and vases I ever saw together. Corregio37 shews himself here to the greatest advantage; his large figures of God, Angels, &c. and other works of his, are full of that fine spirit and enthusiasm, which can hardly be too much admired. Here are also the best Parmegianos I have seen,38 fine pictures of Annibal Carrache,39 imitations of the Venetian and Parmesan styles, and a sweet picture of Diana and Acteon, in his own manner, but coloured with more foga than he in general has.40 Some good pictures of Bassan;41 the best picture I have seen of Julio Romano,42 it is in oil, the subject allegorical and larger than life. Drawings of Raffael, Corregio, Julio Romano, &c. and a picture of the Last Judgement of Michael Angelo, the figures about nine inches high. It is said to be of his own hand; and is highly and nobly finished. It seems in no respect inferior to the large one in the Capella Sistina,43 and appears to have been painted before it, as it is more finished in that part where the resurrection from the dead is painted. This consideration it was, that prevented me from conceiving it to be a copy by Pelegrino Tibaldi,44 who has a great deal of Michael Angelo's greatness of execution, though exceedingly inferior to him in the enthusiasm of his conceptions. Here is, you know, that glorious monument of Titian's ability, the Danae,45 the wonderful fine cameo of the rape of Ganymede, either a copy of Michael Angelo's rape of Ganymede, or he copied this, but the former is the truth. I should never have done, were I to run out upon the vases, intaglios,46 cameos, &c. of this collection.

Now I have made an end of my tour to Naples, I will let you into the occasion of my going there so precipitately as I did. I mentioned to you in my former letter a very ingenious artist, Mr. Runciman, who went to Naples for the recovery of his health.47 One day as his brother, some other artists, and I, were at dinner, there came to the brother two letters, desiring him to come directly to Naples, as Mr. Runciman was not expected to live two days; the brother applied to two or three different people for their company on this occasion, but they excused themselves. He spoke to me, and as I had a great value for the abilities of Mr. Runciman at Naples, and a friendship for both of them, I could never think of letting him go by himself on this melancholy occasion, as I feared something still worse might happen. We were joined after we had engaged our chaise, by two others. On our arrival we found that poor Runciman was dead and buried, and so had nothing to do but run about to see the things, and return back as soon as possible: though the journey was something expensive, yet as it was necessary to see what was there, you will I hope excuse it.

Now I am in the mood for it, I will finish the disagreeable account of my situation here, that I began in my last letter. About a fortnight after my quarrel with Byres the antiquary,48 Sir Watkin Wynn49 and other gentlemen came back from Naples, and as I was one day at work in the Borghese,50 they all came in with Byres; after they had seen the other pictures in the room, they came to where I was at work; I removed my picture, and went to another part of the room, to give them an opportunity of seeing the original. When they had done, Byres, with an officious politeness, would have replaced my picture, which I would not suffer, and did it myself. I went to work, the gentlemen and he behind me. My not discovering any resentment to him at this time, was what I believe encouraged him to bestow large praises upon what I was about, which Titian himself could hardly deserve: to which I answered in nothing but a forced smile, and shaking of the head: he told Sir Watkin that I was the gentleman at whose house he had been four times without seeing me. I wanted to say something, but found my spirits too much agitated, for either reason or reflection to take place in what I should say; I therefore remained quite silent, when silent; when I went home to dinner I wrote a note to Sir Watkin, which I have kept the following copy of.

' Sir, I am extremely sorry, that you should have had the trouble of coming so often to my house, when I was not at home; but it was occasioned by your antiquary's not chusingchoosing to remember his promise of advertising me of it beforehand. As there is nothing I should be more proud of, than having the honour of yours, and other gentlemen's opinion of the little things I am about, if you will excuse my taking the liberty to ask you to come once more, and also to be so kind as to favour me so far, as to send me notice beforehand, either to the palace Borghese, where I am at work, to the English Coffee-house,51 or to my own lodgings, you will exceedingly oblige, Sir, your most obedient humble servant.

J.B. James Barry.

' P. S. I shall take it as a particular favour, if you will come without the Antiquary.'

This note I sent to Sir Watkin, but I never heard any more about it but this, that he said he would never think about me, as he heard I was a troublesome fellow, who made a great disturbance in the place. The person who told me this, said he wondered how I could think of any thing but this from Sir Watkin, as I must have known that he was in the hands of Byres, Hewetson, Forrester, Delane, &c.52 who had every opportunity to put things in such light as would best answer their own schemes. I said I knew all this before I wrote the note, but that as Sir Watkin had no other real knowledge of me than what the note afforded, I had a notion that he would have proceeded (as anybody else would have done) and not troubled himself with what any side or party might say of the other, unless he resolved at the same time to hear what might be answered to it. Here things have rested, and of all the lords and people of consequence, who have been here for near three years that I have been in Rome, I have seen nobody but Mr. Hamilton the envoy, and lord Fitzwilliam, and Mr.Croft, whom Mr.Hamilton sent here.53 You may assure yourself that I have made the most of my time and have laboured to some little purpose; and my vanity will offer you the proof of my assertion, by the great pains great people have been at to hide me, even when they knew how perilous the attempt might be to their characters. I dare say they did not set out with the intention of going so far, but the opposition I made to one account of knavery and injustice, put them to the necessity of following it by others.

I am greatly distressed on the account of Doctor Sleigh, I wrote Sleigh. I wrote two letters since my arrival in Rome, and have never heard a word from him.54 It would give me real concern if he should entertain any bad opinion of me. If there is any of your family who will write soon to him, let them present my warmest love and respects. Mr. William made me happy in writing to me when I was at Paris.55 As to Mr. Richard,56 he has never half an hour to throw away upon the comforting of me in my banishment. Mr. Boyer57 is in Rome, and desires me to present his best compliments to him. God bless the doctor and Mrs.Burke58 and you all. My best respects to Mr. Nugent and Mr. Netterville,59 and my old friends, English, Barrett, Hamilton,60 &c.

Though I am not over and above pleased with the founding of an academy in England,61 yet a fine collection of gessos or casts of the antique, and the medals, sulphurs, books, &c. they intend accumulating, will be an acquisition of the greatest value to the public.62 For my own part, I should die of chagrin and melancholy in any place where there is not this, as my thoughts day and night run on nothing else but the antique. I am happy to find Mr. Reynolds is at the head of this academy:63 from his known public spirit and warm desire of raising up art amongst us (which exerted itself so successfully in establishing the exhibition,64 to which we owe almost all the art we can boast) he will, I have no doubt, contrive this institution to be productive of all the advantages that could possibly be derived from it, and whilst it is in such hands as his, we shall have nothing to fear from those shallows and quicksands upon which the Italian and French academies have lost themselves.