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Art in Slovenia


Franc Kavčič/Caucig

(Gorizia, 1755 – Vienna, 1828)

Landscape with Nymphaeum of Domitian’s Villa
(before 1810), oil, canvas, 108,5 x 105 cm

NG S 3350, National Gallery of Slovenia, Ljubljana
Kavčič painted twelve pictures for three halls in the Palais Auersperg in Vienna that are today known as the Idomeneo Hall, the Imperial Hall and the Crown Prince Rudolf Hall. Four paintings were installed in each hall: in frames above the doors (as sopraporte) or above mirrors at the same height. Landscape with Nymphaeum of Domitian’s Villa is one of these paintings. 
The fact that Kavčič’s paintings were genuinely painted from memory, with the help of drawings made in Rome, while also greatly aided by the study and imitation of the great masters of the past and the combination of his own imagination and skill, is perfectly demonstrated by this particular painting. 
The collection of the Fondazione Palazzo Coronini Cronberg in Gorizia includes a drawing of a water deity (see Ksenija Rozman, Franc Kavčič/Caucig, Paintings for Palais Auersperg in Vienna, National Gallery, 24 October 2007–10 February 2008 [exhibition catalogue], Ljubljana 2007, p. 91). 
As is the case with the majority of his drawings, Kavčič drew on the back of this one, sketching a design and adding a caption explaining what it represented: Nymphaeum of Domitian’s Villa at Castel Gandolfo (Ninfeo della Villa di Domiziano presso Castel Gandolfo). While visiting Castel Gandolfo, he also devoted his attention to other subjects, some of which are preserved in his drawings. Thanks to its beautiful setting on a hill above Lake Albano and its many ancient sights of interest, Castel Gandolfo was popular with Winckelmann, Goethe, Angelica Kauffmann and, later, Stendhal, Gregorovius and others. The Roman emperor Domitian (born AD 51, assassinated AD 96) built a large villa on a site that today forms part of the grounds of the present-day Apostolic Palace, the pontifical summer residence. The remains of the villa include four nymphaea (grottos dedicated to nymphs), a theatre, baths, terraces and statues. 
The focus of the narrative is in the foreground of the painting: in the centre of the scene, two youths dressed in the style of antiquity, one seated on the overturned capital of a column, are conversing. They are illuminated by sunlight, as are the ancient herm (the squared pillar topped by a carved head) on the right of the picture and the landscape in the background. Behind them, sunk in mysterious darkness, a water god lies on a stone pedestal. In his left hand, he holds a sceptre. His right arm rests on an urn, through which water is flowing into a damaged stone trough. The trough has something of the appearance of an ancient sarcophagus. The god’s right arm cradles a horn of plenty. The left-hand side of the picture is dominated by a mighty tree, while in the background stand overgrown ruins with a round arch, through which the sunny sky and the outline of distant hills can be seen. 
According to Kavčič’s drawing and other depictions of this nymphaeum – there were several in the grounds of Domitian’s villa – the water god was seated in front of two overgrown arches of different heights and the water flowed directly from the urn onto the ground. 
The painting reveals a number of differences with respect to Kavčič’s original drawing of the nymphaeum. The artist has used his imagination to add the water trough and the overturned capital on which one of the youths is seated and depicts just one of the arches of the nymphaeum, opening it at the back with the addition of a window. The herm on the right is another addition. In the opinion of Professor Paolo Liverani, an expert on classical antiquity, the nymphaeum depicted in the painting could correspond to the nymphaeum at the far end of the eastern terrace, which lies at an intermediate level at the end of the avenue of trees running towards the central building of the imperial villa. There were also several water gods in the grounds of Domitian’s villa. It has been suggested that the god in the painting is the one currently located in the Cortile della Pigna in the Vatican Museums, to which alterations are believed to have been made in a later period. 

Quoted from: Ksenija Rozman, Franc Kavčič/Caucig, Paintings for Palais Auersperg in Vienna, National Gallery, 24 October 2007–10 February 2008 [exhibition catalogue], Ljubljana 2007, pp. 33, 60–61.

Franc Kavčič/Caucig was an important representative of European Neo-classicist painting. Even though he depicted stories from Greco-Roman antiquity, his ethical message is fully contemporary and mirrors the time of great social changes. 

In the 1780s, Kavčič was trained in Rome where he drew also at the French Academy at the time of the second sojourn of Jacques Louis David in the Eternal City, and when Angelika Kauffmann occupied the former residence of Anton Raphael Mengs. After more than twenty years of professorship at the Vienna art academy, Kavčič was appointed director of its painting and sculpture school. He also led the painting department of the Viennese porcelain factory, and towards the end of his life he became an honorary member of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome. Several of his compositions thus appeared on the products of the imperial porcelain works. 

His paintings are characteristic for their compositional monumentality and clarity, impeccable modelling by means of sharp drawing, thin polished paintlayers, underlined role of female protagonists in his scenes, and academic reserve. He relied for his motifs on the rich treasury of classical history and mythology as well as biblical stories. The Old-Testament Judgement of Solomon as a narrative of the ruler’s wisdom was thus a very suitable subject matter for the prestigious commission from Emperor Francis I. As to literary sources, Kavčič was inspired by the Idylls of Salomon Gessner. The painter’s landscapes are of the Arcadian type, they are ideal and thoughtfully composed in accord with classical rules and his travel memories. They contain architectural vestiges of the glorious past and are animated by means of tiny pastoral scenes. 

The painting output by Kavčič had some influence on his numerous Viennese students in the first half of the 19th century, while in the history of art he also left trace by taking part in the intense polemics with the members of the Brotherhood of St Luke, when he defended the then already conservative ideas.