Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 5, 2009
Patrizia Tosini Girolamo Muziano 1532–1592: dalla Maniera alla Natura Rome: Ugo Bozzi Editore, 2008. 584 pp.; 136 color ills.; 363 b/w ills. Cloth $375.00 (8870030431)

Born in Brescia in 1532, following a two-year period of study in Padua (1544–46) and three years in Venice (1546–49), Girolamo Muziano moved to Rome, where he would spend the rest of his life. The ambitious young painter and draughtsman, like so many other “foreign” artists, sought fame and fortune in the papal capital. Giovanni Baglione, the artist’s early biographer, goes so far as to write that Muziano, determined to become an excellent painter, “applied himself with the most insistent fervor of his spirit and care of mind not only to the study of the antiquities and best modern works of Rome, but of nature as well.” And “to find employment” and “to avoid the temptations of love and better attend to his studies of painting,” the young artist “not only shaved his beard, but his entire head, too, which made him look like a galley slave” (Le vite de’ pittori scultori et architetti, Rome: Andrea Fei, 1642, 49).

While it is improbable that shaving his head had anything to do with it, Muziano did go on to enjoy an extraordinarily successful career, becoming one of the most accomplished and influential artists in Rome during the second half of the sixteenth century. A master of landscapes and historical subjects, and as adept at painting in oils as in fresco, he gained fame for his devotional paintings, monumental altarpieces, and complex decorative cycles (both secular and sacred), as well as for his drawings—a number of which were reproduced as engravings, to wide acclaim, by Cornelis Cort. Known for introducing into Rome the North Italian (largely Paduan and Venetian) tradition of landscape painting, Muziano was most in demand for his altarpieces, which are characterized by narrative clarity, pronounced naturalism, emotional depth, and pietistic resonance. His patrons included the Cesarini and Colonna families; Cardinals Ippolito II d’Este, Giovanni Ricci da Montepulciano, and Alessandro Farnese; Federico Borromeo and the Oratory of San Filippo Neri; Vittoria Tolfa Orsini; Ciriaco Mattei; the Duomo of Orvieto; and, most notably, Pope Gregory XIII, for whom he worked as official court painter and overseer of all major papal projects.

As Patrizia Tosini notes at the very beginning of her magisterial and long-anticipated monograph, Muziano “has suffered the curious destiny of having always been considered a crucial figure in the history of Roman painting in the second half of the Cinquecento without ever having become the focus of systematic study and sustained analysis” (1). Indeed, notwithstanding Ugo da Como’s 1930 monograph, Girolamo Muziano, 1528–1592: Note e documenti (Bergamo: Istituto Italiano d’Arti Grafiche), the cursory overview of Muziano’s career published in 1997 by Paola Di Giammaria (Rome: Shakespeare), and John Marciari’s dissertation of 2000, “Girolamo Muziano and Art in Rome, circa 1550–1600” (Yale University), no comprehensive examination of the painter’s oeuvre or an assessment of his place in Post-Tridentine Roman art has been undertaken. Fortunately, this lacuna has now been filled by Tosini’s exemplary study, the product of many years of research on Muziano and, more generally, on sixteenth-century Italian painting, which builds upon her doctoral dissertation of 1999 and her numerous articles on the artist, published since 1993.

Tosini’s is a classic monographic study, comprised of six narrative chapters, a complete catalogue raisonné of the artist’s paintings, and an appendix rich in documentary material, much of it discovered by the author. Following her introduction, in the first five chapters the author traces Muziano’s career in a chronological fashion, and then concludes her study (chapter 6) with a consideration of the artist’s followers and artistic legacy. As she states in her introduction, this book is “above all, an exercise in connoisseurship and, contextually, [a study] based upon a large mass of archival material from Rome and beyond . . . in order to be able to redefine the outlines of the works through a historical frame of objective facts” (3; my translation). But what emerges from this seemingly straightforward narrative is not only an understanding of the ways in which Muziano built his career with the support of the leading cultural and ecclesiastical figures and institutions, but a remarkably vivid picture of the artistic culture of Rome, Orvieto, and other centers in the second half of the sixteenth century.

Muziano’s Brescian origins and Paduan and Venetian periods are the focus of chapter 1. Tosini presents a convincing case for the importance of Lombard painting, particularly Girolamo Savoldo’s lyrical art, on the artist’s early development, as well as the formative influences of Lambert Sustris and Domenico Campagnola in Padua and Tintoretto in Venice. It was, she argues, his collaboration with the little-known Giovanni Battista Ponchino in the Maser home of Francesco Barbaro in 1548 that facilitated Muziano’s move to Rome the following year. Chapter 2 looks at the artist’s early Roman period, from 1549 to 1560. Here we follow Muziano from his earliest Roman commission, his frescoes in the Gabrielli Chapel in S. Maria sopra Minerva (1550) through his two large altarpieces for the Duomo of Orvieto (1555–57), with probing discussions along the way of his monumental landscape fresco, Flight into Egypt (1552–53), in S. Caterina della Rota, perhaps the most radical conception of the subject produced in the Cinquecento; his frescoes in the Castello Cesarini in Rocca Sinibalda (ca. 1552–53); and his Resurrection of Lazarus (ca. 1555), which she considers to be his “first fully Roman work” (81) and which, according to Baglione, was much praised by Michelangelo. Tosini underscores the centrality of Sebastiano del Piombo for Muziano’s maturation as an artist, and, with respect to his Orvietan altarpieces, rightly stresses their importance for the development of pittura sacra in Rome under Gregory XIII and Sixtus V.

Chapter 3 primarily addresses Muziano’s service to Ippolito II d’Este, for whom he carried out three major decorative projects from 1560 to 1566—in the cardinal’s Palazzo del Quirinale and Palazzo Orsini di Monte Giordano (both lost) and the Villa d’Este in Tivoli. Her presentation of the Villa d’Este is exemplary in the way the text works in relation to the catalogue: she uses the catalogue entry (A.14) to offer a detailed analysis of the documents, outline the project’s chronology, describe each of the rooms and their imagery, and attribute the individual frescoes—which disencumbers the text and allows her to focus on an assessment of Muziano’s role in overseeing the project and the influence of the frescoes on the development of landscape painting and villa decoration in Central Italy. The chapter concludes with Muziano’s work for Giovanni Ricci da Montepulciano, his never-realized commission for the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, his paintings for the Ruiz Chapel in S. Caterina dei Funari, and a fascinating discussion of his collaboration with the printmakers Cornelis Cort and Nicolas Beatrizet.

The patronage of Gregory XIII (1572–85) and members of the papal court is the primary subject of chapter 4. Here we encounter Muziano at the pinnacle of his career, overseeing the pictorial decoration of the Cappella Gregoriana in St. Peter’s, for which the painter designed all of the mosaics and the two large altarpieces (later completed by his protégé, Cesare Nebbia), as well as the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche in the Palazzo Vaticano, for which Muziano designed the entire decorative program, which was carried out by Nebbia and a team of collaborators. Tosini also presents Muziano’s last altarpieces for Orvieto, his work for Vittoria Tolfa Orsini, one of the leading female patrons of late sixteenth-century Rome, and other major commissions; and she offers pithy excursuses on his ties to and patronage from the Oratory of San Filippo Neri and Cardinal Federico Borromeo, and the pivotal role he played in Gregory’s establishment of the Academy of St. Luke in 1577.

In chapter 5, Tosini turns to the end of Muziano’s career during the papacy of Sixtus V. In contrast to what earlier scholars have argued, Tosini shows that the painter continued to receive significant patronage, producing, in addition to other works, the cycle of decoration for Ciriaco Mattei’s chapel in S. Maria in Aracoeli and the Circumcision for the high altar of the Gesù, commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. Muziano, however, no longer played the central role in grand papal projects, having been replaced by the younger Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra. This was not, however, because Sixtus did not appreciate his abilities; rather, Tosini argues, it was a result of several factors, especially Muziano’s prolonged illness, which prevented him from taking on onerous commissions, and his diminished speed of execution, which did not meet with Sixtus’s desire to see his projects carried out as quickly as possible.

Following chapter 6, in which the author discusses the composition of Muziano’s bottega over the course of his career, his pupils, the various artists with whom he collaborated, and the painters most deeply influenced by his art, the remainder of the volume, spanning 251 pages, is dedicated to a catalogue, documentary register, and complete bibiography. The catalogue, consisting of five sections, includes, respectively: (A) autograph works (65 entries, in chronological order, several of which treat multiple paintings), (D) lost or destroyed works (58 entries, arranged in topographical order), (P) problematic works whose attribution cannot be determined with certainty (24 entries arranged by location), (E) erroneous attributions (122 entries, arranged by location), and a list of works attributed to Muziano in Roman collections. The catalogue’s heart—the section on autograph works—is exhaustive, with each entry providing an inclusive bibliography of publications, from the sixteenth century to the present; pertinent documents; a discussion of related drawings; an overview of the commission and provenance; an analysis of the work’s style; and a brief consideration of its iconography. The concluding Regesto Documentario is no less impressive: it consists of notarial documents pertaining to Muziano’s private life, property, and workshop; documents from the Archivio di Stato di Roma and Archivio della Fabbrica di San Pietro relating to the Cappella Gregoriana; and miscellanenous documents, most of them letters, about Muziano’s work for the Duomo of Orvieto. These 252 documents, the majority previously unpublished and transcribed in whole or in part, are the historical backbone of Tosini’s larger study and will long be mined for the wealth of information they provide.

The richness of Tosini’s book is considerably more than what can be conveyed by summarizing its various parts. Throughout the volume, both in the text and the catalogue, she advances our understanding of Muziano as an artist, putting forward new attributions and readings of his works, raising new questions, and pointing to areas of research that demand further exploration. While specialists may wish to debate some of her attributions, she marshals compelling evidence, visual and otherwise, in support of her claims, and establishes and orders the corpus of Muziano’s work in a way that is both definitive and comprehensive. Muziano’s drawings, although not included in the catalogue, nevertheless figure prominently throughout the volume, presented as autonomous creations and as preparatory work for paintings and engravings. Muziano’s connections to, borrowings from, and influence on scores of artists—many of them unknown to all but experts—are also carefully traced in each of her chapters, with the result that he emerges from the pages of Tosini’s text as a highly self-conscious and ambitious painter, eager to forge a personal style that was modern and that met the increasing demands of his Post-Tridentine patrons, and which, in turn, was quickly emulated by his contemporaries.

Tosini’s volume appeared at virtually the same time as another monographic study of a major painter of the later Cinquecento: Stuart Lingo’s Federico Barocci: Allure and Devotion in Late Renaissance Painting (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). Although Muziano and Barocci were close contemporaries, and both were central figures in the reform of painting and highly influential on the next generation of artists, the books by Tosini and Lingo could not be more different from one another. In contrast to Tosini’s life-and-works approach, Lingo eschews the traditional monographic format, structuring his book thematically around art-critical terms and issues, with chapters on, inter alia, “Orders of Reform,” “Vision and Icon,” Figures of Vaghezza,” “Colors of Vaghezza,” and “Ut Pictura Musica.” American art history has grown critical of the monograph with catalogue raisonné, and some readers may fault Tosini for not employing a thematic structure like Lingo. But what enabled him to pursue this alternative approach was, as he acknowledges, the existence of two foundational monographs (with catalogues) on his artist, those by Harald Olsen (1962) and Andrea Emiliani (1985). In the case of Muziano, no such scholarly foundation existed. Now, with that foundation established by Tosini, perhaps future scholars will be able to extend Muziano studies in a way that Lingo has done so brilliantly with Barocci.

Tosini’s Girolamo Muziano is a major contribution to Renaissance art history, and it presents a probing and nuanced reappraisal of the artist and his significance. It is also a book that demonstrates its author’s intimate and extensive knowledge of all aspects of Italian (and Flemish and Dutch) painting in the sixteenth century, and with its elegant prose and meticulous attention to scholarship, it is a pleasure to read. Ugo Bozzi Editore is also to be commended for producing such a lavish—if costly—volume. The format is generous (a quarto), with notes on the same pages as the text; and it is profusely illustrated, with high-quality illustrations also integrated with the text, many of which are in color and full-page in size. This is, in short, the most complete and authoritative study of Muziano published to date, which every scholar of the late Renaissance in Italy will wish to read and repeatedly consult.

Steven F. Ostrow
Professor, Department of Art History, University of Minnesota