Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 2, 2014
Dorothy Metzger Habel "When All of Rome Was Under Construction": The Building Process in Baroque Rome University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013. 248 pp.; 119 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (9780271055732)

Dorothy Metzger Habel is unafraid to take the road well traveled by her academic forebears, even such renowned ones as Richard Krautheimer. This was true of her 2002 book on the urban development of Rome under Alexander VII (The Urban Development of Rome in the Age of Alexander VII, New York: Cambridge University Press), and it is equally true of her new book, “When All of Rome Was Under Construction”: The Building Process of Baroque Rome. What makes her latest study so exciting is that she offers a fresh perspective on the architectural and urban history of Baroque Rome both by returning to celebrated sites, such as Piazza Colonna and Piazza S. Pietro, and by introducing previously unheard stories like the construction of the Barnabite College at S. Carlo ai Catinari. From a trove of archival sources including texts and drawings—some newly discovered, others previously cited but not studied, and still others well known—Habel teases out the “voices” of the many constituents involved in building the papal city and interprets the varied responses to and rippling effects of these projects. She shifts attention from what was realized to what was conceived and to the complex processes by which the latter becomes the former. In doing so, Habel advocates listening to the past along with the architectural historian’s traditional skill of looking.

Habel’s scrupulous study makes clear that the building process in Rome was far more complex than the bilateral patron-artist discourse at the center of much scholarship on early modern art history. This book develops her earlier work on the process of building and, as she points out, draws upon and relates to recent studies across disciplines, such as Manuel Vaquero Piñeiro’s work on real estate prices and salaries (La renta y las casa: El patrimonio immobiliario de Santiago de los Españoles de Roma entre los siglos XV y XVII, Rome: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider, 1999) and Maria Grazia D’Amelio’s and Nicoletta Marconi’s respective studies on the construction industry (Maria Grazia D’Amelio, “The Construction Techniques and Methods for Organizing Labor Used for Bernini’s Colonnade in St. Peter’s,” in Proceedings of the First International Congress on Construction History, ed., Santiago Huerta, Madrid: Instituto Juan de Herrera, 2003, 1: 639–709; Nicoletta Marconi, “The Roman Baroque Building Yard: Technology and Building Machines in the Reverenda Fabbrica of St. Peter’s (16th–18th Centuries,” in Proceedings of the First International Congress on Construction History, ed., Santiago Huerta, Madrid: Instituto Juan de Herrera, 2003, 2: 1357–67). I would also place Habel’s research in a lineage of architectural studies from Joseph Connors and Tod A. Marder to Sarah McPhee and most recently Heather Hyde Minor’s The Culture of Architecture in Enlightenment Rome (University Park: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010) (click here for review). In fact, Habel’s work has much in common with the latter, as both authors harness microhistories as a means to address broad themes and major issues of their respective centuries. And both result in new ideas about the intersection between architectural history and social, political, intellectual, and/or economic history.

Habel is most concerned about “the infrastructure of the city—streets and squares, the stuff of public space—and the architecture that shaped and characterized this” (2–3). Diving deep below the surface of the projects at Piazza Colonna, the Barnabite College at S. Carlo ai Catinari, Piazza del Collegio Romano, and Piazza S. Pietro, her detailed description and careful analysis offer major contributions to three understudied issues: negotiations among stakeholders, financing projects, and public enfranchisement. Along with considering the roles of patrons and architects, she expands an understanding of the impact of lesser-known constituents in shaping public space: property owners, capomastri, agents, advisors, real-estate speculators, potential investors, clerics, and citizens. Much to her credit, Habel succeeds in interpreting the complicated economics of building; for instance, she explains a new financing scheme that offers an alternative to the traditional, yet contested, means of raising money through taxation (gettito), and she demonstrates how monies involved in one project were cleverly used to fuel others. Her discussions of constituents and economics point her to a broader question: Did the public have a voice in the urban development of a theocratic city? She answers in the affirmative by describing specific instances in which public enfranchisement is operative, for instance, when Virgilio Spada argues against privatization at Piazza Colonna and controls are put in place to ensure that the space does not become identified with a single individual (67–72, 76–78).

A contemporary quotation defines each of Habel’s well-balanced chapters. The first three concern a site or series of sites in Rome, whereas the fourth studies a text that “affords an alternative glimpse at the realities of street life in Rome during Alexander VII’s reign” (136). Despite the plethora of people and places, cohesion characterizes the book because comparisons and connections among the chapters are repeatedly made. At the heart of chapters 1 and 2 is Piazza Colonna, prominently located on Via del Corso, the main north-south road into Rome since antiquity. In the first chapter, Habel introduces a new dimension to its story by discussing an undocumented episode that predates Alexander VII’s much-studied plans for the piazza (1659–62). The evidence for an initiative to improve the piazza’s appearance during Innocent X’s pontificate (1644–55) comes in the form of a proposal to finance the building project by a group of nine brokers, led by one Marco Giovanni Stefano. Habel argues that the proposal demonstrates a search for alternate forms of financing in the wake of public protests to the gettito, which Innocent X levied to fund his expensive renovation of Piazza Navona. The aim was to build “senza spesa ne aggravare alcuno” (“without expense and without aggravating anyone” [Habel’s translation]) (7). But the proposal was ultimately rejected, and Habel speculates about the possible reasons. Furthermore, she discusses the reactions of the other stakeholders to the proposal, basing her interpretation on a careful reading of the documents and plans. Her analysis elicits reflection upon archival method, as she herself mentions in the introduction. How can a narrative be pieced together from fragmentary documentation? In nearly all cases, I found her interpretation well founded, but I was not entirely convinced of her speculation about the potential interest in this site of the Spanish ambassador, Iñigo Vélez de Guevara y Tassis, Count of Oñate.

The analysis of Palazzo Colonna continues in chapter 2 where Habel addresses the phase of the project under Alexander VII. Through careful readings of both old and new archival sources, comprising texts and plans, she convincingly demonstrates how “il negotio restava aggiustato” (“the deal was arranged” [Habel’s translation]), specifically how each stakeholder presented his case, maneuvered for position, and ultimately got some share of what he wanted (41). In doing so, she shows that even the pope did not act with impunity but instead listened to his constituents, at least to some degree. The most fascinating story is that of Gabriele Fanti, vicar padre of the Barnabite order, whom Habel characterizes in this chapter as one of its wisest individuals. Fanti’s “Discorso per Piazza Colonna” aimed to save his order from expulsion from Piazza Colonna. Although this aim was not achieved, his persuasive argument ensured that Prince Niccolò Ludovisi, who had set his sights on Barnabite property, acted responsibly. The funds collected from Ludovisi at Piazza Colonna were used to finance the Barnabite College at S. Carlo ai Catinari. This chapter augments Habel’s argument about public enfranchisement; the final papal brief for the projects constrained Ludovisi from building too grandly, thereby protecting this space from identification with a single individual.

Chapter 3 compares the projects at Piazza S. Pietro, Palazzo Pamphilj at Piazza del Collegio Romano, and the Barnabite College at S. Carlo ai Catinari, in order to investigate the impact of Alexander VII and Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s grandiose scheme at S. Pietro on other building sites “in tempo che tutta Roma era in fabrica” (“when all of Rome was under construction” [Habel’s translation]). As Habel shows, the collective effect was significant, causing shortages in construction materials and skilled workers. Two broad points that are teased out from these microhistories are especially worth noting: first, the building works at S. Pietro were not immune to the pressures experienced at smaller sites, and thus commonalities among the projects abound; and second, the difficulties encountered in this strained environment fostered innovations in the construction industry. In addition, the individual stories offer fascinating insights into the people involved; for instance, Habel brings Antonio Del Grande to life as a highly professional architect bent on quality through his testimony about the delays at the Palazzo Pamphilj. Her superb skill at reading plans is readily evident in her analysis of the Barnabite College, and throughout the book the clarity of her prose guides the reader in navigating the minutiae of her analysis. However, the specific question of whether Camillo Pamphilj paid a low, fair, or high price for cementi (rubble) could be clarified, even though her overall discussion of this type of building material represents an important contribution to the analysis of Rome’s construction industry.

In chapter 4, Habel offers a detailed analysis of Lorenzo Pizzatti’s “Roza riforma in molte cose della Città di Roma, e mondo, tutto per il ben public” (“A Rough Proposal for the Reform of the Many Concerns in the City of Rome, and in the World, All to Benefit the Public” [Habel’s translation]), written ca. 1656–59 (133). This unsolicited proposal paper, presented to Alexander VII, is interesting in and of itself as “among the most vivid records extant of a public voice in seventeenth-century Rome” (133). Habel uses this extensive commentary on social conditions and the urban fabric of Rome—and detailed advice on how to improve both—to test whether the pope heard and responded to this voice. She circles back to the projects at Piazza Colonna and the Barnabite College. By discerning commonalities between the actions of their protagonists and Pizzatti’s concerns, Habel argues that the public was able to exert influence in the urban development of the city of Rome.

Habel’s book points to exciting new directions in architectural history. In her introduction, she notes the development away from the monograph and toward syncretic themes that engage in interdisciplinary approaches. In shifting attention from results to process, Habel succeeds in moving current scholarship from formal analysis and symbolic meaning to social, political, and economic history, as seen through the eyes of an architectural historian who excels at close visual examination. Furthermore, Habel proves to be a very good listener.

Stephanie C. Leone
Associate Professor, Fine Arts Department, Boston College

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