Mr. Pergolesi's Curious Things: Ornament in 18th-Century Britain

October 1, 2022 – January 29, 2023

Ornament Design, Tripod and Roman Standards, 1776; Michel Angelo Pergolesi (Italian, active London, ca. 1760-1801); Pen and ink, brush and watercolor over graphite on laid paper; 48.3 × 34.3 cm (19 in. × 13 1/2 in.); Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Gift of an Unknown Donor, 1980-32-1443; Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution.

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
2 East 91st Street
New York, NY

Mr. Pergolesi’s Curious Things: Ornament in 18th-Century Britain showcases fanciful drawings and prints by Michel Angelo Pergolesi (died 1801), an Italian-born artist whose professional specialty, in his words, was “the ornaments of the ancients.”

In the early 1760s, Pergolesi moved to London, England, where he helped popularize a neoclassical style that employed ornament inspired by artifacts from ancient Greece and Rome. Brilliantly hued watercolors from Cooper Hewitt’s collection highlight Pergolesi’s skill in transforming ancient relics—what he called “curious Things”—into lighthearted decorative motifs.

Although his name is now largely forgotten, these rarely seen works call attention to Pergolesi’s legacy, to the Beaux-Arts neoclassical decoration of Cooper Hewitt’s historic mansion (built 1897–1902), and to the ways in which ornament of all kinds enlivens our built environment.