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ROME (Reuters Life!) - Gregorio Guglielmi's fresco "Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes" was hidden from the public eye for centuries but now, for the first time, admirers have five weeks to see the late Baroque masterpiece.
The six-by-10 meter fresco occupies an entire wall of an old refectory of the former convent of Sant'Agostino in Rome, which now houses the office of Italy's Attorney General.
Though Sant'Agostino, with its Caravaggio and Raphaels, and nearby Biblioteca Angelica are much frequented by visitors, the former convent itself has remained private access only.
Now an unprecedented exhibition has opened up the refectory and cloisters, redesigned in 1740 by Luigi Vanvitelli, to the public temporarily in an initiative aimed both at illuminating the convent's history and promoting the work of Guglielmi.
Little known today, he was one of the most sought-after painters of his time, with commissions across Europe such as work for Catherine II of Russia and Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna.
"He was immensely popular with many powerful patrons of the day," said Edith Gabrielli, curator of the exhibition in Rome.
"We wanted to transport an exhibition here to the site of one of his most important works so that the public might rediscover his painting and appreciate the development of his style," Gabrielli told Reuters.
It is organized chronologically, with the "Multiplication" as the focal point. A luminous and lavish composition, it is more evocative of pastoral idyll than a biblical narrative.
Guglielmi's art was, Gabrielli explained, "designed to delight."
To highlight this, the show includes works by other artists in Rome at the time like Jean Francois de Troy, Pierre Subleyras and Gaetano Lapis. In contrast to their sober scenes of martyrdom, Guglielmi's fresco is radiant with color and light.
In an unusual and striking choice for a spiritual space, the scene is theatrically ornamented with curtains held by angels.
But in a typical artistic rift, one individual who struggled to appreciate Guglielmi's vision was the architect Vanvitelli.
After complaining that the fresco "invaded" and "ruined" the interior of his refectory, he left, lamenting: "Of all the good painters in Rome, did we really want Guglielmi?"
A fair complaint?
"I think the fresco is of undeniable quality," responded Gabrielli. "I think Vanvitelli and Guglielmi simply had two very different conceptions of art. But ultimately they work together very well."
"Gregorio Guglielmi: Pittore Romano del Settecento," in the Convent of Sant'Agostino, via dei Portoghesi 12, Rome, runs until March 15th. Entrance is free.
Editing by Paul Casciato