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10.09.2017
19:02

Rogues' Gallery by Philip Hook

Philip Hook: Rogues’ Gallery: A History of Art and its Dealers. Profile Books, London, 2017.

In May 2017, I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner  Museum in Boston for the second time. Housed in a neo-Renaissance palazzo with courtyards and galleries, it is crammed—one might say cluttered—with the extraordinary collection of Mrs Gardner, accumulated with her vast wealth before her death in 1924. There are special objects, a brilliant Titian (The Rape of Europa) and a stunning John Singer Sargent, El Jaleo, of a Spanish gypsy dancing girl; but as Mrs Gardner was not a discriminating buyer and insisted that everything she had collected had to be displayed, the effect can be rather cloying. Perhaps I was biased, having come on from the wonderful new Art of the Americas gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts.

 

It is hardly surprising that Isabella Gardner appears in Rogues’ Gallery, Philip Hook’s history of art dealing. She had a large fortune, was avid for the best of Renaissance paintings, and thus became easy prey for suppliers. Bernard Berenson and his colleague Otto Gutekunst at Colnaghi saw their chance. As Hook puts it, ‘The race to supply Mrs Gardner with as many Renaissance masterpieces at as high a price as possible was on.’ Titian’s The Rape of Europa was extracted by Gutekunst from Lord Darnley for £14,000 and Berensen and Gutekunst agreed that it would be sold to Gardner for £18,000, with each of them splitting the difference. In fact, Berensen sold it to Gardner  for £20,000, paid Gutekunst £2,000 and pocketed  £4,000 for himself. Hook has no illusions about his ‘Rogue Dealers’ (although some of his subjects were more rogueish than others). The value of an artwork is what a buyer is willing to pay for it and this sum can be manipulated by the dealer in a number of ways. Often the aesthetic value of a picture, the way its composition or subject might grab a viewer, is secondary to the prestige of owning whatever is in fashion. There are all kinds of subtle ploys for creating desire for an object that the purchaser might never have thought of owning and certainly does not need. The fascination of Hook’s book lies in the different personalities and methods used to achieve this end.

 

The story starts in the 17nth century. The Rev. William Petty was an accomplished buyer for Charles I and the ‘Collector Earl’ of Arundel, outplaying rival buyers simply by staying put in Italy. In Amsterdam  Hendrick van Uylenburgh took Rembrandt under his wing, guiding clients into his workshop for their portraits but carefully leaving other pictures around in the hope of selling more to the sitters. By the 18th century, the market has shifted to Rome. Not all dealers there were insensitive to art. The Anglophile Cardinal Albani’s own collection was as fine as anything he sold on to English aristocrats. But as so much dealing was carried on amicably between social equals, it was hard to say where the balance between sociability and commerce lay. In the case of Lord Duveen, a hundred years later, his knowledge of Italian art was minimal but the skill with which he manipulated the expertise of Bernard Berenson to provide ‘authentic’  provenances for the culture-hungry and cash-rich American moguls brought fabulous returns for them both. Osbert Sitwell lamented that the austere galleries donated to British museums by Duveen were funded by selling the cream of English paintings to America.

 

One moves on to Paul Durand-Ruel, the great patron of the Impressionists. Hook is at his best in exploring the life of this reactionary Catholic monarchist who may have changed the direction of art history through his championship of a new and little regarded movement. In 1872 Durand-Ruel had seen two works by Manet and was so overwhelmed by them that he went off to Manet’s studio and brought everything that he found. He was prepared to subsidise his favoured artists and wait for the return that matured through his relentless proselytising. He cleverly created the aura of one who was simply an idealist, altruistically promoting needy artists, yet, as Hook points out, he would ruthlessly impose a monopoly over an artist’s works (as the curmudgeonly Ambroise Vollard did over Cézanne) and if prices were flagging, buy his own stock at public auction to keep up the fiction of increasing values. The fiction would eventually become reality. Why the conservative Durand-Ruel should have been so taken by the Impressionists when they were so little regarded is unknown.

 

Hook’s most intriguing chapter centres on an auctioneer, the legendary Peter Wilson of Sotheby’s. (Hook worked at Sotheby’s for many years so his account is as good as any.) Wilson was a connoisseur, passionate about art and with great taste. His theatrical sense of how to play an audience was unequalled, as were his negotiating skills.

He made the auction room a place of glamour, with dealers sidelined as bejeweled celebrities basked in the glare of publicity. Wilson sensed how the Hollywood elite would compete for the prestige of owning a major Impressionist and was adept at exploiting the power of the Press to create the necessary buzz. Record prices made news and stimulated beguiled collectors to pass on their treasures directly to Sotheby’s when before they would have been sold discreetly in a dealer’s office. Wilson also had a contempt for the buyers, a vital attribute for a successful dealer. It was said that he once sold a gold box by soliciting phone bids from an inebriated Barbara Hutton which probably took the price $750,000 dollars higher than it should have been. He would tell a seller to sell now before the market fell and for the same work would advise a buyer to buy now when prices were still low.

 

This is a knowledgeable and perceptive book that raises important questions about the value of art and the ways in which this can be exploited or even created from nothing. Rich in anecdote, cynical in tone (‘Art dealers are purveyors of fantasy’), it makes a good read. Sadly, Hook decided only to tell on dead dealers. I would have loved to have heard the gossip on how money is extracted from the new rich on contemporary artists of such varying quality and prospects.

Charles Freeman is Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

10.03.2017
11:22

Guide to the Via Francigena

The Via Francigena in Northern Lazio. Map and guide in English from the Touring Club Italiano, Itineraries on Foot series.

 

Reviewed by Charles Freeman

 

The Via Francigena, the road of the Franks towards Rome, has been known for over a thousand years since Sigeric, the Archbishop of Canterbury, decided to travel to Rome for his formal investiture by pope John XV. The record of his journey in AD 990 lists each stopping place, 79 in all, and allows us to trace the route in detail. Sigeric crossed the Alps through the Great St Bernard’s Pass down into Aosta and then through what is now Piedmont into central Italy. As the flow of pilgrims increased and the route became used for trade and travel, cities such as Siena, hardly known in Roman times, grew rich on the proceeds.

 

The Touring Club Italiano has been working hard with Lazio Regional Council to open up the last 200km of the route. Much of the original, following the ancient Via Cassia, is now busy motorway and their recommended route is based on smaller roads and cart tracks that avoid noise and congestion but include all the original medieval sights that pilgrims will have seen. After a long first day from Radicofani to Acquapendente (30km) there are eight stretches of some 20km with hostels provided at each.

 

The guide is wonderfully thorough, with detailed maps of each leg of the route and blank pages for notes on each. The author, Alberto Conte, is sensitive to the beauties of the varied landscapes. If I ever take the route I shall be glad to know where there is a swimming pool close to the path and that the owner of the fruit stall in San Lorenzo Nuovo gives passing pilgrims a free piece of fruit. Original paved stretches of the Via Cassia appear from time to time. Thanks are still due to pope Gregory XIII who provided a bridge over the River Paglia in 1578, at a spot where sudden torrents had led to many pilgrims being drowned. There are tips on local wines and traditional dishes of the region alongside boxed sections on each of the major towns. It is useful to know that in September one cannot gather hazelnuts in the Torri d’Orlando as the farmers deliberately leave them on the ground before they are collected. It is tempting, as they are reputed to have the finest flavour in the world!

 

Yet it is the remnants of the churches, shrines and sanctuaries that grew up along the path that are probably most of interest. At Bolsena, in the 11th-century church of Santa Cristina, the footprints of the 4th-century martyr left on a rock can still be seen but it is the blood of Christ, spilling from a host onto the floor in 1263 after a priest doubted the miracle of Transubstantiation, that is the main attraction. The cathedral of Santa Margarita at Montefiascone, the city favoured as a residence by medieval popes, has the third largest dome in Italy after those of St Peter’s in Rome and the cathedral in Florence. In Viterbo the quarter of San Pellegrino, ‘the Holy Pilgrim’, still unchanged from medieval times, shows off the wealth accumulated from the flocks of pilgrims. Capranica, goat country, was a favourite haunt of the humanist Petrarch. One also passes close to the Etruscan city of Veii, of some nostalgia to me as I worked reassembling some of its domestic pottery at the British School in Rome back in 1966. And so finally into Rome, where the route ends in front of St Peter’s.

 

There were extensions of the Via Francigena south of Rome for those pilgrims who wished to continue to the East. These are shown on a large pull-out map in the pocket of the guide although the routes are not yet signposted on the ground. Overall this is a beautifully presented and thoughtful guide that will do much to open up forgotten treasures of Lazio. I have got as far as noting its checklist of what to take and wear on the road.

 

I am grateful to my old pupil, now Professore Simone Quilici, who is heavily involved in such projects, for giving me a copy of the guide when I last met him in Rome.

11.01.2017
11:57

Life, Art and Kenneth Clark

The impact of Kenneth Clark, the erudite patrician raconteur of the episodes of Civilisation, his majestic survey of European art first shown on the BBC in 1969, will always resonate with those who watched him. He adopted an unashamedly elitist approach that was delivered in a memorably clipped voice. ‘Civilisation’, he told us, was always precarious and would have been lost with the fall of the Roman empire if a few geniuses had not restored and kept it alive. It could be seen in exquisite buildings, great paintings and superb craftsmanship. Civility and rational thought acted as a backdrop to this fragile world distanced as it was from the toil and turmoil of everyday living

 

Of course, Clark’s approach was challenged, not least a few years later by John Berger in his Ways of Seeing, which looked far more critically at the way that art masked privilege and was used to maintain status. But when I listened again to one or two of Clark’s episodes (for the first time since 1969) I still found them absorbing. They drew me to this new biography of Clark by James Stourton, an accomplished art historian and former UK Chairman of Sotheby’s. I had enjoyed a retrospective of Clark’s life at Tate Britain in 2014 but had been disappointed by Meryle Secrest’s earlier life, which showed little understanding of the man and the world he lived in. This is a much more sophisticated and searching study.

 

Clark’s upbringing, as an only child on the large Suffolk estate of his fabulously wealthy parents, did much to shape him as a loner who developed a passion and sensitivity to art which provided him with the most enduring relationship of his life. He was lucky, while at Oxford, in securing the patronage of Charles Bell, the Keeper of Fine Art at the Ashmolean, who allowed him to explore freely the wonderful collection of Italian drawings. It was Bell who took him to Italy and introduced him at the age of 22 to Bernard Berenson, by now firmly ensconced at I Tatti, his villa outside Florence. Stourton suggests that it was within the Berensen ménage that, for the first time in his life, Clark found an emotional home. As their recently edited letters [https://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Dear-BB-Berenson-1925-1959/dp/0300207379/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1484131492&sr=1-1&keywords=my+dear+bb] show, their relationship endured until Berenson’s death in 1959 but neither was able to establish a warm intimacy and a persistent undercurrent of rivalry pervades their correspondence. Clark’s first marriage, to Jane Martin, gave him his chance to escape Berenson’s tentacles and to embark on his glittering career back in England, working on the royal collection of Leonardo drawings, curating at the Ashmolean and directing the National Gallery through the challenges of the Second World War.

 

The Clarks became one of the must-have couples of the 1930s and their circle was wide. The relationship lasted but it had its bad moments, with Jane’s alcoholism and Kenneth’s affairs. The longest of these, with Janet Stone, lasted thirty years and the few extracts from their letters which have been published (most are still embargoed) show him at his frankest and most unbuttoned. Yet even here there would be limits. He failed to marry Janet when both were free to do so and in a melancholy aside Stourton tells how many of her letters to him were discovered still unopened. It is hardly surprising that Clark remained an enigma to most of his acquaintances. He often spoke of himself as a fraud, as if there was some appalling secret about him about to be revealed. There was a gulf between how accessible he wanted to be to others and the distance that they usually encountered as they tried to get close. There was another between his glittering lifestyle, his castle at Saltwood, and his adventurous purchases of art, and his claim to be a socialist at heart.

 

Even so, Clark’s expertise and extensive address book kept him going from post to post. He was always much more than a social butterfly. His patronage of important artists such as Henry Moore and John Piper were crucial for their success. He showed, through a love of Japanese art, of Aubrey Beardsley, alongside that of his contemporaries, that he could break free of the rarefied world of Renaissance drawings. He took on roles that seemed far from any of his interests. To become Chairman of the Independent Television Authority when he did not own a television set and when ITA was seen as the harbinger of a collapse in cultural standards appears more than public duty demanded.

 

Stourton deals well with the making of Civilisation. He has tracked down some of the original film crew and interviewed the widow of the director, Michael Gill. Gill appeared to represent everything that Clark most despised. As his widow remembered, the couple did not fear that the barbarians were at the gate, Gill would have actually liked to be one of the barbarians. The relationship between Clark, Gill and the third director, Peter Montagnon, eventually developed into a creative one and the series turned out to be an extraordinary success, especially in the United States. It is what ‘Lord Clark of Civilisation’ is remembered for.

 

It may be that Clark’s life and times are now too remote for this book to be a bestseller (his son Alan made a more recent éclat with his gossipy diaries) but this was a biography that deserved to be written and it has been exceptionally well done. Until the full range of Clark’s letters to Janet Stone are revealed it will be as definitive a life as we could wish for. It may even take some of us back to important books of Clark’s such as The Nude, a groundbreaking study, or his Leonardo da Vinci, still regarded as one of the finest explorations of this genius and praised by Stourton as such.

Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation, by James Stourton. William Collins, London, 2016. Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Hedonist's travel, Hungarian wine

"Robert Smyth’s Hungarian Wine ... is a really pleasurable wine book and hedonist’s travel guide. It would make a great Christmas present for almost anyone who is interested in good wine and travel."

A nice review from wine blogger Quentin Sadler:

A Lovely Wine Book for Christmas

I love wine and I love books and I really, really like books about wine, so when my friend Robert Smyth gave me a copy of his excellent new book I leapt into action and little more than a year later I wrote this review.

Read his full article: https://quentinsadler.wordpress.com/2016/12/16/a-lovely-wine-book-for-christmas/

07.12.2016
11:39

Remarkable Manuscripts

by Christopher de Hamel.

 

How does one “meet” a medieval manuscript? The examples explored in this book are such celebrities that effecting a face-to-face encounter needs a lot of arranging. It helps if you are a world authority like Christopher de Hamel. Having worked for years at Sotheby’s, he has handled more illuminated manuscripts than anyone else alive. Since 2000 he has abandoned the buzz of commercial sales for the librarianship of the Parker Library in Corpus Christi, Cambridge, the books and manuscripts bequeathed by Matthew Parker, a former Master of the college and Archbishop of Canterbury under Queen Elizabeth I.

 

It is here that he introduces us to the first of his manuscripts. Small and rather battered, it is a very early set of the gospels (in the Latin Vulgate of St Jerome) and a deeply moving document in that it may well be the very copy sent by pope Gregory the Great to Canterbury with the monk Augustine in 597. De Hamel lists the circumstantial evidence for the provenance, is largely convinced, but then leaves the question open. Then he produces his clincher: an analysis of the Latin shows phrases from a pre-Vulgate Latin version that Gregory found superior to that of Jerome. If this is right, the Gospels is the founding document of Christianity in England, provided as a gift by one of the great popes of the Middle Ages. For Parker the Gospels was especially important as a relic of an original Anglican church that had now been restored to its independence under Elizabeth. He probably found the manuscript in the library of the dissolved monastery of Augustine in Canterbury.

 

The Gospels of Saint Augustine is the first of the wonderful manuscripts to which we are introduced. They are chosen from century to century, a total of twelve over a thousand years, so that we learn not only about the manuscripts themselves but about the changing world that produced them, the Carolingian Renaissance of the 9th century, the shift in commissioning from monasteries to royal families in the 12th, and the retreat into private prayer from the 14th century onwards that inspired some of the most opulent manuscripts of all, the Books of Hours. While most of the chosen few are religious texts, there is an extraordinary 9th-century copy of a Classical picture book of the constellations, the Aratea (named after the 4th-century BC astronomer Aratus of Soli), as well as a collection of drinking and love songs (the 13th-century Carmina Burana), and one of the earliest texts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Hengwrt Chaucer, now in the National Library of Wales.

 

Some of the choices are so famous that they have become ‘iconic symbols’ of a nation. Such is the Irish Book of Kells, the only one of the manuscripts here that I have seen myself, with its intricate and delicate embroidery of illustrations. Others have to be dug out. Meeting the Visconti Semideus, a treatise on armaments and warfare presented to Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, in 1438, now in St. Petersburg, requires getting a visa for Russia, having one’s passport examined at the entrance to the library, photographs taken, papers stamped, long corridors to the reading room traversed and eventually this fine manual handed over for inspection. By now we have reached the Renaissance, and Classical allusions fit alongside exhortations to reconquer the Holy Land for Christendom. The original owner, Filippo Maria, is not named after the apostle but after Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. As de Hamel passes lunchtime without refreshment, a middle-aged woman with outsized glasses, ‘a saint among manuscript librarians’, takes pity on him and feeds him whisky-flavoured Russian chocolates.

 

When he meets his manuscripts, de Hamel quickly establishes an intimate relationship with them. They have no chance of hiding their blemishes, ‘erasures, scratches, overpainting, offsets, patches, sewing-holes, bindings and nuances of colour and texture’ that have often been concealed in reproductions. But he is a kindly man, forgiving of the manuscripts for the scrapes (I use the word literally as some surfaces have been scraped off the parchment ) that they have endured. They, and he, must be relaxed enough for their story to be told. They cannot conceal the style of their illuminations or the script of their text, and their origin and history is often marked by the dedications and the names of later owners—but they more than hold their own and some keep their secrets to themselves.

 

Much else is dependent on careful detective work. So the hand of the artist of the ‘Hours of the Virgin’ section of the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre is found across a range of illuminations from the middle of the 14th century whose patrons are known. There is only one illuminator who, records show, worked for all these patrons, Jean le Noir, the ‘illumineur du roi’ and de Hamel concludes that the Hours (still in Paris in the Bibliothèque Nationale) were the gift of king Philippe VI to Jeanne, daughter of Louis X, king both of Navarre and France.

 

There has been an attempt to ascribe the manuscript of the Hengwrt Chaucer, the next manuscript to be met, to one Adam Pinkhurst whom Chaucer had urged to copy his texts more carefully. Pinkhurst is indeed recorded as a scribe, the dates fit and there is some resemblance between the scripts ascribed to Adam and that of the Chaucer. De Hamel thinks long and hard and finally decides they are not one and the same. In recompense he leaves the National Library clutching a mug and coasters bearing the illustrations he has just been studying in the original.

 

There is so much to treasure here. One can follow the intricacies of the Book of Kells for hours. I was fascinated by the planetarium from the Aratea as it shows the planets Venus and Mercury in orbit around the sun (which is in orbit around the earth, as are Saturn, Jupiter and Mars). Quite by coincidence I had come across the view of the 9th-century Irish scholar Eriugena that the sun did revolve around the earth but the planets Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury revolved around it. No doubt this hypothesis is common knowledge to historians of astronomy but it was quite new to me and I am grateful to de Hamel for giving me a source to put alongside Eriugena.

 

Tracing the increasing sophistication of the illuminations is a pleasure in itself. The illustrator of the Morgan Beatus, a 10th-century text of interpretations of the Apocalypse from Spain, has created a fun toy box of a Noah’s Ark, the animals shown on a series of shelves with the family at the top, Noah reaching up to the dove. Two hundred years later, in the opulent Copenhagen psalter, the figures are now full of emotional responses. Perspective arrives, the army of the Visconti march across mountain passes with valleys below. Colours become rich and one can even pick out details of clothing. The scenes of everyday medieval life in the Spinola Hours (now in the Paul Getty Museum high up on its flattened Los Angeles hillside) are particularly enchanting.

And so one could go on. Please put this book at the top of your Christmas wish list.

Meetings with Medieval Manuscripts, Allen Lane, 2016, reviewed by Charles Freeman

Also recommended: Stella Panyatova (ed.), Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts, the catalogue of an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, June to December 2016, to celebrate its first 200 years. It has a wealth of information on the techniques of creating manuscripts

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

The Roman Forum Reconstructed

The Western Forum, with the Curia, Arch of Septimius Severus, Temple of Saturn and Tabularium.

Book review of Gilbert J. Gorski and James E. Packer, The Roman Forum: A Reconstruction and Architectural Guide, Cambridge University Press, 2015.

 

It needed quite a lot of collaboration between kind friends before I could own a copy of this book. It is a lavishly detailed and illustrated study of the western end of the Roman Forum throughout its history, and is understandably pricey. One of the authors, James Packer, is a professor of Classics and an authority on the Forum of Trajan that adjoins the original Forum. He has excavated here and on the site of the Theatre of Pompey. His collaborator, Gilbert Gorski, is an architect who specialises in illustrating reconstructions. Between them they have produced a truly magnificent volume.

The area of the Forum they have chosen for their intensive study includes the Tabularium on the eastern slope of the Capitoline Hill, which still looks down on the valley with its original lower storey acting as a foundation for later medieval buildings. The furthest building to the east is the circular temple of the Vestal Virgins. On either side of the Via Sacra which runs through the Forum are two grand basilicas, the Basilica Julia on the south side below the Palatine and the Basilica Aemilia which is next to the Curia or Senate House. The Curia stands largely intact in the form in which it was rebuilt by Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century AD. This area encloses several temples, three triumphal arches, of which that of Septimius Severus (dedicated AD 202–3) is the most imposing today, and the rostra or speaking platforms.

 

Before discussing each building in detail, Gorski and Packer provide an architectural history of the Forum. From the start there are extensive reconstructions, notably, in the first chapter, vistas of the ensemble in its heyday. Panoramic fold-outs add to the luxury of the volume. This chapter covers the building types, techniques and materials from the reconstruction of the Forum by Augustus with an overview of his most important commissions. What is lacking is coverage of his other major projects outside this designated area, notably the Temple of Mars Ultor to the north. The authors can only give this a brief mention and so the wider study of Augustus’ vast building programme—82 temples in all are said to have been restored by him after the neglect of the late Republic—is inevitably limited.

 

Yet a broader history of imperial Rome is not the purpose of the book which benefits enormously from a focus that charts the evolution of a specific space over the centuries. The second chapter surveys the later reconstructions and restoration of the Forum until the end of the Empire. There were new buildings, such as the Temple to Antoninus and Faustina, begun by the emperor Antoninus Pius in AD 141 after the death of Faustina his wife, and complete by 150. Fire was a continual hazard. Often this gave scope for new building but by the time the Basilica Aemilia was completely destroyed during Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410, there was little incentive, or resources, to rebuild it. The city government closed off the ruins from sight with a brick wall, part of which still stands. Melted coins from the fire can still be seen in the basilica pavement. It was, surprisingly, the Ostrogoth Theodoric, then ruling from Ravenna, who restored some of the decaying buildings in the late 5th century. The statue of the Eastern emperor, Phocas, set up in 608 on an earlier column, is the last recorded monument of the ancient Forum.

 

The bulk of the volume examines each of the major buildings one by one. So there is a description of the site and its previous buildings before the new commission. In some cases texts or even inscriptions survive that honour the patron and the background to the decision to build. So Augustus celebrates the return of the standards captured by the Parthians with a small triumphal arch. His successor, Tiberius, uses the spoils of campaigns in Pannonia and Dalmatia to rebuild the Temple of Concord and grace it with Greek statuary. The temple is later used by the senators as an alternative meeting place to the Curia. The Portico of the Dei Consentes (honouring in its origins the gods of Olympus) was developed as a series of shops faced by the columned portico itself by a succession of emperors from Titus through to Hadrian in the 2nd century.

 

Overall the book is a triumph of digital reconstruction. Not least of its glories is the imaginative use of illustrations, coins that show the original buildings, fragments of the cornices or paving, earlier depictions of the ruins before they had vanished still further. Photographs show the interior of the Curia when it was the Baroque church of Sant’Adriano and a page displaying the various marbles gives a hint of the vanished opulence of the interiors. So generous are the illustrations that there is even room for alternative reconstructions; what kind of roof did the Temple of the Vestal Virgins have and did the Basilica Julia have a second-storey terrace or not? The final chapter concentrates on how visitors over the centuries would have seen the Forum as they entered it.

 

After all the bright, shining—and perhaps rather clinical— reconstructions, the end has to come. There is a final view from the late 6th century that shows the buildings still standing but the bronze chariots and horses from the triumphal arches have vanished. Grass is growing in their place and the pavements too are full of weeds. This melancholy scene is suitably backed by a thunderous sky.

 

Much survived into the Middle Ages with some buildings used as strongholds by one aristocratic faction or other. However the mass of stone or marble was too tempting for the popes. So Poggio Bracciolini records the Temple of Saturn in 1402 as ‘almost intact with fine marble work’. By the time he visited Rome again in 1447 ‘the Romans’ had taken the cella and part of the portico of the temple to the lime kiln, detached the columns and demolished the rest. Houses then filled the site as the rest of the Forum gradually silted up.

 

The frontispiece shows the view of the Forum from an opulently marbled pavilion in the Domus Tiberiana on the Palatine Hill. Two toga-ed Romans stand together scrutinising plans of what lies before them. They turn out to be our authors and who can deny that their intensive study and knowledge of the buildings entitle them to be honorary Roman citizens. Few of their forebears would have known as much about the centre of their city as they do. The have produced a sumptuous and informative book which I will treasure.

 

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Bernini's Beloved

With the new edition of the Blue Guide to Rome just off to press, it is time to catch up on new books to accompany it. I recently reviewed Richard Bosworth’s excellent Whispering City, Rome and its Histories for this site and now there are two more studies that have received widespread attention. Both are set in Rome at a time when it was ruled directly by the popes, both are the result of meticulous, even inspired, research in the archives and both focus on strong women. Yet what different women they are!

 

Costanza Piccolomini is perhaps best known as the mistress of Bernini, her face slashed on the orders of the enraged architect when he discovered she was also sleeping with his brother. She is the subject of one of his most striking busts, a wonderful work and explored here from every angle (it is now in the Bargello museum in Florence.) After the rupture with Bernini, Costanza was thought to have vanished from the record, but by assiduously ferreting through archives of every kind, McPhee revives the later life of a courageous and successful woman.

 

In contrast, there are the manipulations of Maria Luisa, a nun who made herself madre vicaria of the convent of Sant’Ambrogio in Rome (the building was in the Piazza Mattei by the lovely Fontana delle Tartarughe). There is not much to redeem Maria Luisa as she uses her feigned spiritual prestige to seduce her fellow nuns and even to murder those who oppose her. It is only thanks to an opportune misplacing of the once-secret Inquisition files that the scandal can be told at all.

 

Costanza’s name was a grand one: the Piccolominis had produced popes and duchesses; but the impoverishment of her branch of the family meant that her name was all she had to cling to. She even had to be given a charitable dowry, a grant to keep young girls such as herself from a life on the streets. Yet her husband, Matteo Bonucelli, scultore, was a successful craftsman, a loyal member of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s team at St Peter’s and a restorer of antique sculpture. They married in 1632 when she was eighteen and he ten years older. McPhee uses birds-eye engravings of 17th-century Rome to show where they lived, and as her husband’s career prospered so did their homes. Their house, in today’s Vicolo Scanderbeg, close to the Trevi Fountain, boasted a grand doorway of travertine blocks, loggias overlooking a courtyard and a piano nobile more suggestive of a palace than an artisan’s home. Quite how Costanza managed her varied love life is unknown and one wonders whether Matteo acquiesced in the affair to please his formidable boss. Yet, quite apart from the scar left by the face-slashing, there was more for Costanza to suffer. She was hauled off by the papal police, the sbirri, as a donna dishonesta, and incarcerated in the Domus Pia, a home for ‘wayward’ women. Bernini was, apparently, fined 3,000 scudi, but then absolved by his patron, pope Urban VIII.

 

It is from the Domus Pia that we get the first evidence of Costanza’s spirit and accomplishments. She managed to compose a petition for her release addressed to the Governatore of Rome. It was written in her own hand—and it worked. She was released back into the care of her husband and they lived together for another fifteen years until his death in 1654 left her a widow at forty. Costanza could then have faded back into obscurity, but her husband’s flourishing business had left her many contacts and she was soon being addressed as Costanza scultora, buying and selling pictures to a clientèle that gathered around the new pope, Alexander VII. Costanza stayed on in the Vicolo Scanderbeg and descriptions show that its galleries and hallways were full of works of art on offer. Among her clients was the Duc de Richelieu, to whom she sold Poussin’s Plague of Ashdod for 1,000 scudi. It is now in the Louvre.

 

Moreover, she was not alone. A year after her husband’s death, Costanza gave birth to a daughter, Olimpia Caterina Piccolomini. The father is unknown but Costanza was especially close to the Abbé Domenico Salvetti, prefect of the Vatican Archives, and it was he who became guardian of the seven-year-old child when Costanza herself died in 1662. McPhee takes us on further and it is good to report that Olimpia herself flourished. She married twice, although she had no children, and was described as ‘Illustrissima’ at her own death in 1736, when the lengthy legal struggle over her inheritance provides McPhee with even more details of Costanza’s life.

 

This is a book that overflows with detail on life in Baroque Rome. McPhee takes excursions from the main text to talk about the best way of sewing up a scar (all too often a way of inflicting permanent humiliation) or the methods used to enforce the penitence of women. She discusses and follows through the fate of pictures and sculptures known to have belonged to Matteo and Costanza. Overall she provides a model of how the portrayal of a once-vanished life can be composed from meticulous work in the archives. The illustrations are particularly splendid.

 

The archives for the Inquisition inquiry into the goings-on in the convent Sant’Ambrogio were not as scattered as those of Costanza’s story but they had vanished as completely. They were found by chance by the German church historian Hubert Wolf in the Stanza Storica, a hall of the Archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in the Vatican. They took up six feet of shelf space but there was no logic to their placing and they did not seem any different from the mass of papers around them. Shelved there by mistake (or perhaps deliberately to conceal them), they showed that what sounded like an anti-clerical fantasy of misbehaving nuns was actually completely true.

 

The story begins with a German aristocrat, Katharina von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a widow who was accepted into the convent of Sant’Ambrogio in 1858. As a German of noble birth in an Italian community, she would always be an outsider, but within fifteen months she was clamouring to escape for very different reasons. There were secret rituals among the nuns from which she was excluded and she believed she was being poisoned. Luckily she had good connections and her cousin, who was in the circle of Pope Pius IX, managed to get her out and install her at his the estate, the Villa d’Este at Tivoli. Having collected her thoughts, she made a momentous decision: to write up a denunciation of the convent that she presented in person to the Roman Inquisition.

 

The convent had already had a troubled past. Its founder, Maria Agnese Firrao, had claimed to be a saint, the recipient of visions and miracles. There were many doubters, however, and her ‘false holiness’ had been formally condemned by the Inquisition in 1816. She had been removed to the seclusion of a convent in Gubbio where she had died in 1854. The convent in Rome, however, survived, but Katharina’s first accusation was that the nuns had continued to honour their founder as a saint. In other words they were defying the orders of the Holy Office. This required a full investigation.

 

The transcripts of the intrusive and persistent  interviews that followed gradually reveal the full scale of a far wider scandal. It centred on a beautiful nun, Maria Luisa, who had manipulated herself into the positions of novice mistress as well as vicaress, the deputy to the abbess, by the age of 24. Messages of support from the Virgin Mary were taken on trust by the credulous electors and Maria Luisa went on to use these to encourage sexual intimacy with her novices as a form of initiation. Whenever doubters protested, the direct commands of the Mother of God to Maria Luisa were used to overcome their hesitations. There were even letters from the Virgin Mary, always written in bad French, to back up the vicaress’ demands.

 

At a time when a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment was leading to a renewed emphasis on the reality of miracles, it was easy for Maria Luisa to attract into her bed the confessor to the convent, the Jesuit Joseph Kleutgen, who ten years before had written a scholarly book on the importance of miracles. All too readily he accepted that she needed special protection of a physical kind that allowed him to disregard the clausura, the sealing off of the nuns, and spend the night in Maria Luisa’s cell.

 

Then there were the attempts to poison other nuns, not just the German Katharina but those who saw through Maria Luisa and recognised what was going on. There were probably three deaths that could be attributed to her, all involving the symptoms of poisoning. The letters from the Virgin Mary foretold the deaths of nuns who had offended the Mother of God by their sins of pride.

 

As Maria Luisa’s guilt was revealed and condemned by the interrogators, the Inquisition did everything it could to keep the scandal secret. The supervision of the convent by its confessors had failed completely but this could hardly be admitted. The convent was closed down, ostensibly on the grounds of the misplaced veneration of its foundress. Maria Luisa was sent to a penitential cell and gradually disintegrated into mental breakdown. The confessors who had been so easily deceived by her were reprimanded and virtually nothing but vague rumour remained. The story was forgotten until Wolf’s opportune discovery, and as a result the frankness and scope of the confessions come all the more as a shock.

 

Although The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio will be read by many for its salacious details, it tackles fascinating questions of religious experience. The campaign to restore the miraculous into the centre of Catholic life had made it imperative to evaluate the visions that isolated nuns (or, in the case of Lourdes, the young girl Bernadette) claimed to have experienced. In Maria Luisa’s case the stories were fabricated, but all too readily believed, thus allowing her to achieve spiritual power over others. Who dares to challenge the Virgin Mary, especially when she write letters? Even to this day the Church finds it impossible to deal with her many appearances and the impassioned messages of despair over the troubled world that she passes on to favoured members of the faithful.

 

Wolf does not forget that he is a serious church historian and The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio is also an analysis of the workings of the Inquisition within the papal government. Once it took on a denunciation, its methods were rigorous but fair and it was persistent questioning that led to the breakdown and confessions of the participants in the scandal. The punishments were mild—after all, Maria Luisa was guilty of three cold-blooded deaths by poisoning—but it was the overall demands of secrecy that conditioned much of the outcome. If there had not been an aristocrat with influential connections at hand, the goings-on might never have been exposed. In the hot-air atmosphere of papal Rome in the 1850s, when power struggles and intrigue permeated the government of the Church and city, who knows what was going on elsewhere? We can only await more lucky finds in the archives.

 

Sarah McPhee, Bernini’s Beloved, A Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini (Yale University Press, 2012); Hubert Wolf, The Nuns of Sant’ Ambrogio, The True Story of a Convent Scandal, English translation by Ruth Martin (Oxford University Press, 2015). Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and contributor to the forthcoming new edition of Blue Guide Rome (spring, 2016).

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Sabbioneta, Cryptic City

Detail of the theatre at Sabbioneta.

We came to Sabbioneta the small Renaissance city brought to its final form by Vespasiano Gonzaga in 1590, in the spring of 2015 to check it as a possible stop on a tour. Despite its World Heritage status, Sabbioneta is still little visited; we were almost alone as we explored its buildings and walked around its walls. Yet it is fascinating in itself as a time capsule of late 16th-century architecture, above all in the exquisite theatre, just a few years later than Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza but echoing it in style. It came as no surprise to find that it is the work of Vincenzo Scamozzi, who had finished Palladio’s masterpiece after his death.

 

The architect James Madge, who died in 2006, first visited Sabbioneta in January 1988, a day on which the fog of the Lombardy plain enveloped the city. As he walked around, buildings loomed from the mist and then disappeared, perspectives came and went, the length of the Galleria Grande seemed to merge into nothingness. It gave him the sense that there was more to Gonzaga’s creation than simply ‘the ideal city’ and he became fascinated by Vespasiano Gonzaga himself, ‘for whom architecture was a means to externalise a complex, often contradictory and passionate nature’. Why was Vespasiano so determined to create this small  (probably no more than 2,000 citizens), idealised city in a comparatively remote spot on the banks of the Po?

 

The result of Madge’s researches are Sabbioneta, Cryptic City, published by Biblioteque McLean (London, 2011). Madge begins by tracing Vespasiano’s background. His father had died when Vespasiano was only eleven months old, leaving the township of Sabbioneta as part of his inheritance. This was only a cadet branch of the family. Vespasiano was never to enjoy the wealth of his cousin Guglielmo, the head of the Gonzaga family in Mantua, with his thousand dependents and twenty residences, but his mother was from the ancient Colonna family and Vespasiano was profoundly conscious of his status as one of noble heritage and status. He was lucky to be brought up in the household of his aunt Giulia Gonzaga, a childless window of great learning who ensured he had the best education in the classics.

 

He was then sent off to the court of his uncle, Philip II of Spain. Perhaps it was because as an Italian he would always be an outsider, perhaps the hothouse aristocratic atmosphere of Philip’s court would have stifled anyone who was not exceptional, but Vespasiano’s achievements in Spain were always modest. There were some reckless charges in battle which he was lucky to survive, and he proved a capable diplomat, but lacked the éclat or presence to go further. His most senior posting, as Viceroy of Navarre, appears to have been largely honorary.

 

There were also problems in his intimate relationships. His first marriage proved childless and he was alienated from his wife: there were rumours of her infidelities. His second marriage, to the Spanish Anna of Aragon, did produce a daughter, Isabella, and a son, Luigi, but Anna appears to have suffered from deep depression and had withdrawn from Vespasiano’s life years before her death. Now came the tragedy of his life. Luigi, always sickly, died while still a boy, a terrible blow for a father who was so conscious of his noble heritage. A third marriage, conceived in desperation in the last hope of providing an heir, was childless. The Gonzaga-Colonna line was due for extinction. Madge analyses the poems that Vespasiano left. They were hardly of great quality but show him as solitary and unfulfilled, the women he addresses hopelessly idealised.

 

So this perhaps helps explain the impetus for a semi-private world of his own creation, a place where Vespasiano could act out the role of cultured humanist. Sabbioneta was a lifelong project, with its founder escaping when he could from his duties in Spain. He began in 1556 by creating a community from the existing township that he had inherited. Citizens would lose their privileges if they did not reside there, absentee clergy were summoned back to their parishes, a monastery was relocated within the walls and no local market was to be held outside the central piazza. Madge notes how the inhabitants soon took pride in the new town that was rising around them and their loyalty was reinforced by the benevolent rule of their patron. Vespasiano’s tolerance extended to a community of Jews, rare at a time when the Counter-Reformation was gathering strength (one can still visit the city’s synagogue). Though he kept his religious beliefs to himself, his range of contacts showed he was never closed to religious diversity.

 

This is not a guidebook to Sabbioneta, although Madge uses his architectural experience to trace some of the influences from the treatises of Leon Battista Alberti (whose masterpiece of Sant’Andrea in Mantua is not far away) and, through Alberti, back to the Roman architect Vitruvius. Vespasiano was steeped in the Roman world. He had himself presented as a Roman in the fine bronze statue of him by Leone Leoni (1588), originally outside the ducal palace but now crowning his tomb in the church of the Incoronata. Rome, as Madge puts it, ‘is immanent as a felt presence at Sabbioneta’. The city is aligned on an axis that leads southwards to the city, there are frescoes in the theatre of Rome as it was in Vespasiano’s day and his own seat there is placed in front of a fresco of his namesake, the emperor Vespasian.

 

Unlike Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico, the theatre in Sabbioneta is conceived as an independent building, probably the first of its kind. With its statues of the Olympian gods, frescoes of the emperors and of Rome, and a painted loggia of local figures (reminiscent of the Veronese’s frescoes from the Villa Barbaro), it is a wonderful place to visit. Nearby the Palazzo Ducale (Vespasiano was created Duke of Sabbioneta by the emperor Rudolf II in 1577) has much of interest, but perhaps one comes closest to Vespasiano himself in the private apartments of the Palazzo del Giardino. The frescoes here, by Bernardino Campi, show his fascination with Roman literature: there are scenes from the Aeneid and mythology from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Madge attempts to make connections between the preoccupations of Vespasiano and the subjects of the frescoes but it could equally be said that these are typical expressions of the 16th-century humanism. What is special is the Galleria Grande, 96m long. Originally Vespasiano’s collection of antique statues were spaced along the walls, but towards the end of his life, he took out the busts of famous commanders and refilled their niches with antlers and other ‘natural’ objects that he had acquired while visiting his patron, the emperor Rudolf in Prague. It shows that, even in his last years, Vespasiano was still intellectually inquisitive.

 

The theatre was inaugurated in February 1590 during carnival celebrations and a troupe of comedy players was based there over the following months. However, Vespasiano was ailing and he died in 1591, leaving the city to his daughter and her husband. Over the years that followed the city stagnated. The statues went to Mantua in the 18th century. The theatre passed from granary to warehouse, from barracks to the local cinema, before its restoration in the 1950s.

 

Meticulous readers will note that James Madge died in 2006 and Sabbioneta was not published until 2011. It is good that the book was rescued for publication, although the material, particularly that on Vespasiano’s life, might have been reorganised in a better chronological sequence. In his attempt to find the roots of Vespasiano’s personality, Freud is brought in to help, but it is hard to isolate Vespasiano’s inner traumas from the wider world in which he lived. In so many ways he represented the cultural elite of his day: tolerant, well-read, half-lost in the Classical world. Where this book has wider appeal lies in the generous selection of 16th-century humanist texts that Madge has brought together. Sadly the illustrations at the end are rather cramped but overall Madge does well to give an interpretation of Sabbioneta that explains why it came to be.

 

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

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