Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 29, 2008
John Richards Petrarch’s Influence on the Iconography of the Carrara Palace in Padua: The Conflict between Ancestral and Antique Themes in the Fourteenth Century Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2008. 200 pp.; 10 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (9780773452367)

This book likely exists mostly as a by-product of the pressures of the academic tenure process. What would have been an engaging twenty-page article has been inflated into 146 pages of speculation, supposition, and chiefly, digression. The nominal subject of the book is the now-lost cycle of frescoes in the great hall of the Reggia Carrarese in Padua, the Sala Virorum Illustrium. The scheme of the cycle was, according to John Richards, dependent upon a thematically related text by Francesco Petrarch, De viris illustribus. This is a tenable hypothesis, given the author’s close relationship with Francesco il Vecchio Carrara. Indeed, the cycle’s debt to Petrarch was already established by Theodor Mommsen (“Petrarch and the Decoration of the Sala Virorum Illustrium in Padua,” The Art Bulletin 34 (1952): 95–116). However, rather than limit the discussion to concordances between the text and a reconstruction of the iconography of its dependent imagery, Richards aims for more. As the author maintains,

Petrarch’s work for Francesco da Carrara can be seen as the most completely realized of his formal relationships with men of power. This formal or rhetorical relationship achieved visual expression in the shape of the great hall of the Reggia Carrarese in Padua, the Sale Virorum Illustrium, which was decorated on the basis of Petrarch’s long-stalled De viris illustribus, a text newly taken up at Francesco da Carrara’s request (Petrarch says). (8)

The subtitle of Richards’s book, “The Conflict between Ancestral and Antique Themes in the Fourteenth Century,” more or less reveals the author’s chief premise: that Petrarch guided his Carrara patron to view figures from antiquity as exhortations to virtue, thus replacing the more simplistic use of the Roman past as an ancestral trope by ambitious seigniorial families. This would have been a provocative extension of Mommsen’s work, in which the iconography was actually given short shrift. However, Richards’s book mostly devolves into a discursive ramble into the historiography of Petrarch’s engagement with the past.

Following a brief chapter on the construction and hypothetical reconstruction of the Reggia, Richards describes the rooms in the Reggia that were decorated in a pre-Petrarchian epoch, including the Sala Thebana, based upon the Thebaid by Statius, the theme of which, Richards says, is tyranny and the abuse of power contrasted with the appropriate exercise of power (40). The other early room was the Sala Nerone, whose titular antecedent was “an archetype of tyranny and excess” (42). Richards never quite reconciles this thematic selection with Giacomo II Carrara, its patron. Particularly disquieting is the fact that Giacomo had assassinated a relative in order to gain power himself, suggesting perhaps a perverse affinity for models of egregiously bad behavior or, dare we say, vice.

Chapter 4, on the patronage of Francesco il Vecchio da Carrara, is the heart of the book and runs to seventy-three pages, bracketed by chapters that run no longer than fifteen pages, making for a somewhat lopsided structure. Moreover, much of the material in this chapter would have been better left in footnotes, e.g., the lengthy discussions of the 1878 unpublished opinions regarding the subjects of the already damaged decorations of the Reggia by Angelo Sacchetti, the later re-evaluations of Cesira Gasparatto from the 1960s, and the opinions of a host of other scholars. This is the sort of tedious discussion that makes one’s eyes glaze over in doctoral dissertations.

When he finally gets to his subject, laconically entitled “The DVI/SVI as Exhortation to Virtue” (this title is only one manifestation of the apparent lack of copyediting of this manuscript), Richards sees a form of virtuous symbiosis between patron and writer in which the former encouraged the author to resume production of his abandoned treatise and the latter guided the patron to virtue through the content of that manuscript. Richards’s central premise is that, “The joint Sala Virorum Ilustrium and De viris illustribus constituted the most public and ambitious reflection of . . . [the] ideal relationship between poet and prince” (81). Richards convincingly makes the case that the figures from history that Petrarch profiled in the De viris illustribus are, in fact, models of virtuous imperium that could have served as exhortations to virtue for a fourteenth-century princely patron. That is, the iconology, if you will, is well done.

But the chapter mostly consists of discussions of Petrarch’s engagement with Roman writers such as Cicero, Livy, and Virgil. Historiographic digressions are rampant. For example, Richards includes a long discussion of various scholars’ opinions regarding the possible connection between the sculptural program of the Forum Augustum and the hero-list of Aeneid VI. Richards leans toward interpretations that grant Virgil an important role in the sculptural program. Yet finally Richards admits, “There is of course no possibility of the summi viri or their original setting having had any direct visual influence on the design of the SVI” (101), because not only had the Forum Augustum largely vanished by the fourteenth century, even the memory of the place seems to have evaporated. In fact, Petrarch himself evinces no knowledge of where the forum might have been. And, sculptural influence aside, there can be no greater testament to the power of ancestry than the Aeneid.

The next portion of the chapter focuses on Petrarch’s understanding of the past, and once again historiography appears to be the real subject. Oddly, while raising the question of the author’s conception of Rome as he struggled to reconcile his view of the “queen” of cities with Augustine’s condemnation of it, Richards discusses the views of Wolfgang von Leyden published in 1958, but fails to engage Ronald G. Witt’s provocative essay on Petrarch in “In the Footsteps of the Ancients”: The Origins of Humanism from Lovato to Bruni (Leiden: Brill, 2000).

The final chapter of the book is nominally devoted to Francesco Novello da Carrara, whose first year of rule was fourteen years after Petrarch’s death. As Richards notes, Francesco Novello’s lack of interest in Petrarch was likely conditioned at least in part by the loyalty shown to Giangaleazzo Visconti by what was left of Petrarch’s circle between 1388 and 1390, when Visconti forces toppled Carrara rule in Padua. Francesco Novello successfully removed the Visconti from Padua, and although forced to pay Giangaleazzo steep reparations for many years, he embarked on an ambitious agenda of territorial conquest. Richards correctly sees Francesco Novello’s intellectual interests as focused on the glorification of the Carrara family, i.e., more on dynasty or ancestry than virtue. Richards contrasts Francesco Novello’s ambitions and avarice with Petrarch’s exhortations toward humility for Francesco il Vecchio and implies that had the son heeded that message, his own end—killed by Venetians in prison in 1406—might have been different. Yet, the father himself died a prisoner of the Visconti in Monza in 1393. Virtue is apparently its own reward.

Moreover, the opposition proposed by Richards is thematically unsatisfying as well, for while the “humanist” Petrarch was optimistic about the wisdom of his patron, Francesco il Vecchio, the later humanist Pier Paolo Vergerio marveled at his own patron’s love of justice and skill at governance and compared him to Priam (Benjamin G. Kohl, Padua Under the Carrara, 1318–1405, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, 135). That patron? Francesco Novello. Clearly the issue of what exactly constituted humanism in Padua begs for some reconsideration as well.

Sharon Dale
Associate Professor of Art History, Penn State Erie, The Behrend College

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