Here in Baltimore we have an extraordinary art gallery called the Walters Art Museum. Given to the city in 1931 by Henry Walters, the collection of art and artifacts was started by family patriarch William Walters during the American Civil War, when William took his family to Europe to avoid the conflict. Greatly expanded by son Henry in the early 20th century, the original townhouse is on the corner of Mt. Vernon Place (the nicest block in Baltimore, adjoining the Peabody Conservatory and the 200 foot Washington Monument), combined with several properties to construct an immense, opulent gallery building.
The gallery was designed by William Adams Delano and was completed in 1909. From Wikipedia: The exterior was inspired by the Renaissance-revival style Hôtel Pourtalès in Paris and its interior was modeled after the 17th-century Collegio dei Gesuiti (now the Palazzo dell’Università) built by the Balbi family for the Jesuits in Genoa.
Inside there are various rooms with salon-style exhibitions, and a fantastic paneled room called the Curiosities Room with a great collection of nature’s wonders including a butterfly collection set in low vitrines, really popular with children.
My favorite piece in the collection is a Renaissance painting called The Ideal City, attributed to architect Fra Carnevale ca. 1480-1484. The subject is an imaginary Greco-Roman city with the most orderly layout and a sweeping, panoramic perspective.
From the Walter’s website: The imaginary city square features a Roman arch typically erected as a commemoration of military victory at its center. As a whole, the painting offers a model of the architecture and sculpture that would ideally be commissioned by a virtuous ruler who cares for the welfare of the citizenry. The work was… apparently commissioned for the palace of Duke Federico da Montefeltro of Urbino. Set into the woodwork at shoulder height or higher, “The Ideal City” would have seemed like a window onto another, better world.
The Walters is presently displaying reproductions of some pieces around town in the Off The Wall program; placing popular paintings outside to reinforce the point that the collection is for the benefit of everybody in the city. I was delighted to see The Ideal City on Hopkins Plaza downtown, in front of a government building.
There is no little irony this picture is placed in front of an administration building – one that I have been stopped by guards for taking pictures before. I snapped this one quickly. The plaza is a 1970s-era concrete valley between tall, modernist government buildings. Not exactly the same view as depicted by Signore Carnevale, but nearly as devoid of people due to unpleasant gusts of winter wind, and a pervasive feeling that relaxing there is not allowed. The curator of Off the Wall has done well to place the picture here, juxtaposing the “better world” of Duke da Montefeltro with this forlorn plaza.
Of course The Ideal City might have shown more people enjoying the space as it was intended, but perhaps the artist didn’t want to muddy up his picture? The scene also lacks of trees or other greenery of any kind. Is this the way the artist envisioned it, something which exists in a fantasy, like a scale model or digital rendering of the future? A private playground for the Duke to enjoy, unspoiled by throngs of lower classes milling about?
A deeper read into The Ideal City reveals that Renaissance planning was perhaps concerned not only with aesthetics and solving immediate social needs, but the dream of a tamed, perfect climate and a gentle, educated humanity sharing a peaceful world. To me, The Ideal City is nothing less than the enlightenment of man, free of social ills and living a sweeping, harmonious democratic existence, manifested as this perfect, delightful environment.