Letter from JAMES BARRY to EDMUND BURKE, written July 1767 , at Rome

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 97-101.

Fryer gives no date for this letter from Rome; Barry’s reference to 'disputes' and 'bickering' with his fellows in Rome, mentioned earlier in his letter of 23 May, to the political climate in England, and to his hopes that Burke's brother Richard Burke (1733-94) was making a good recovery from a broken leg suggest he was writing in about July. For the first time he mentions that his lodgings in Rome are near the Villa Medici, close to the Borghese gardens.

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Dear Sirs,1

We subscribe for the newspapers here, so that once a week, as changes were talked of, I had long since hopes of hearing something agreeable.2 Though I do not wish to give you often the trouble of writing, yet I should be glad to hear that all the family are well, that Mr. Richard is well recovered, and whatever else you please. I have more than once suspected that your silence was owing to your disapprobation of my conduct in having any disputes with the people here; but it was a thing, that, though I never sought for, I could not well have avoided, as I was at that time ignorant of the kind of conduct necessary for this place; but our bickerings have subsided a good while, and we live together very agreeably, and are likely to continue so.

I found upon a little consideration, that any copies after Raffael in the Vatican,3 would have answered no purpose to you, as the whole composition of any pictures would be too large, and any particular part and group would come indifferently enough by itself, deprived of its relation to the other parts and story of the pictures. There are single figures of the virtues, &c. painted in many parts of the stanzas,4 but I believe you would as little relish copies of them as I should the being employed about them: the only thing, that I could discover, where I believe we shall be both satisfied, is the history of Cupid and Psyche,5 which is painted in the angles, (or compartments) of the little Farnese. There are a good many of them, consisting of two, three, or four figures each, and designed in the highest gusto6 of Raffael. You will see prints of them at Mr. Reynolds's.7 The figures are as large as life; but I mean to copy them nearly in the Poussin size,8 as the more convenient for you. As I am thoroughly satisfied of the entire superiority of about seven or eight antique9 statues, I thought studying those a little would enable me to succeed in copying Raffael. Accordingly I have obtained a licence for six months, and have been at work in the Capitol10 after the statues for some time past, and I shall be ready to go to the little Farnese about the latter end of February next, please God. There are also some things in the Capella Sistina,11 which will answer our purpose. I confess I have a difficulty more than ordinary in studying here, as my stay is not a little expensive to you.12 I shall after three or four months spent on the antique, endeavour to contrive it so, as that what I shall do may answer the end of pictures for you, whilst they will be studies to me, as I do not find much relish for any thing here except the antique, Raffael, and Michael Angelo. About three years will complete what I mean to do. I have hitherto waved speaking out my whole opinion about Michael Angelo and Raffael, for a reason which should still incline me to be silent — they so often come near perfection, and so often depart from it in the same particulars, that I believe it impossible almost to draw up a general character of them,—I mean in those particulars where we may set up the antique as the standard. I see in no part of Raffael's works, any figure that I may call truly and correctly beautiful, like the Antinous13 or the Venus de Medicis;14 or any that is truly grand, like the bust of the Alexander; 15or sublime like the Apollo:16 as to the Torso17, the Laocoon,18 and such like characters, he appears not at all qualified to succeed in them. The Angles19 which I shall copy at the little Farnese, appear to be the utmost stretch of his capacity in point of beauty and character; and upon a comparison with similar figures and characters of the antique, those of Raffael seem to be much wanting in a correct idea of the detail, and in an equality of proportion and correctness in the same figures. As to his cartoons, and his pictures in the Vatican, they may be more expressive of the passions, and may be more correct in a mediocrity of character—a little more than that, which comes into any of these works, or even into his Transfiguration.20 In short, there is neither figure nor character in Raffael which is standard in its way. Michael Angelo appears still less near the standard than Raffael; the few pictures that remain of him, and certain severities of manner, as well as a choice of subject, in some measure out of the way of beauty, make one inclined to rate him not so highly as he ought. He is infinitely above Raffael in point of knowledge and correctness, yet his ostentation and shew of this, and Raffael's art of concealing, with choice of subject and pleasing well wrought draperies, his want of it, bring them nearly to a level, at least with the bulk of mankind—yet I rather believe fewer people have attained Michael Angelo's merits than Raffael's, though no one has come near Raffael upon the whole. Michael Angelo's Moses21 and many other things of his, are rather extravagant, though accompanied with such proofs of knowledge and capacity as will for ever make his name sacred among artists. Now, I have prevailed with myself to say almost all the ill that may be said of those two fathers of painting, you will, I hope, do me the justice to remember, that I have the highest and justest sense of the beauty, elegance, and propriety of Raffael; though I believe them rather, perhaps, diffused amongst his works, than to be found in any particular one; and I hope to give you some, though a faint idea of Michael Angelo's grandeur, knowledge, and even elegance and beauty in some of his figures and stories in the compartments of the ceiling of the Systine Chapel.

There is a great bustle here at fitting up of palaces and preparing operas against the coming of the Emperor,22 which will be in the latter end of the year. He is to lodge, it is said, at the Villa Medici,23 just near my quarters, so that I shall have an opportunity of spinning out a letter or two with a description of his person.

There was a very melancholy accident happened here two days ago. The daughter of one D'Auprat, (a wine merchant in the place D'Espagne,24 and well known to all the English who come here,) really a very fine girl, as to her person, and still more remarkable for her knowledge and practice in drawing, music, and languages, living and dead.—This girl was in love with a person whose affairs some time since obliged him to leave Rome. The father, in order to wean his daughter from a match he did not approve of, forged a letter, giving an account of the marriage of his daughter's lover. Shortly after which the daughter took the first opportunity of stealing out and throwing herself into the Tyber.25 Whilst she was in the water some people reached out things by which she might have saved herself, but she refused all assistance, and with a melancholy firmness plunged out into the depths of the river. Amongst the various reasonings here on this unhappy accident, some ascribe it to a contagion she might get from the English,26 who used to lodge at her father's; but the generality believe it was occasioned by her reading books, and making those compacts with the devil, which is usual with such as are deep learned. Since as much learning and knowledge is in your family, as there is good nature, if it be proportioned with its quantity of diabolical influence, Dr. Nugent27 and three or four more of the family are very deep in it. You will please to remember me to them all, to Mr. Macleane,28 Mr. Reynolds, Mr. Barrett,29 and Messrs. Hamilton,30 English,31 and whoever else you please.