In Pursuit of Fame: William Kent in Italy (1709-1719)

Wednesday 27 November 2013 18.00-19.30

In Pursuit of Fame: William Kent in Italy (1709-1719)

Cinzia Maria Sicca (Università di Pisa)


In March 2014 the Victoria and Albert Museum will host the first ever full-scale exhibition devoted to the work of William Kent whose range of talents as an artist, architect and garden designer were celebrated throughout the Hanoverian period. This lecture is meant to act as an introduction to the exhibition by focusing on the formative years that witnessed his transformation from a provincial, and marginal painter, into an artist who could claim international experience.

The foundations for Kent’s success were established in Italy, where he spent ten years in the course of which he gravitated around two major geographical areas: Rome and Naples on one hand, and the north-east (in particular Mantua and the Veneto) on the other. He arrived in Rome preceded by letters of reference from the Florentine court, and was a frequent visitor at the Palazzo di Firenze where he studied under Benedetto Luti. The move from Luti’s studio to that of Giuseppe Chiari was a crucial turning point in Kent’s Roman career as it evidently expresses the measure of his  widely acknowledged skills and possibly betrays also the support of some of the leading Roman patrons at the time (Cardinal Ottoboni, but also Clement XI’s most inner circle).

The change of master might have been dictated by a desire to learn new techniques, in particular fresco painting. Unlike Luti, whose relationship with the antique and with Raphael’s classicism was far from strong, Chiari’s painting style embodied Bellori’s notions of ideal beauty. To all intents and purposes  Chiari represented Roman modern painting and his studio was large as well as immensely successful in obtaining the major commissions, such as that for San Clemente. The favour Chiari gained amongst grand tourists is to be connected with Kent’s presence in the studio, where he evidently acted as an agent and intermediary with British patrons.

A six-month trip to the north of Italy, described in Kent’s travel diary preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and undertaken in the company of Thomas Coke, first Earl of Leicester, casts invaluable light on the shaping of Kent’s style and connoisseurship, which also benefited from frequent contact in Naples with Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury.