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Giannantonio Selva in England

  • Pierre de La Ruffinière du Prey

Two hundred years ago the Venetian-born architect Giannantonio Selva (1751-1819) crossed the Channel on his one and only visit to England. He landed at Dover on 16 June 1781, and set out again for Ostend on the first of September. The most remarkable facts about his sojourn, apart from its relative brevity, are that he kept a written record of it, and that he is the only Italian architect known to have done so at that period. Moreover, Selva is one of the very few Italians to have made such a trip at any period, so his travel diary is doubly precious. By contrast, the travels of eighteenth-century student architects from Britain to Italy were so frequent as to be almost commonplace. It is true, however, that few of them kept so meticulous a diary as Selva. Its existence has been known to scholars for some time. Elena Bassi in her biography of Selva alluded to it, without having had the chance to consult it. Subsequently, it was presented by the heirs of the art critic Ugo Ojetti to the Biblioteca Querini Stampalia in Venice. Since the donation in 1954, Bassi has published excerpts, and has mentioned the English section, but only in passing. The following account of it is, therefore, the first to appear in English and the most extensive to deal with the English section. At the same time, no attempt has been made here to incorporate or translate the entire document.

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1 One thinks of the English sojourns of Alessandro Galilei (1718–19), Giovanni Battista Borra (1751–55), and Vincenzo Valdré (c. 1774–80), who like Borra worked at Stowe. These architects came looking for work in the first place and thus were not travellers in the same sense as Selva. Joseph Bonomi, of course, stayed on to establish a permanent career for himself after arriving in 1767.

2 The Italian notebooks of John Soane and Thomas Hardwick survive and have been discussed in my John Soane’s Architectural Education 1853–80 (New York, 1977) and ‘Soane and Hardwick in Rome: a Neo-Classical Partnership’, Architectural History, 15 (1972), pp. 51–67. James Adam’s travel account, though now missing, was published as ‘Journal of a Tour in Italy’, in Library of the Fine Arts, 2 (1831), pp. 167–78, 235–45; the Dance brothers’ letter book is preserved in the R.I.B.A. (DA 1/1); the Adam brothers’ correspondence is well known from John Fleming’s Robert Adam and His Circle in Edinburgh and Rome (London, 1962).

3 Since writing her book on Selva (see above), Bassi has published excerpts of Selva’s diary in: ‘Genova nel 1779’, Arte Lombarda, 10 (1965), pp. 191–96; and ‘Napoli nel 1780’, Studi in onore di Roberto Pane (Naples, 1969–71), pp. 443–55. Dottoressa Bassi kindly informs me that the full text of Selva’s diary edited by Stella Rudolph will appear in the new Florentine periodical Labyrinthos.

4 Selva diary, fols 5 recto-6 verso.

5 Selva diary, fols 31 recto-40 verso.

6 Selva diary, fols 3 verso-4 verso, 7 recto and verso, 11 recto-28 recto.

7 Selva diary, fol. 31 recto. Bassi, pp. 25–31, discusses Selva’s artistic background in Venice.

8 Selva diary, fol. 31 recto.

9 Selva diary, fol. 37 verso. Selva realized that some of the college buildings dated from medieval times and others in a Gothic revival style were of relatively recent date.

10 On fol. 35 verso of his diary, Selva compared English furniture-making adversely with work of French ébénistes.

11 Cavalli’s diplomatic career is well summarized in the Dizionario Biografico degli italiani, 22 (Rome, 1979).

12 Museo Correr, Venice, P.D. 785/0/7(6), item 11. The letter, preserved among Selva’s papers, is dated from London on 1 September 1781.

13 Archivio di Stato, Venice, Senato Secreti, dispacci Inghilterra, filza 129 and 130.

14 Selva diary, fol. 5 verso mentions Towneley, and fol. 35 verso comments on his fine collection of antiquities. Similarly, fol. 34 recto comments on William Lock’s collection.

15 Lock’s letter to Strange is British Museum, Egerton MS 2,002, fols 96–97, and is dated 27 July 1781.

16 Selva diary, fol. 5 recto.

17 Selva diary, fol. 34 verso.

18 Selva diary, fol. 35 recto.

19 Selva diary, fol. 5 verso. See on this question Frances Fergusson, ‘Wyatt Silver’, Burlington Magazine, 116 (1974), pp. 751–53. But on pp. 763–65 of the same issue, Timothy Clifford’s review article of Nicholas Goodison’s Ormolu: The Work of Matthew Boulton, points out that a number of designers other than Wyatt worked for Boulton, so it is quite possible that he was not the man Selva encountered.

20 Selva diary, fol. 5 verso.

21 See Fergusson, Frances, ‘The Neo-Classical Architecture of James Wyatt’, Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1973, 2 vols, 1, pp. 22–23; and Jonn Martin Robinson, The Wyatts: An Architectural Dynasty (Oxford, 1979), p. 58.

22 I have discussed relations among artists with special reference to Soane and Selva in ray John Soane: The Making of an Architect (Chicago, 1982), pp. 158–60, and see also p. 167 for more general remarks about a possible conspiracy of silence among leading neo-Classicists.

23 Selva diary, fol. 31 recto. He praised the proportions of the Banqueting House and its workmanship.

24 Ibid.

25 Selva diary, fol. 31 verso.

26 Selva diary, fols 5 recto and 37 recto discuss Woolwich, Greenwich Hospital and Observatory, and Chatham.

27 Museo Correr, P.D. 785/C/7(6), item 11.

28 Selva diary, fol. 6 recto, speaks of the trip to Portsmouth and the people he met there. On the return journey the party stayed the night at the country house of the brother of Consul John Udney, former British representative to Venice.

29 Selva diary, fol. 5 recto.

30 Selva diary, fol. 5 verso.

31 Selva diary, fol. 6 recto.

32 Selva diary, fol. 6 verso.

33 Selva diary, fol. 7 verso. As an afterthought, Selva went back over his diary supplying the years after the days and months. But somehow he missed a page and therefore his dates 1779 and 1780 should be disregarded. They ought to read 1780 and 1781, as a careful scrutiny of the journal proves.

34 Selva diary, fol. 6 verso.

35 These individuals are all mentioned on fols 6 recto and 35 verso of Selva’s diary and the DNB provides details of their careers. I have not been able to identify a Swiss chemist Selva calls ‘Sudiavel’, nor a Prussian diplomat called ‘Janneret de Danilae’ whom Selva knew.

36 Selva diary, fol. 35 verso.

37 Selva diary, fols 34 recto and verso. His description of a factory making ‘terra nericcia’ objects based on antique Roman busts and vases sounds like Wedgwood’s black basalt ware, but it could conceivably be an imitation produced in London.

38 Selva diary, fol. 31 recto. On the Marine Gallery, see John Harris, Sir William Chambers (London, 1970), p. 83. Selva did not think the rest of Buckingham House worthy of the Sovereign.

39 Selva diary, fol. 37 recto.

40 Selva diary, fol. 38 recto. Making buttons in glass was a mainstay of Birmingham industry.

41 Ibid. On the construction of the Soho factory, see John Martin Robinson, op. cit., p. 19. H. W. Dickinson, Matthew Boulton (Cambridge, 1937), mentions the stream of foreign visitors to Boulton’s Works.

42 Selva diary, fol. 31 recto.

43 Selva diary, fol. 33 verso. To the best of my knowledge this is the only mention of frosted glass in the Great Room of the Royal Academy. Early views of the interior do not reveal this feature but suggest clear glass.

44 Selva diary, fol. 34 recto.

45 Selva diary, fol. 32 recto. Nikolaus Pevsner and Bridget Cherry, The Buildings of England: Wiltshire (second edition, Harmondsworth, 1975), p. 409, note that the window mentioned by Selva was eventually installed in the choir of Salisbury Cathedral, where it may still be seen.

46 Selva diary, fol. 39 recto. On Coalbrookdale Bridge, see Ted Ruddock, Arch Bridges and Their Builders, 1735–1835 (Cambridge, 1979).

47 Selva diary, fols 38 recto, 6 verso, and 39 verso, respectively. Selva descended into Peak Cavern and took a boat ride within it.

48 See pp. 8–19 above.

49 Selva diary, fol. 37 verso. Fol. 114 verso, for instance, uses ‘goffo’ to describe the Pal. Durazzo Pallavicini in Genoa.

50 Selva diary, fol. 38 recto.

51 Selva diary, fols 37 verso-38 recto. See also Hélène Marchessou, ‘L’âme du jardin anglais: les Leasowes’, in Jardins et Paysages: le style anglais (Lille, 1977), pp. 139–56.

52 Selva diary, fol. 38 verso.

53 Selva diary, fol. 39 verso. For Selva’s comments on French gardens, see fols 22 recto (St Cloud), 22 verso (Marly), 27 verso (Versailles). At Versailles Selva commented on the excellence of the fountain statuary. Of all the arts the French practiced, sculpture according to him was the best.

54 Selva diary, fol. 40 recto.

55 Gibbon, Michael, ‘The Temple of Concord at Stowe: The First Neo-Classic Building in Europe?’, The Stoic (1974), pp. 6973 . Selva, of course, knew the original Temple of Vesta at Tivoli at first hand (see Selva Diary, fol. 95 recto and verso).

56 Horace Walpole’s glowing praise of the Pantheon in 1772 is given by Robinson, op. cit., p. 1. Dobai, Johannes, Die Kunstlerliteratur des Klassizismus und der Romantik in England, 2 (Bern, 1977), pp. 59899 , lists other contemporary writings, including the novels of Fanny Burney.

57 Selva diary, fol. 32 recto. Presumably the Pantheon, or Winter Ranelagh as it was sometimes called, was not fully functioning in the summer season. Of course, Selva knew the Roman Pantheon (fol. 59 verso) and could therefore compare the two buildings.

58 Selva diary, fol. 32 recto.

59 Selva diary, fol. 35 recto.

60 Selva diary, fols 34 recto and 39 recto, respectively. The first reference is to Home House, the second to Heaton Hall (see note 64 below). At Home House, Selva mentioned the Zucchi paintings, so it is possible that he consulted the contemporary printed guide to the pictures which is reprinted in Margaret Whinney’s Home House No. 20 Portman Square (London, 1969).

61 Selva diary, fol. 32 recto.

62 Selva diary, fol. 36 recto.

63 Selva diary, fol. 37 verso. The observatory had ‘molto merito’ in his opinion, the library was of ‘buon disegno’.

64 Selva diary, fol. 39 recto. Heaton Hall is discussed and illustrated in Christopher Hussey, English Country Houses: Mid-Georgian, (second edition London, 1963), pp. 18–21.

65 Selva diary, fol. 39 verso.

66 Royal Academy of Arts, London, General Assembly Minutes, vol. 1, p. 13 (meeting of 17 December 1768), specifies that the Summer Academy ran from the end of May until the end of August.

67 Selva diary, fol. 33 verso.

68 Selva diary, fol. 33 recto.

69 See Edward Saunders in Derbyshire Life and Countryside, June 1981, p. 57.

70 Selva diary, fol. 39 verso. Selva wrote unequivocally of St Helen’s ‘L’Architetto n’è stato il Sig. Pickford’.

71 Edward Saunders has kindly communicated to me the information that the first Ordnance Survey map of Derby shows the elliptical courtyard in front of St Helen’s where the much widened A6 now passes.

72 See Bassi, pp. 49–50, and Lionello Puppi and Fulvio Zuliani (eds), Padova: Case e Palazzi (Vicenza, 1977), PP. 215–16.

73 Selva noted the same about the sculptor John Bacon (fol. 31 recto). Elsewhere, Selva praised Bacon as ‘il miglior Scultore Inglese’ (fol. 35 recto).

74 Selva diary, fols 5 verso, 5 recto, and 38 verso, respectively.

75 Selva diary, fols 32 recto and verso.

76 For a discussion of Astley’s building, see the Survey of London: South Bank and Vauxhall (Parish of St. Mary Lambeth), part 1 (London, 1951), pp. 70–72.

77 Selva diary, fol. 37 verso.

78 Selva diary, fols 32 verso (Haymarket Theatre)—33 recto (The Opera, Haymarket, and Sadler’s Wells).

79 Selva diary, fols 5 recto, and 33 verso, respectively. According to Grove’s Dictionary, the opera ‘Pygmalion’ had first been performed in 1779.

80 Selva diary, fol. 34 verso.

81 For an excellent discussion of Schomberg House and some of Graham’s writings pertaining to it, see the Survey of London: The Parish of St. James Westminster, part 1 (London, 1960), pp. 375–76.

82 Selva diary, fol. 35 recto. Other hortatory inscriptions adorning this room read: ‘Delicacy with Ardour’, ‘Moderation with Power’.

83 Selva diary, fol. 34 verso.

84 See the undated handbill which is item 9 in the collection referred to in the next note.

85 McGill University, Montreal, Biblioteca Osleriana, 2810, which is a bound scrapbook album containing handbills, newspaper advertisements etc., relating to Dr Graham’s chequered career. Mr Cucci at McGill Library helped me to obtain a photograph of the engraving.

86 Bassi, p. 37, writes: ‘Maggiore importanza ebbe per il Selva la conoscenza dell’arte inglese’. Robin Middleton and David Watkin, Neoclassical and Nineteenth Century Architecture (New York, 1980), p. 289, comment: ‘Selva was probably more indebted to the English example than to the French’. Finally, Deborah Howard, The Architectural History of Venice (New York, 1981), p. 210, states: ‘he [Selva] felt a particularly strong sympathy with English culture; he owned a volume of drawings by Inigo Jones and was enthusiastic about the work of Robert Adam’. Bassi, p. 39, clarifies that Selva owned a copy of The Designs of ‘Inigo Jones (London, 1727), not drawings by him. In fact, Selva’s diary (fol. 31 recto) alludes to the plates in this book for Whitehall Palace, so it is likely that he had it with him in London.

87 For Selva’s interiors at the Palazzo Manin, see Domenico Paolillo and Carlo dalla Santa, Il Palazzo Dolfin Manin a Rialto (Venice, 1970). I am grateful to the director of the Bank for allowing me to visit his private apartment.

88 British Museum, Egerton MS 2,002, fol. 96.

89 Selva diary, fol. 31 recto. Interestingly, the statement comes at the very beginning, not at the end of the English portion of the diary.

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