Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 22, 2012
Heather Hyde Minor The Culture of Architecture in Enlightenment Rome Buildings, Landscapes, and Societies, vol. 6.. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010. 312 pp.; 36 color ills.; 112 b/w ills. Cloth $95.00 (9780271035642)

The most famous works of eighteenth-century Roman architecture and urbanism, such as the Trevi Fountain or the Spanish Steps, have always seemed more at home at the end of histories of Baroque architecture than at the start of histories of modern architecture; there, one is more likely to encounter Laugier’s hut or Soufflot’s Sainte-Geneviève. The idea that the architectural initiative passed from Rome to the north sometime around 1700 extends back to the eighteenth century itself, and was rarely questioned in the century-long tradition of formalist architectural history inaugurated in the late nineteenth century. But while eighteenth-century Rome has had its apologists who complain that the quality of its architectural output is unfairly overlooked, it was the rise of culturally and socially oriented models of architectural history that really gave eighteenth-century Rome its second chance. These approaches were less concerned with aesthetic distinction or innovation than with interpreting architecture in relation to broader historical transformations. True, Rome had only a tenuous connection to the new master narratives of eighteenth-century scholarship, which center on that world-changing cocktail of Enlightenment ideas mixed with growing middle-class participation in public culture. (Rome had a negligible productive economy, and therefore lacked a bourgeoisie comparable to those of northern cities.) But this is not to say that the new ideas of the century had no impact in the Eternal City. On the contrary; but the impact came strictly within the politically stable limits of clerical culture, where such ideas inspired reformers hoping to re-arm the Church in its battle against the decline of Catholic influence. And it has been by studying how architecture and planning were drawn into these debates—debates local in scope but international in significance—that recent scholars have unlocked the rich interest of Roman architectural culture during this period. Heather Hyde Minor’s informative, wide-ranging, and deeply researched new book follows squarely in that path.

Minor’s history covers the papacies of Clement XII Corsini (1730–40) and Benedict XIV Lambertini (1740–58), and is divided into three sections. Each section deals with a particular area in which reforms or reform agendas influenced architecture, and contains two or three case-study chapters focused on a specific architectural project. These case studies (seven in total) skillfully weave existing scholarship with extensive research in the eighteenth-century archives and printed literature. None of the projects is radically reinterpreted, but by deepening our understanding of the people and circumstances that produced them, and by synthesizing these stories into a single narrative, Minor leaves us with a much enriched sense of architecture’s place in contemporary Roman culture.

The first and longest section of the book concerns the question of history. The impressive section introduction explains how leading Catholic reformers in Rome, many with Jansenist sympathies, hoped to push the Church away from the intellectual accommodationism of the Jesuits, and toward a more precisely documented set of doctrines derived from rigorous empirical study of Paleochristian history. As scholars, these reformers made enterprising documentary use of Paleochristian artifacts, including works of art and architecture. The first two chapters of this section deal with how this agenda influenced the restoration and extension of two of Rome’s most important Early Christian churches, the Lateran Basilica and Santa Maria Maggiore. In a pattern repeated throughout the book, our entrée to each project is a vignette about the person who either initiated it or at least played the major role in its elaboration. (These vignettes adopt a quasi-novelistic tone that this reader occasionally found grating.) These two rich chapters—which might be read in sequence along with Christopher Johns’s account of previous Early Christian restorations under Clement XI Albani (1700–21) (Christopher M. S. Johns, Papal Art and Cultural Politics: Rome in the Age of Clement XI, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993, chs. 3–5)—describe how the historical concerns and anti-Jesuit aesthetics of the reform movement translated into design decisions: in the rejection of Baroque formulas in favor of a gusto antico in Alessandro Gallilei’s new façade for the Lateran; in the iconographical choices behind the sculptural decorations in both projects; in the subtle Early Christian references embedded in the forms of Ferdinando Fuga’s façade at Santa Maria Maggiore; and in Fuga’s efforts to foreground the Early Christian origins of that building in his restoration of its interior.

The third chapter in this section deals with the creation of the Corsini family chapel in the Lateran Basilica. Focusing on the sculpted iconography and the abundant colored marbles that clad its surfaces, Minor interprets the project as the embodiment of the reformist vision of the scholar Giovanni Bottari, Clement XII’s private chaplain. Her analysis of the iconography is more convincing than her discussion of the marbles. An interesting variety of associations potentially unleashed by the marbles is discussed—associations with the new experimental science of geology; with debates about fossils and God’s creation of the Earth; and with famous marble features of well-known antique buildings—all of which provide food for thought. But in the end, none of these is convincingly linked to the program of the chapel.

The middle section of the book offers two chapters that trace the architectural consequences of enlightened governmental reform. The first concerns the Palazzo Corsini in Trastevere, which Minor discusses against the backdrop of anti-nepotism measures decreed at the end of the seventeenth century. These measures aimed to terminate the old tradition whereby a newly elected pope’s family sowed its members in lucrative government positions, gained access to the papal treasury, and built a magnificent Roman palazzo. These new regulations were initially unenforced until an outrageous scandal under Benedict XIII put pressure on his successor, Clement XII, to take them seriously. The result was that Clement’s most ambitious relative, his nephew Cardinal Neri Corsini, found himself caught between his compulsion to follow tradition by building a magnificent family palazzo in Rome, and the reality that he was completely on his own to finance it. Minor’s analysis thus details the inventive and often illegal means by which Neri Corsini obtained funds for the work, and how this fitful money supply engendered a building whose form bears witness to its erection in very distinct stages. The following chapter then concerns two semi-related events: Lione Pascoli’s remarkable Testamento politico of 1722, which proposed an unprecedented series of urbanistic and governmental reforms for Rome and the papacy (a text that definitely deserves a bigger place in our histories of Enlightenment town planning); and Clement XII’s subsequent decision to sponsor a major program of government relocation and centralization on the Quirinal Hill, involving an expansion of the existing papal complex there. Questioning the old story that the popes moved to the Quirinal because of air and humidity problems at the Vatican, Minor shows convincingly that the move was mainly dictated by the changing nature of government and by practical questions of space.

The final section of the book concerns public institutions for learning, with chapters on the creation of the Capitoline Museum and the Corsini Library. Minor’s argument concerning the Capitoline Museum holds that it embodied a “fundamental shift in how eighteenth-century men perceived and studied ancient objects” (190): the papacy had sponsored major collections of antique art since the sixteenth century, but the Capitoline’s eighteenth-century expansion and reorganization, coupled with a new commitment to opening it to a public of foreigners, artists, and dilettantes, transformed it into a museum in the modern sense of the term. At the heart of this shift, she argues, was a disciplinary passage from antiquarianism to the modern notion of an archaeologically revealed history, one that invited the museum visitor to view the displayed antiquities critically and to form interpretations about the development of ancient art and culture. Minor’s substantive demonstration of how this was manifested in the reorganization of the museum’s collection is somewhat puzzlingly undermined at the end of the chapter, where she seems to argue that antiquarianism and the archaeological approach were actually not as different as the views of the “noisy few”—the comte de Caylus, Pierre-Jean Mariette, and Johann Joachim Winckelmann—claimed they were.

Minor’s chapter on the Corsini Library, finally, returns to Giovanni Bottari, the papal chaplain who later also became the Corsini librarian. Unlike other princely libraries, the Corsini library under Bottari was installed in a privileged and prominent sector of the building in which it was located, the Palazzo Corsini. Minor shows how the reformist vision of the wily Bottari (with help from his sympathetic patron, Clement XII) shaped the library’s collection and organization. First she analyzes the iconography of its lavish ceiling frescos as a kind of collective catalog of the library’s unconventional system of organization. Clement XII had provided the library with a special dispensation to collect books banned as heretical—Jansenist books, mainly—and the library made these available to readers without restrictions; Bottari took care that those who read these books in the main reading room did so beneath a vivid fresco depicting Religion trampling over Heresy—a sly double-entendre, perhaps, that offered a public profession of orthodoxy from Bottari that, however, neglected to specify exactly which beliefs were truly orthodox and which were heretical.

A book this big, ambitious, and synthetic is bound to provoke disagreements here and there, and not all of Minor’s arguments are driven home as powerfully as they might be. But this should not overshadow the major service that her book does for those interested in the deeper life of eighteenth-century Roman architecture. This is a readable, amiable narrative bursting with information relating to an impressive range of subjects. Minor’s laudable determination to relate architecture to the world unfolding around it means that the level of contextual scene-setting goes far beyond what one normally encounters in books of this sort. Some may find the contextualizations sprawling, and some literalists may question how directly the stone and mortar of the buildings was really affected; but most readers, I think, will find Minor’s approach absorbing and illuminating. In the end, her book succeeds at the difficult task of offering both an engaging entry point for scholars new to the topic and a stimulating synthetic interpretation for those already involved with it.

Richard Wittman
Associate Professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of California at Santa Barbara