A Capriccio Landscape

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This dramatic watercolor by Paul Sandby, “the father of English water-colour,” became known as a capriccio, or playful improvisation, because it combines mountain scenery from Wales and Italy into one fanciful composition. Sandby thus gives us a double dose of the sublime. The rugged Welsh mountains—celebrated by William Wordsworth in his famous account of the ascent of Snowdon (1805 Prelude, Book XIII), among many others—epitomized the sublime experience for many British travelers, while Vesuvius played that role for “Grand Tourists” on the continent of Europe. Sandby capitalizes on this romantic situation to give us a glowing, smoking crater that is larger and more threatening (when perspective is taken into account) than those of Vesuvius or Etna. The fore- and middle ground portray a wide spectrum of human activity, from husbandry to both leisure travel and more economically-driven travel. Unlike the human figures, which could be either Welsh or Italian, the architecture is decidedly Italianate. The apparent age of the large castle and several other buildings suggests that this picturesque valley has been living on borrowed time for many centuries; the mist rolling down along the valley, from the volcano toward the town, suggests that the mountain stream could be converted to molten lava at any moment. [NH]