German and russian artists: rendezvous in Rome

Ludmila Markina

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Italy's great traditions of the past, its role as the cradle of the European civilization, its ancient monuments and architecture, friendly climate and the lifestyle of its cheerful and talented people - all that, since ancient times, have seemed appealing to all kind of travellers, philosophers, poets, men of letters and artists from around the world. Rome has become the treasure-house of unique works of art and artefacts as the landmarks of different epochs and styles. For centuries the city functioned as the Academy of Europe, the major school for students from different parts of the continent. Artists, representing different national schools and movements came to communicate with and learn from each other. In the first half of the nineteenth century there were two communities of painters - German and Russian - who could distinguish themselves from the rest; they were the most numerous, and their representatives were the most acclaimed: for example, Johann Friedrich Overbeck, Alexander Ivanov, Julius Schnoff von Carolsfeld, Karl Brullov, Peter Cornelius and Fyodor Bruni. Although Russian painters joined the world artistic process rather late, they turned out to be extremely talented, individualistic and versatile. The author of this article has been studying the history of Russian - German artistic contacts for many years. Thanks to the scholarship granted by the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome, Prof. Ludmila Markina, PhD in Arts, had a chance to work in the Eternal City for some time. She is happy to share the discoveries she made there.


Some addresses, studios and their tenants

In June 1810 Johann Friedrich Overbeck, Franz Pforr, Ludwig Fogel and Johann Konrad Hottinger, all students of the Vienna Academy, united around the idea of combating academicism to support new artistic principles of historical painting. They founded the St Lucas Brotherhood and travelled to Rome. First, they settled at the Villa Malta in Pincio1. A watercolour by Franz Ludwig Catel shows the villa. Later, in September 1810, the Brothers moved to the monastery of St Isidoro, founded in the sixteenth century by Franciscan monks. Johann Overbeck and his friends lived like monks, simply and austerely, following a daily routine: they worked in their cells all day; in the evening they came together in the refectory to show and discuss their sketches, drawings and paintings. They avoided secular entertainments, spending their leisure time in strolls or playing domestic games. If they undertook any work, it was gratuitous; for example, they painted the Stations of the Cross in the Church of St Andrea delle Fratte without taking a penny. The Brothers wore traditional German costumes of black velvet decorated with white collars of lace, with berets on their heads. Some of them carried swords. They wore their hair long a la Nazarene, like Jesus the Nazarene. Thus the brotherhood was sometimes called "the Nazarenes”. True, tall and thin Overbeck, with his long fair hair and an estranged, thoughtful look in his eyes, more closely resembled an anchorite or hermit. Later some of the Nazarenes (Cornelius, Schadow, Schnoff von Carolsfeld) returned home, while others (Overbeck and Catel) stayed in Rome until the end of their days.

Via St Isidoro, the street that runs a short way from Via Vittorio Veneto, two minutes' walk from the Church of the Capuchins and Piazza Barberini with an Irish Catholic church bearing the same name opposite it, was well known to the Russian community. Here Orest Kiprensky, the painter, lived at No.19 in 1820, at No.18 in 1821, at No. 20 in 1827 and at No. 17 in 1829. The Russian sculptor Samuil Galberg occupied No.17 in 1822. Nikolai Gogol, the famous author, rented accommodation from Giovanni Massucci's widow at No. 17 in 1837. Apollon Mokritsky and Anton Ivanov, two scholars of the Russian Emperor's Academy of Arts, lived at No.17 in 1844. Nearby, in 1823 the Brullov brothers lived at 21 Via Quirinale. The Russian painter Alexei Varnek occupied a flat at 41 Via del Babuino from 1804 to 1809.

But the most popular residential area among Russian painters was Via Felice, later renamed Via Sistina2. Via Felice was a kind of Montmartre for Russian artists who displayed their pictures in their studios before sending them to clients. Nikolai Gogol, who lived at No. 126 (across the street from painter Alexei Markov at No. 22) must have found such a neighbourhood very convenient to be au courant with the latest trends in art. Moreover, Via Sistina was full of art and antique shops.

Among Gogol's neighbours was Fyodor Iordan, a distinguished engraver, who occupied premises at No.104. Curiously, Hans Christian Andersen, the famous Danish story-teller, had lived in the same house earlier, in 1833-1834: today a memorial tablet attests to this fact. Fyodor Moller a Russian painter, lived at No.43. It was common for them, including Alexander Ivanov, to get together for a cup of tea and to speak about art. Pavel Krivtsov, a member of the Russian diplomatic mission and the official supervisor of the Russian artistic community in Rome, more than once came up with the idea of buying a house for the painters. Unfortunately, Prince Pyotr Volkonsky, in his letter of 14 December 1842 dismissed the initiative by citing Emperor Nikolai I, who wrote: "let us order... the purchase of premises for the ailing painters, for exhibition of works of art and other purposes to be held over."3

In 1832, Johann Friedrich Overbeck, who, in the 1830s-1840s, was considered an outstanding representative of "purism" in Rome, was living, according to Gogol, in Palazzo Cenci, inside the Jewish ghetto. Known for an habitually modest lifestyle, Overbeck, after the death of his 22-year-old son Alfonso, sought seclusion, but his cloister was, from time to time, broken by visits of distinguished guests. Vasily Zhukovsky, the famous Russian poet and the mentor to the Great Prince Alexander, came to see the German master during His Highness's stay in Rome (4 December 1838 to 1 February 1839). Indeed, with his address mentioned in the guidebooks, a visit to Overbeck's studio was considered a "must" by even less high-ranking tourists. Nikolai Gogol accompanied Russian travellers to the German painters. Alexandra Smirnov-Rosset, Maid of Honour to Empress Alexandra, the patroness of the painter Alexander Ivanov and a highly respected gentlewoman, who arrived in Rome early in 1843, was following the itinerary Gogol devised for her. Besides other places of interest, it included visiting painters' studios. The first "stop on the Roman tour" was described as "Overbeck piazza Cenci, palazzo Cenci". Alexander Ivanov was known to be an admirer of the German anchorite. In his letter of October 1840 addressed to his father in St Petersburg, Ivanov called Overbeck "my prophet, my sole adviser, an artist and a poet in Christ". In contrast, Gogol's attitude to Overbeck was not so pathetic. In his memoirs Pavel Annenkov, an author and Gogol's close friend, mentioned the following episode: "Once, after an evening spent in the company of an acquaintance of painter Overbeck's, who had been talking about the master's attempts to revive the sim plicity, clarity, modesty and pious contemplation typical of painters before Raphael, we were going home and I was very much surprised to hear Gogol, who seemed to have listened to the story very eagerly and attentively, note broodingly: "Such an idea could only come to mind of a German formalist."4

Similarly, Fyodor Tolstoy, the Russian artist and Vice-President of the Academy of Fine Arts, who had been sent to Rome on a mission of inspection of the Russian community of artists, made the following sarcastic observation in December 1845: "It was some time after one o'clock in the afternoon when we set for Overbeck's studio, who is known as a purist painter, playing here, especially among the Germans, - God knows why, - an important role. But after my seeing his "Deposition from the Cross" exhibited here, which is said to be his best work, I could not help being sorry about him and his admirers. His studio is open every Sunday from noon till two. From time to time visitors have a chance to see the painter himself, usually wearing a cherry-red kazakin of the Middle-ages cut and a beret. Today he was seen coming to a tailor's shop. In a minute, the fool was leaving it wearing a white sheep tulup, loosely belted, with a cherry-red crimson big beret on his head. With his long German face, terribly skinny, and his body like dough, he should look like hog in armour in such a beret and a Middle-ages-styled dress. To his Georgian-like phiz a calotte would become much better, especially a red one, the more so that he is said to be aiming to become a cardinal. I don't think it was without a back-thought of the kind that he changed his religion and converted to Catholicism. He has a surprisingly Jesuit-like physiognomy, so the pride inside must be terribly high. Our painter Ivanov believes in him...It would be a pity if Ivanov really got keen on him while being thousands times better than Overbeck at everything - drawing or painting, Overbeck's painting being nothing at all."5

The acid-tongued tone of the above remarks matches the caricature made by Karl Brullov: "German Students (the Nazarenes)".


Lepre’s, Greco’s and Other Places

The Russian painters, who had moved from cold St. Petersburg and the Emperor's Academy classes, where strict rules and boring routine reigned, to the warm relaxed atmosphere of a southern city with practically no supervision, enjoyed their unusual freedom spending time in indolence and doing nothing. Their stipend, modest as it was, allowed the young people to bask in the sun while Rome offered a variety of diversions. Nikolai Gogol wrote to his close friend Alexander Danilevsky in his letter of 13 May 1838: "What Russian pittores are doing here you know from your own experience. By twelve and two o'clock they are at Lepre's, then in the Grek's caffe, then in Monte Pinci, apres ca the Bongout, after that Lepre's again and the billiards to follow."6

An American traveler, V.M. Gillespi, described the best Roman trattorias of the time: Bertini's in Corso, the Falcone near the Pantheon, the Gabbione close to the Trevi Fountain, famous for their beef steaks. As for the Russians, they gathered at Lepre's in Via Condotti.7 One of the attractions was an old waiter, Orilia, who was said to have been in Moscow with Napoleon's army: "To the dinner table Orilia used to bring a menu of five hundred dishes, although, actually, one could order no more than a hundred", wrote the American traveller. It is known that Gogol frequented Lepre's. According to Pavel Annenkov, he was so fastidious in his tastes that he often asked the waiter to change any dish that he did not find to his liking. The writer's friend, the Russian engraver Fyodor Iordan remembered that at Lepre's you could meet "people from all parts of the world; at every other table another language was being spoken, of which Russian reigned over the rest, outmatching them in the noise of loud arguments". Because Lepre's was the cheapest and most democratic trattoria, with one of the best cuisines in Rome, it became a kind of club for Russian painters. There they could listen to articles from the Russian press read aloud. Alexander Ivanov wrote to his father that the painters in Rome had raised a sum of money to subscribe to Russian newspapers and magazines in order to keep abreast of events at home. Discussing Russia's politics and cultural news naturally led to talk of life in Italy, particularly gossip about their colleagues. In one of his letters to Ivanov, the painter Fyodor Moller, who had to leave Rome because of a romantic love affair, requested: "If you happen to have a free minute, let me know, please, what kind of rumours about me are circulating in Rome. What do our Russian pensioners chat about me sitting at Lepre's tables? Very curious to know."8

In the same Via Condotti, opposite Lepre's, there was the famous cafe Greko9. In the nineteenth century it became a meeting place for an international artistic elite - artists, men of letters and musicians. The cafe was frequented by Johann W. Goethe, Karl Philipp Moritz and Johann H. W. Tishbein. Every day you could see the Nazarenes there. The cafe was also the international postal address for many of them. Heated discussions of art, of old masters and contemporary ones helped to refine their aesthetic tastes and to find new ideas to be incarnated in their future work. "Soon after my arrival in Rome”, - remembered Karl Brullov, - "I was sitting at Greko's in the company of some German painters who were eagerly arguing that the art of completing paintings as the Dutch masters used to do had been lost. I did not agree saying that painters had stopped to complete their pictures in the same manner only because they found such completion nonessential and to prove my point of view I painted "Italian Morning".10

The watercolour "Cafe Greko" by Ludwig Johann Passini gives some idea of what the cafe looked like in the midnineteenth century. The Russian community, like their German colleagues, used Greko's as their official address. "All letters came there”, - remembered Fyodor Iordan, - "and the darling box was on the shelf behind the counterman whose responsibility was to pour coffee and pass the box on request. There were all the letters from abroad and every painter would look them through. That box was full of either joy or inconsolable grief if somebody dear to heart back at home was reported dead."11

The letter box is still being kept as a relic by the today's owners of the cafe (see the photo taken by the author of the article).



Many German and Russian artists were destined to die and be buried in the Eternal City. Those who converted to the Catholic Church were buried in various cathedrals and churches in Rome. The Lutherans and Orthodox found their final resting place in the Testaccio Cemetery, on the outskirts of the city.12

In Jakob Wilhelm Mechau's "The Pyramid of Cestius" there can be seen, beside the Pyramid, St Paul's gates and part of the Aurelius wall of the late third century AD, which used to be the boundary of the ancient city. Many artists have painted the Testaccio Cemetery. The Russian Fyodor Bruni has at least one scene with the tomb of Adjutant General K. Merder. The first grave, according to historians, dates from 4 August 1732.

The eastern part of the cemetery, adjoining the Pyramid, is called the Ancient Site. There are only two Russian graves - Wilhelm Grooth and Duchess A. Chernyshev. As for the German community, it is here that Carl Philipp Fohr, who drowned in the Tiber, is buried. In August 1822, by order of Cardinal Consalvi, the Ancient Site was closed. From that time the western part was used as a burial ground. It was named the Old Zone.13 Here you can find other German graves: August, the only son of Goethe, and August Kestner, the Ambassador of Hanover, a great art collector and patron of the Nazarenes (see the photo by the author of the article).

Of the Russian graves the tomb of Karl Brullov, designed by the architect Mikhail Shurupov is of particular interest. That there are no Christian symbols on the tomb can apparently be explained by the Papal veto that existed until 1870: a special Papal Committee strictly enforced the dogma "Extra Ecclessiam, nulla salus", that is "there is no salvation outside the Church" (meaning the Catholic Church - LM). To be fair, one should note that there are non-Catholic crosses on some tombs, such as the Greek cross engraved on the tomb of the painter Vasily Shterenberg (died 08.1 1.1845) (see the photo by the author of the article).

In conclusion, the profound words of Mikhail Osorgin, an emigre Russian author, seem very appropriate.

"It has seemed to me - and it still seems - to feel comfortable and proud to be lying here, far from your homeland by virtue of blood, but in the middle of what is the homeland of a great culture. Here a travelling compatriot will read your name on the marble grave-stone - will read viva voce and it will, probably, remind him or make him remember your name; later, together with the name of the cemetery, the pyramid and the strange bare hill made of ancient potsherds, another memory will flash across his mind, of an epitaph written in Russian, which is destined to stay in the Eternal City forever, because eternity is by no means a matter of convention. To belong to Rome - even by virtue of your death - has always seemed to me to be an honour."14


  1. Villa Malta was named for the Grand Master of the Maltese Order de Breteuil. In the late sixteenth century the Villa belonged to the Minorite Brotherhood, but in 1611 it came into the possession of Pope Paul V. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Villa was rented to travellers coming to stay in Rome. Besides others, Amalia von Braunschweig, I.Herder and Wilhelm and Carolina Humboldt are known to have stayed there.
  2. The street was named after Pope Sixtus V, baptized Felice, who built the street in 1 585. To have the street populated rapidly, Sixtus V granted its dwellers major tax concessions. The street was 2,787 metres long. It used to run straight from the Church of Trinita dei Monti to the Cathedral of Santa Croce of Jerusalem. It was not until 1870 that this part of the city became built-up, so from that place one would have been able to enjoy wonderful scenery. Close to Trinita dei Monti, famous for "Madonna" by Philipp Veit, there lived at No. 46, in different periods, Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin in the house across the street, Salvator Rosa and Giovanni Piranesi.
  3. The Russian Empire Foreign Policy Archives in Moscow. Re: for details see the corresponding note in Russian
  4. Pavel Annenkov. N.Gogol v Rime letom 1841 goda (Nikolai Gogol in Rome in the Summer of 1841) In:"Gogol v vospominaniyah sovremennikov" („Gogol in the Memoirs of His Contemporaries"), Moscow, 1952, p. 276.
  5. Fyodor Tolstoy’s traveller’s notes and diaries. The voyage to Italy and the trip back to Russia through Austria and Poland. 1845-1846. Manuscripts in the Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Acknowlegement to Olga Allenov.
  6. Nikolai Gogol. Complete Works in 14 volumes. Moscow-Leningrad, 1937-1952. Vol. 11, p. 121.
  7. The Coat of Armour of Marquis Carlo Lepri, once the owner of the house where the famous trattoria was located in the yard, included the image of a hare which led foreign travellers to adopt the nickname: ‘lepre’ is Italian for ‘hare’.
  8. Lyudmila Markina. Zhivopisets Fyodor Moeller (Painter Fyodor Moeller). Moscow, 2002, p. 32.
  9. The cafe got its name from its proprietor, Nicola della Maddalena, an ethnic Greek. According to some sources, the cafe in Strada Condotti was there as early as the eighteenth century. Giacomo Casanova, the notorious adventurer, is said to have come there in 1 742.
  10. K.PBrullov v pismakh, dokumentakh i vospominaniyakh sovremennikov. (Karl Brullov in Letters, Documents and Memoirs of His Contemporaries). Moscow, 1952, p. 49.
  11. Fyodor Iordan. Zapiski rektora i professora Akademii Khudozhestv F.I.Iordana. (Notes by Warden and Professor of the Academy of Fine Arts Fyodor Iordan) Moscow, 1918, p. 149.
  12. The area was named after the artificial hill (about 52 metres high) called Monte Testaccio. According to archeologists, the hill was made of a huge number of broken amphoras used by ancient Romans for the transportation of oil and wine. The word "testaccio" means "a mount of tiles or pots". The major attrac­tion of the area has always been the antique pyramid built in 12 BC and used as the family vault of Tribune Gaius Cestius. In the Middle Ages the Pyramid was thought to be Romulus’s tomb.
  13. Malizia G. Testaccio. Roma, 1996. Beck-Friis J. Der Protestantische Friedhof in Rom. Friedhof der Dichter, Denker und Kunstler. Malmo, 1993. Vanda Gasperovich, M.Katin-Yartsev, M.Talalai, AShumkov. Testachio. Necatolicheskoye kladbische dlya inostrantsev. Alfavitny spisok russkikh zakhoroneny (Testaccio. Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners. A List of Russian Graves in the Alphabetic Order.) St Petersburg, 2000.
  14. Mikhail Osorgin. Pippo. Peresvet. Book 1, 1921, p. 62-63.





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