Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 12, 2015
Anthony Colantuono and Steven F. Ostrow, eds. Critical Perspectives on Roman Baroque Sculpture University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014. 288 pp.; 110 ills. Cloth $84.95 (9780271061726)

This important collection of essays originated in a symposium entitled “The Muse in the Marble: Plastic Arts and Aesthetic Theories in the Seventeenth Century” held at the American Academy in Rome in 2004. Anthony Colantuono, one of the two organizers, had the original idea to publish the papers. In 2008, he enlisted the help of Steven F. Ostrow, and the project gradually expanded, with several new essays commissioned from leading scholars. As the editors state in their preface, they aimed to create a volume that “would engage issues concerning the theory and production, reception, and interpretation of early modern Roman sculpture” (xiv). Here, “early modern” is defined as the hundred years between 1580 and 1680, when Rome was at the center of sculptural production in Europe. A final parameter is given: marble. Each essay treats either one or more works of marble or sculptors who specialized in marble. The choice is understandable in that marble was by far the most popular material for sculpture in seventeenth-century Rome.

Along with outlining the contents, the volume’s introduction provides a valuable historiography of Roman Baroque sculpture. Among the studies highlighted are the two that come closest to this collection in general approach and scholarly significance: Jennifer Montagu’s Roman Baroque Sculpture: The Industry of Art, published in 1989 (New Haven: Yale University Press), and her Gold, Silver, and Bronze: Metal Sculpture of the Roman Baroque of 1996 (Princeton: Princeton University Press). Indeed, if forced to choose only three books about Roman Baroque sculpture to read, in addition to the major monographs and exhibition catalogues, students could hardly do better than this volume and Montagu’s two. The reason lies in the way each book, through an approach based on case studies, gives texture to the practical realities of sculpture-making in seventeenth-century Rome. This also involves issues of audience reception: how sculptors tailored their creations to meet the expectations of their viewers, including patrons. Critical Perspectives on Roman Baroque Sculpture sometimes differs from Montagu’s two books in being less reliant on archival research for its insights. But in showing the gains to be made through other interpretive strategies, it demonstrates that the study of Roman Baroque sculpture is in no danger of stagnating anytime soon; the field need not be reliant on the chance discovery of documents.

The volume begins with an essay by Peter M. Lukehart that addresses one of the most inescapable parts of being a sculptor in seventeenth-century Rome: the guild system. Lukehart has previously explored the tension between the guilds and the nascent Accademia di San Luca. Here, he contributes new information about the several known attempts by the sculptors to liberate themselves from the marble workers’ guild, the Università dei Marmorari, and align with the painters, who were more fully integrated with the Accademia. One of these flare ups occurred in 1630–31/32. Most fascinatingly, Lukehart relates it to the ascendancy of Gian Lorenzo Bernini to the role of principe of the Accademia. Surely, Bernini helped galvanize the revolt against the marmorari, although Lukehart is unprepared to go that far until more evidence is forthcoming. To this reviewer, the proof is in all Bernini stood to lose in the current arrangement—both financially and in professional prestige.

The sculptor to shine brightest in the volume is undoubtedly Francesco Mochi, the subject of the second and third essays. Michael Cole addresses Mochi’s apparent tendency to give his figures the look of “grandezza,” or “greatness,” by making them appear overly large for the spaces they occupy. As Cole persuasively argues, the approach betrays a distinctly Florentine sensibility. During the sixteenth century, many of the leading Florentine sculptors—Michelangelo, above all—took up the challenge of presenting the illusion they had carved their sculptures without any material restrictions, when in fact they were limited to the size of their blocks of marble and felt obligated to respect these blocks, carving ex uno lapide. Cole goes on to reveal that rather than being a tried-and-true Mannerist Mochi was actually enormously cutting-edge in his approach. With sculptures like the Saint Veronica (1635–39), one of his most energetic and successful compositions, he continued to assert the illusion of monolithic sculpture through manipulations of scale, while disavowing the need to carve from a single block, choosing to piece his sculpture together. Most curious, though, is that he seems to have gone back on his strategy later in life, with sculptures that appear to be deliberately monolithic and, as a direct consequence, from the age of Michelangelo in style.

Fortunately for the reader, an explanation of why comes in the next essay, by Estelle Lingo, who also portrays Mochi as a methodical, highly cerebral sculptor. Her focus is on his statues of Saints Paul and Peter for the Benedictine church of San Paolo fuori le Mura, sculptures that have been regularly disparaged in the literature for their austerity and apparent return to Mannerism—and that are also monolithic. Lingo reconstructs the circumstances of the commission and demonstrates that the project was an initiative of Pope Urban VIII, who held Mochi in special regard, as has been further clarified in a recent article by Louise Rice (“The Unveiling of Mochi’s ‘Veronica,’” The Burlington Magazine 156 [November 2014]: 735–40). Not surprisingly, when Urban died in 1644, various troubles beset the commission—not least failure of payment by the Benedictines. Most important, though, is that Mochi is likely to have largely determined the appearance of the sculptures during the mid-1630s, when he had Urban’s support. As Lingo convincingly argues, the reason the statues look archaic is out of respect for their medieval setting, with Mochi taking inspiration from a thirteenth-century icon that was thought to offer the true likeness of the two saints. Moreover, it is an icon Urban is known to have venerated. Here, Lingo reinforces Cole, showing Mochi to be an artist whose many stylistic twists and turns reflect careful thinking, not whimsy or some psychological flaw.

François Duquesnoy, the subject of the fourth essay, by Colantuono, has never suffered from the perception he was unintellectual. Colantuono does his part to burnish the image, analyzing the complex iconography of one of Duquesnoy’s most famous relief compositions, of the Sleeping Silenus. Among Colantuono’s more interesting proposals is that Duquesnoy’s invention may have been inspired by Cassiano dal Pozzo, owner of the original model of the relief. The volume continues with a consideration of Duquesnoy’s student, Orfeo Boselli, in an essay authored by Maria Cristina Fortunati, who makes a lot—perhaps too much—of the fact that no contemporary source mentions Boselli’s treatise on sculpture, as though there was an active movement to stamp it out, which seems unlikely. Her essay highlights the need to pay more attention to Boselli the sculptor, particularly as pertains to his masterpiece, the Saint Benedict (ca. 1645) in Sant’Ambrogio della Massima.

One of the most important contributions in the volume is by Damian Dombrowksi and addresses the resurgence of the sculpted altarpiece during the seventeenth century. According to his explanation, part of the reason why sculptures began to be erected on altars following the Council of Trent was because of “the higher level of reality” that they embodied over paintings. In arguing his case, Dombrowski very smartly directs attention toward Annibale Fontana’s Madonna dei Miracoli (1583) in Santa Maria presso San Celso in Milan. This reviewer has long suspected Fontana’s statue influenced the course of sculpture in Rome, and Dombrowski demonstrates how: through the many architects and sculptors from Lombardy who worked in Rome during the early seventeenth century—Flaminio Ponzio, with his oratory of Saint Silvia at San Gregorio Magno, in particular. Audience reception is also at the heart of the seventh essay in the volume, by Maarten Delbeke, on Alessandro Algardi’s Beheading of Saint Paul (ca. 1638–43) in San Paolo Maggiore in Bologna. In addition to detailing the history of the commission, which features a wealth of new insights, Delbeke explores how the composition works with its surroundings to create a “theater” of martyrdom. The term is used in contemporary sources to describe the statue and aptly characterizes the controlled way in which viewers were intended to experience it for the sake of heightened emotions.

Ostrow is responsible for the next essay, on Bernini’s approach to relief sculpture. It should be read in tandem with Ostrow’s seminal study on the reliefs of Bernini’s father, Pietro (“Playing with the Paragone: The Reliefs of Pietro Bernini,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 67 (2004): 329–64). As the two essays make clear, relief sculpture was for Bernini as it had been for his father: “a fertile arena for experimentation,” to quote Ostrow (Critical Perspectives on Roman Baroque Sculpture, 170). His key example—and rightly—is Bernini’s extraordinary Saint Teresa and the Angel (1647–52) in the Cornaro Chapel. As Ostrow demonstrates, it derives much of its originality from the almost total way Bernini blurred the lines between relief sculpture and sculpture in the round. Ostrow does not try to claim too much for Bernini, pointing out that he could be very traditional when the visual circumstances demanded it, as with his highly pictorial Pasce oves meas (1633–46) in Saint Peter’s. The essay ends with a useful checklist of Bernini’s major reliefs.

The ninth essay in the volume, by Christina Strunck, on Bernini’s Pluto and Proserpina (1621–22), could be the most contentious. Strunck challenges the longstanding view that the statue was originally owned by Scipione Borghese. She contends that he intended it from the outset as a gift to Ludovico Ludovisi. The known payments for the transport of the statue certainly admit this view. Where her position becomes complicated is with her revised interpretation of the statue. As Strunck makes clear, the moment of giving, the fall of 1622, was one of high tension between Scipione and Ludovico. She proposes that the subject of the statue was chosen as a critique of Ludovico, who believed he and his family were responsible for bringing a new golden age to Rome. Thus, Pluto’s abduction of Proserpina—at least to Strunck—becomes a statement about the return of Rome to a wintry, dark age: the hell of Pluto (Ludovico). She also cites the inscription on the base of the statue in her support. But what is to be made of the fact that it derives from a text authored by Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII, who worked hard to bring peace between Ludovico and Scipione? Moreover, why go to all the trouble to develop a gift encoded with so “clever” a barb when the recipient is unlikely to be fazed, and Ludovico was clearly not, putting the masterpiece on full display in his villa? This reviewer is not convinced one should abandon the simplest explanation: that the statue only changed to a gift during the course of execution, in which case the choice of subject could still be Bernini’s, made for purely artistic reasons.

The volume ends with two essays about Michel Anguier, a French sculptor with years of experience in Rome at the French Academy. They introduce the fact that during the second half of the seventeenth century Rome ceded its place as center of the sculpture world to Paris. Julia K. Dabbs, with her contribution, “‘Humoring the Antique: Michel Anguier and the Physiological Interpretation of Antique Greek Sculpture,” and Aline Magnien, with “On Causes and Effects: Imitating Nature in Seventeenth-Century Sculpture between Rome and Paris,” combine to show how Anguier drew from his time in Rome to develop new theoretical approaches to sculpture that were made to fit the context of Paris. On completing these two essays, the reader is sure to be disappointed that there is not another volume on hand to continue the story through the eighteenth century. Of course, the challenge of this sequel would be to find a similar group of authors who could approach their topics with the highest imagination and argue their points as persuasively—and there would also need to be editors like Colantuono and Ostrow, ones intent on uncovering the nitty-gritty of the era’s sculptural practice.

C. D. Dickerson III
Curator and Head of Department, Sculpture and Decorative Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC