Letter from JAMES BARRY to EDMUND BURKE, written 8 April 1769, at Rome

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 158-64

Barry's difficulties and quarrels with his friends and acquaintances in Rome continue to preoccupy him, as do his anxieties about money.

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Rome, April 8, 1769.

Dear Sirs,

Not hearing from you since my writing the two last letters (one of Jan. 6, the other since1) has given me some fears, though I really do not know what for. You, I know, will not disapprove of the part I have acted, as I sought no quarrels, but rather avoided them, borne with but too much, and in the end, only endeavoured to guard myself from some strokes that must otherwise have made a deep wound in my character; but there has been enough of this in my two former letters. At present I have finished as to my studies in colouring, &c. at least I shall think no more about it, till I arrive in England, as I have gone through three or four Titians, &c.2 Five months more spent on the antique3,Michael Angelo and Raffael,4 will fully complete all that I intend doing in Rome, and three weeks at Bologna, and a month at Venice, will be all that I shall think of until I see you. I am forming myself for a history painter;5 my studies have been so directed as to carry me as safely as I can through a little path, where, notwithstanding the great number of painters in the world, I am not likely to be jostled down by too much company; and as the prosecution of my plan depends more on the antique than it does on any thing else, so I have a particular to mention to you, which distresses me much. A general belonging to the empress of Russia,6 has had several of the great antiques moulded off, to send to Russia. Now, for about eight pounds, I can get fresh good casts of several heads, torsos, feet, &c. that would be of the last7 importance to me when I get home. For a guinea I can also get what is good of the sulphurs, of intaglios, &c.8 The particular that distresses me is about this money. Dr. Sleigh has not once wrote to me since June 1765;9 however, if I had your consent, as he proposed being of use, I would write to him to try if he would realize this sum for me, and as much more as will pay the freight to London. But this I should never have thought upon without consulting you, from whom, except what I received from your friend Mr. Macleane10 when I was at Paris, which you knew of before, I have received all the money that ever was in my possession since I left you, and for a long time before.11

My enemies, you see, so contrived it as to make my profession of no profit to me in Rome, for which I will certainly strike a balance with them, if ever they suffer me to get to England. It has been a real grief to me that I could not contribute hitherto to lighten the expenses your good nature and generosity led you into for me. I have nothing to say in my own behalf but that I shall carry myself so, both as a man and an artist, as never to bring a blush on your face on my account.

The object of my studies is rather contracting itself every day, and concentrating upon a few principal things, compositions of one, or a few figures, three or four at most, turning upon some particular of beauty, distress, or some other simple obvious thing, like what is to be seen in the antique groups, or like what is told of the Greek painters, which exactly corresponds with what we find in the statues that remain of them.12 This is what occupies my thoughts, and for which I shall leave all your great and splendid compositions to those who are better qualified, and have more genius and inclination to execute them.

There is a book just now come out of Cavalier Piranesi's which is exactly wrote in the same spirit of decrying the Greeks as his Magnificenza, published some years ago;13 in this magnificence of the Romans he was upon much better grounds, for there is certainly no kind of comparison between any thing that has been published by either Stewart or Le Roy,14 and what is to be seen of antiquity at Rome. But Piranesi has no where shewn that these Roman antiquities were executed by Romans, and there are more reasons than one to assure us, that the Greeks ought to come in for a large share of the credit of the works in question: but in his late work he is still more out of the way, for he sets up the Egyptian and Tuscan remains to dispute it with the Greeks: in point of antiquity and inventing the elements of art, something might be allowed him, but when he comes to talk of comparing them for intrinsic merit with Greek works, all who have seen the monuments he talks of, must smile at it. But there is something deeper than one would suppose in this scheme: the dealers play into one another's hands (see the book), and he has heaped together a great profusion of marbles of one sort or other, which he would be glad to sell; but as nobody will be ever likely to mistake them for Greek workmanship for a very obvious reason, the reviving and carrying into extremes his old prejudices against the Greeks will be still the more grateful, should it contribute to facilitate the selling of his collection,15 for which end this book is published by way of advertisement. The schemes, impositions, absurdity, and ignorance I every day see diffusing itself in the world, will, I am afraid, some time or other make an author of me; as whenever I walk abroad I find myself prying into and writing down remarks on Egyptian termes, obelisks,16 buildings, old and new statues, &c. &c.

But, to return to Piranesi, I should be glad you saw his book. The work is in Italian, and there is an English translation in the opposite columns. The Egyptian monuments that I have seen here, and which he overrates much, are two lions at the fountain near the baths of Dioclesian;17 they are little more than what sculptors call blocked out, and were certainly only fit to be seen at a distance with some piece of architecture (as a fountain or other thing) in one general view, which he says was the intention of the person who made them; but of this I am not sure, as all the Egyptian works in Rome are in the same rude unfinished way, as the four termes of granite in the capitol; the figure of the Sphynx which he mentions, on the obelisk in the Campus Martius, is indeed more finished in the part of the face; but it is in a poor, dry, and petite18 manner, very undeserving of commendation. With respect to the Egyptian termes in the capitol, there is little to be said by me in their favour, and enthusiasts for remote antiquity may talk much of their general proportions, but an intelligent observer will see the nothingness of this by only taking notice of the imitation of an Egyptian terme in the Campidoglio found in the villa Adriani,19 and probably done in his own time by some Greek (it is in white marble) but in so noble, just, and masterly a style, that nobody but a stupid enthusiast, who indeed seldom compares, as he never doubts, could have overlooked it. There are in the capitol some more of these imitations of Egyptian termes, some deities, and a bust of Adrian in black marble, and all found in the same villa of Tivoli; and were one also to compare those lions, or whatever they are, near the baths of Dioclesian, with the antique lion on the stair-case of the Barbarini palace, or even with the lion done since the cinque cento by Flamminio Vacca,20 it would be like comparing a half finished model with nature. Yet I like those Egyptian lions much better than I do any other piece of workmanship I have seen of what remains of that people. There is a good character in the head; and the turn of the head and attitude of lying down, is tolerably well kept up. I shall reserve the Tuscan for my next. We have nothing that I can hear of at Rome, which people call Tuscan workmanship, except the vases in the Vatican; I have seen them some time ago in Mr. Hamilton's book21—but on Maffei's overrating of the Tuscans,22 Piranesi's mistake about citing Greek workmanship for Tuscan, and the origin and migration of art hereafter.

With respect to Piranesi, I sincerely regard him as one of the best engravers that has ever appeared in the world, in the things he has generally employed himself about; and he will go down to posterity with deserved reputation, in spite of his Egyptian or other whimsies, and his gusto of architecture flowing out of the same cloacus23 with Borromini's,24 and other hair-brained moderns; his avarice, which stimulates him to almost every thing, would take very ill what I have been saying, so that it were better you took no notice to any body, of any of these remarks coming from me: I shall no longer have any fears, when I get amongst my friends in England: truth, love of the public, love of art and of ingenuity, wherever found, will always sway my opinions, free from national prejudice, jealousy on account of rivalship, or any other of those base motives which actuate little people—little people did I say? modesty would have found out another word, but I am writing to you, from whom I am not used to conceal the half-formed thoughts of my heart, so that I may say, that I will never be of the number of little people in this particular. I shall roll up my picture of Adam and Eve, [img] and some copies of Titian, &c. and send them off before me, but I shall advise you of this before I do it, and I should be happy if Mr. Reynolds25 took the trouble to look about a good place for the Adam and Eve in the next year's exhibition,26 but there is time enough for this, and I shall with God's help be in England myself before that time.27

I am heartily obliged to my much esteemed and dear friend Dr. Nugent,28 for his goodness in remembering me. I trust in God that I shall find him, Mrs. Burke29 and the family in good health on my arrival. I have many longings to enjoy once more those evenings of improvement to me in good nature and good humour, the remembrance of which will be ever most grateful to me. Some time ago Mr. Burke desired me to direct to him in Charles-Street St. James's-Square,30 but as I am not sure whether he received the two letters I sent him there, I take this method of reaching him.