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RISD museum opens an exhibition of beautiful and rarely seen prints and books
Giuseppe Vasi, printmaker, After Giuseppe Palazzi, draftsman, After Paolo Posi, architect, Seconda macchina, 1762: A Casino of Delight in the Sumptuous Ottoman Style, 1762. Collection of Vincent J. Buonanno. Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI.

PROVIDENCE, RI.- The Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design announces an exhibition of beautiful and rarely seen prints and books that provide a glimpse into the extravagant and awe-inspiring festivals of early modern Europe. The Festive City, drawn from the collections of the RISD Museum, the John Hay Library at Brown University, and collector Vincent J. Buonanno, opens on Friday, December 21, 2012 and is on view through Sunday, July 14, 2013.

In early modern Europe (ca. 1500-ca. 1800), the papal court, sovereign powers, civic governments, and high aristocracy sponsored elaborate festivals for special occasions such as saint’s days, coronations, and royal marriages. With their magnificent presentations of ephemeral architecture and explosions of fireworks, festivals entertained and amazed their audiences. Printmakers desired the same reaction from their festival books and prints, which publicized these major events for an international audience. In this new exhibition, the RISD Museum brings together about 60 of these intricately illustrated prints and books, among our only traces of these staggeringly expensive but fleeting events.

“The exhibition began as a discussion about early modern festival prints between one of our curators, Emily Peters, and Vincent Buonanno—a native of Providence whose collection of prints recording the Chinea! festival in 18th-century Rome is one of the most complete in the world,” says Museum Director John W. Smith. “Emily’s research on the topic and shared interests with Vincent and Evelyn Lincoln at Brown evolved into a rich collaboration.”

Peters, the Museum’s Associate Curator for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, and Lincoln, Associate Professor of History of Art and Architecture and Italian Studies at Brown University, worked with students in a Brown seminar last spring and summer to develop the exhibition themes and select works. The resulting exhibition includes not only the Chinea prints and other single leaf prints, but also numerous books with stunning, foldout plates from Brown University’s John Hay Library, which holds the remarkable Anne S. K. Brown Military collection of illustrated books.

In the books and prints, we see that festivals—well-funded by the ruling classes employed artists, designers, and other specialists in cities such as Paris, Antwerp, and Rome. Temporary triumphal arches, classicizing theaters, and elaborate building illuminations characterized the most lavish festivals, and religious or state processions through city streets on dedicated routes represented almost every sector of society.

“The public enactment of systems of belief was important during this period, as was public celebration,” says Peters. She explains that festivals were a means of building community while also persuading their audience of the ingenuity or largesse of the sponsor.

The efforts of printmakers to represent the size and scale of the festivals—by printing on multiple copperplates and pasting together several sheets of paper to create enormous, foldout images—is matched by their ingenious solutions to the technical problems of depicting nighttime fireworks displays and vast crowds over expansive cityscapes. On view are deluxe, hand-painted editions, probably intended for the library of an aristocrat, as well as single-leaf prints made quickly to document important political events.

Sustained by the centralized power of absolutist regimes, festival culture reached its zenith in the 18th century, when fireworks emerged as the most spectacular means of celebration and theater—providing pleasurable but fearful viewing experiences described by audiences as wondrous and magnificent. Many of the prints in the exhibition feature ephemeral temples or pleasure palaces constructed specifically as launch pads for fireworks. Most, such as those made for the Chinea festival in Rome, burned to the ground as hundreds of fireworks blasted from their wood and canvas frames. The prints record the fleeting inventions of the many artists who contributed to the design, construction, and decoration of these set pieces for several months preceding the event.

As fireworks blasted fire, fumes, and noise throughout the city’s public spaces, musicians played music composed specially for the occasion. “Festivals engaged all of the senses and placed emphasis on communal pleasure, but also invited bouts of mayhem,” says Peters. Organizers provided free food and drink to the public on special festival days, often involving the populace in ritualized games to obtain it. Some festivals, such as carnival, included bullfights or other “blood sports,” creating opportunities to view and participate in both choreographed and unchoreographed violence. Printmakers captured both the celebratory and more disorderly aspects of festivals in prints that document, but also dramatize, these real events.

Just as reminders of these extravagant early modern festivals can be seen in contemporary rituals—royal weddings, state funerals, ceremonial diplomatic visits, and even personal celebrations—the attention once lavished on festival books and prints is echoed in our efforts to document modern events through news stories, photographs, and social media. The important works on view in The Festive City represent the pinnacle of printmaking ingenuity and collaborative artistic production in European cities, and pay tribute to the creative inventions of artists whose works were almost exclusively ephemeral.

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