Getty’s 18th Century Scenes Fail to Come to Life


In the 17th and 18th centuries, travelers paraded and traipsed through Italy, a grand tour destination meant to bring them into contact with antiquity. The contact could be spiritual or intellectual, but it also could be physical. Collectors gripped tightly onto ancient Greek and Roman artifacts and brought them home.

The exhibition “Italy on the Grand Tour,” at the Getty Center, highlights what these grand tourists--especially the grandest ones, the British--saw and how they saw it. It is the how that interests us. And in the case of the most notable collector, William Hamilton, the British ambassador to Naples in the second half of the 18th century, it is also the who. Hamilton’s collection formed the basis for the British Museum.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 7, 2002 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 7, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie title--A review of “Living Pictures: The Neapolitan Salons of Sir William Hamilton and the Two Lady Hamiltons” in Monday’s Calendar incorrectly referred to a Vivien Leigh movie as “That Lady Hamilton.” The correct title is “That Hamilton Woman.”
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 9, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Getty curator--A review in Monday’s Calendar of the performance “Living Pictures” at the Getty Center incorrectly identified Allegra Pesenti as a consultant. The curator who worked on the project was Marcia Reed.

His second wife, Emma, went down in history for her Neapolitan salons, her theatrical and often erotic poses as the figures on Greek vases and her love affair with Adm. Horatio Nelson. Vivien Leigh famously played Emma in Churchill’s favorite film, “That Lady Hamilton.” Susan Sontag’s novel “The Volcano Lover” is a Postmodern pursuit of William and Emma.


Clearly this is a couple, along with Hamilton’s first wife, Catherine--whose harpsichord playing was admired by Mozart--made for the stage. And that is where they wound up Saturday night in the Getty’s Harold M. Williams Auditorium in a multimedia presentation of tableaux vivants enhanced by dance, music and narration. But the main impetus of director Michael Hackett in his show, “Living Pictures: The Neapolitan Salons of Sir William Hamilton and the Two Lady Hamiltons,” was Emma’s “attitudinizing.”

Some spectators found Emma’s classical Greek posturing ridiculous, especially once plump Emma became fat Emma. For others, her see-through drapery was the attraction. But some were profoundly moved, finding in her an artistry that captured the spiritual essence of an antique world.

To explore how that might have happened is an intriguing project and the stated goal of the Getty’s multimedia stew, which had several cooks. Emma Lewis Thomas re-created historic dances. Archlutinist Michael Eagan, the music director of Musica Angelica, reproduced music played in the Hamilton salons with members of his period instrument ensemble. Leon Weibers designed historical costumes. Students from UCLA danced, acted and attitudinized. Narration was prerecorded by actors, including Donald Sinden. One of the exhibition’s curators, Allegra Pesenti, was a consultant.

Yet nothing quite contradicts the spirit and temperament of the grand tourists more than submissively reliving the past. Musicians sat at the back of the stage, where their sounds were acoustically dead, playing dutiful performances of composers who might have come through Hamilton’s Neapolitan household and others whom Catherine liked to play. Fourteen-year-old Mozart and his father rushed on stage at the start of an early sonata for two violins and bass and then froze. There were antique dances to Francesco Durante and Handel. Rachel Avery attempted Emma’s attitudinizing. Slides were projected.

Bland music by Williams’ music teacher, Felice Giardani, accompanied scenes from daily life. A copy of Giardini’s Violin Sonata, Opus 7, No. 1, which was inscribed to William Hamilton, was found at UCLA, and so it was performed. Daniel Plaster appeared as Michael Kelly, a tenor who appeared at the salons, singing three arias in studied demeanor. The recordings of actors reciting Hamilton, Goethe, Mozart and others, which introduced the tableaux, were broadcast at twice the volume of song or the string instruments. Eagen’s large archlute was more easily seen than heard.

In all of this, there was little of life then or now. Young performers were idealized figures. The recorded narration, crudely amplified (the Getty’s billions seem to have run out by the time it came to installing a sound system in the theater), as opposed to actors present on stage, bespoke the irresistible urge to appropriate modern technology. However, in contrast to the amplification, music, remaining acoustically “pure,” sounded prissy, flat, far away.


In a question-and-answer session with the audience, Hackett had interesting things to say about how Emma’s poses found their way into theater through the ages, which is something worth exploration. Emma, as seen through the modern era, from celluloid Leigh to Sontag’s “fat lady,” could be an equally intriguing project. UCLA has just purchased Sontag’s papers; perhaps those will provide just the kind of source material needed to take another, richer look at this fascinating subject.