These three very rich offerings in three prestigious museum sites were put together to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the installation of the French Academy at Villa Medici, and to highlight the role of Rome as the artistic centre of Europe in the first half of the 19th century.

The 600 or so works, all produced in Rome and then dispersed except for the holdings at the French and S. Luca Academies, have been brought back for the occasion and are on display at the Scuderie del Quirinale, the Galleria Nazionale dArte Moderna and Villa Medici.

During the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque, the artist was a craftsman brought up in the workshop of the master. As a boy he swept the bottega and ground pigment, eventually becoming master himself, executing commissions from kings and clergy for decorations of their palaces and churches. Over the centuries artists developed into young gentlemen who were sent to an academy in foreign parts so that the old works and contrasting culture could give them status and finish.

The concept of the academy, a place where highly schooled young men could get together to work out their problems, comes from Plato and was developed by the Medici in Florence. In 1648 Louis XIV founded the Acadmie Royale des Beaux Arts in Rome to boost his own glory and that of France. He called the young artists les pensionnaires du roi pensioners of the king and housed and fed and ruled them. Perfectly trained after a strict regime of four years, they were then sent home to start their career of executing state commissions. The French Academy was first in Palazzo Mancini Salviati in Via del Corso, before being shut down for a brief spell during the revolution. Then in 1803 it was set up in the splendid Medici palace on the Pincio hill overlooking all Rome, where it is enthroned to this day.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Rome was resting on its laurels and was in decline aristocracy and popes had lost power and wealth and were no longer able to support Italian artists. Instead, foreign artists and rich connoisseurs on the Grand Tour were flocking to a city full of the remains of glorious pagan antiquity and the wonders of the Renaissance and the Baroque. They came to enjoy a huge open-air museum: the life in the sun, the vestiges of pagan sports and rituals, and the wide views of the pastoral countryside.

In their own airless studios the artists created a homage to an antique age that never was. Dark works full of myths, old and new gods, nymphs and fauns and saints in pious, contorted poses mirrored their own repressions and anxieties, their own melodramatic view of the world. With great skill and excellence they wrought shameless new fictions on ancient themes.

Each day the boys and girls from Lazio came into Rome to lounge on the Spanish Steps hoping to earn an extra penny as models for artists. Buxom girls from the Ciociaria, hairy brigands like motorcycle cops, slim water-carrier girls like Virgilio students, were picked up by the foreign artists to pose as unearthly creatures. The most fun in these three exhaustive shows is the game of trying to match the Romans in the paintings with your neighbours today. Is the mighty Zeus having his chin tickled by Thetis like the butcher from Campo de Fiori, isnt the terribly naked Narcissus like the waiter last night at the pizzeria, isnt this Venus like Silvia who sold you your lettuce at the market this morning?

In the end all the stories and facts surrounding the work are more amusing than the work itself, always a bad sign. For good painting is in the paintwork, good sculpture in the sculpting.

One of the largest paintings at the Scuderie is The dream of Ossian in ghostly grisaille. It is by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, who dominates these shows. First a student at the French Academy, he then became its most famous director (1835-1841), ruling it with an iron hand. There are his exquisitely detailed pencil portraits of his contemporaries, and his many grandiloquent canvases. Ossian was commissioned by Napoleon himself to hang on the ceiling over his bed in the Quirinal palace.

When you begin to pick the raisins from this three-layer birthday cake you discover that small is beautiful. It is not the solemn masterpieces that you remember, but the genre scenes, lovingly detailed. You remember a sleepy, sunny 19th-century Rome, its pastoral people and the poetic travellers among grass-grown ruins.

A view of the rooftops seen from his Villa Medici studio by Camille Corot, no bigger than a letter envelope (at the French Academy), is one of the most moving works here. There is the lovely Turner view from the Vatican (though he was happier in his water-sparkling Venice where he painted more). There is a painstakingly detailed panorama of Rome by Ludovico Caracciolo; Shelley dreaming in the Baths of Caracalla by Joseph Severn; small views of lake Nemi, and the beaches and quarries around Rome. There are the many little oils of the studios themselves, simple and sparse work-rooms with a window open onto St Peters, which the pensioners made for each other as souvenirs.

All are heartwarming documents of a placid period, of Rome before Garibaldi entered it to unite Italy. It is obvious that great care and research were expended on this enterprise. But the scholars and experts who for years resurrected dispersed works from museums all over the world and assembled them for these three overwhelming shows, in the end may have done it for each other. In their glorious settings, the three shows are about a fascinating moment in history. They are about

history, not art.

The Majesty of Rome: from Napoleon to the Unification of Italy. Until 29 June.

Universal and Eternal, Scuderie del Quirinale, Via XXIV Maggio 16.

Capital of the Arts, Galleria Nazionale dArte Moderna, Viale delle Belle Arti 131.

From Ingres to Degas: French artists in Rome, French Academy, Villa Medici, Viale Trinit dei Monti 1. For information tel. 0639967500.

Sun-Thurs 10.00-20.00. Fri-Sat 10.00-22.30. Mon closed.

Picture: Joseph Severn's "Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley at the Baths of Caracalla", 1845, on loan to Le Scuderie Papale from the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome.