Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 14, 2016
Maarten Delbeke The Art of Religion: Sforza Pallavicino and Art Theory in Bernini's Rome Histories of Vision. Burlington: Ashgate, 2012. 258 pp.; 20 b/w ills. Cloth $124.95 (9780754634850)
Thumbnail

Maarten Delbeke’s The Art of Religion examines the relationship between the art theory of seventeenth-century Rome, particularly as it might apply to the work of Gianlorenzo Bernini and the writings of the Jesuit Sforza Pallavicino (1607–1667), confidant of popes Urban VIII, Innocent X, and especially Alexander VII, who made him cardinal in 1659. Pallavicino’s direct involvement with art and architecture was limited, and his writings refer only occasionally to the visual arts or artists (including Bernini), but Delbeke makes a compelling case for the relevance of Pallavicino’s work and more generally for a broader conception of art theory that acknowledges the impact that discourses in other arenas of culture can have on art theory and practice. In this he follows other art historians who have mined poetry, prose, literary theory, and especially theories of rhetoric in order to understand visual art as an art of persuasion, as he describes in his introduction, “Art Theory in Bernini’s Rome.” Although Delbeke is not the first to suggest that Pallavicino’s work is relevant to the art theory of the early modern period, his is by far the most sustained and nuanced treatment of the idea. Delbeke’s approach is also distinctive in that, unlike previous scholars, he does not place any emphasis on Pallavicino’s membership in the Society of Jesus or attempt to situate his study within the growing body of literature on Jesuit art theory. Instead, his book is the result of a thorough, careful, and sensitive reading of Pallavicino’s extensive oeuvre of mostly theological, philosophical, poetical, and historiographical writings, as well as a reconsideration of the several instances in which Pallavicino plays a role in early anecdotes from Bernini’s well-known Vita by Filippo Baldinucci (1682) and the artist’s son, Domenico Bernini (1713).

Delbeke’s first chapter, “Sforza Pallavicino and Roman Baroque,” provides a biography of the cardinal, in which he notes that Pallavicino’s career followed a trajectory similar to Bernini’s, except that the cardinal suffered somewhat from the Galileo affair and enjoyed a “return to grace” under Pope Innocent X; Delbeke also summarizes Pallavicino’s views on art. The second chapter, “The Pope, the Bust, the Sculptor and the Fly,” analyzes an anecdote told by Pallavicino in the first book of his Arte della Perfezion Cristiana (1665) and reworked a half century later by Domenico Bernini. According to Pallavicino, he was present when Bernini presented a newly completed portrait bust (now in a private collection in Siena) to his sitter, Pope Alexander VII. Pallavicino averred that the bust was less similar to its model than was the fly that was circling it, with which both Bernini and the pope agreed. In Domenico’s version of the story, artists and virtuosi, among them Pallavicino and Bernini, were gathered with the pope, comparing drawn and painted portraits of him; a fly landed on Pallavicino’s table, and Bernini exclaimed that it was more similar to the pope in strength and beauty than any mute portrait by the most skilled painter. Whereas Domenico turned the anecdote into a paragone of painting and sculpture and used it to demonstrate the court’s admiration for Bernini’s ingegno in speaking, Pallavicino used it to assert the incomparable brilliance of the Creator’s work—he claimed that there was more artistry in the making of an ear of wheat or a fly than in any work of Dedalos—and to affirm the great distinction between the living and the lifeless. Drawing also on Pallavicino’s Del Bene (1644) and Trattato sulla Providenza (ca. 1650), as well as (for contrast) Gian Domenico Ottonelli’s Della Christiana Moderatione del Theatro (1652) and Trattato della Pittura e scultura (1652) (this latter with Pietro da Cortona), Delbeke addresses the complex relationships among verisimilitude, truth, prima apprensione (a pre-rational observation), giudicio (judgment), affetti (passions), and vivacità (liveliness) in the mimetic arts. For Pallavicino, these arts represent what is not there; a work of art’s verisimilitude may deceive the viewer momentarily as to its truthfulness, but the viewer’s passions are manipulated by its liveliness, and it is through this affect that art may instill virtue in the viewer.

Delbeke explores the prima apprensione and giudicio further in the third chapter, “Art as Revelation: The Revelation of Art,” in examining Pallavicino’s approach to the truth claims of the mimetic arts and what one can know from them. For him, art is to be distinguished from both a lie or error and divinely inspired revelation, but it nonetheless can afford glimpses of religious truths. These truths may be partially understandable to the intellect (intelletto), but they must be made appealing to the imagination (fantasia) by representations ranging from philosophical arguments to poetry, painting, and theater in order to reach the heart, and both intelletto and fantasia are thus necessary for the perfection of the Christian. The prima apprensione plays an important role here because one can be moved by a verisimilar representation at this moment before truth claims are at issue and consequently be inclined toward the discovery of higher truths in the heart. However, this artifice does not, for Pallavicino, lift art per se to the level of theology or philosophy, as it does for Baldinucci.

The issues take a more political and public turn in the fourth chapter, “The Image of the Pope,” which addresses two controversies: Alexander VII’s refusal of the Roman Senate’s offer of a portrait statue in the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline Hill and his wish to move the papal residence from the Vatican to the Quirinal palace. In his Vita of the pope, Pallavicino supported the refusal of the statue, proposing an inscription as a better representation of the pope’s virtue than a sculptural effigy, as was the verbal portrait of the Vita itself, just as history, a discursive subject appealing to the intellect, is generally served better by words than by the visual arts. In his Storia del Concilio di Trento (1656–57), by which he has been most well known, and elsewhere, Pallavicino was consistent in justifying the church’s splendid material decorations and manifestations, and in defending Alexander’s right to move the papal court to the Quirinal palace; one of the arguments he advanced was that ceremonies that tie the pope to Saint Peter’s, like the Corpus Domini procession, would take place with “greater splendor and conspicuousness” if he were not in the adjacent Vatican palace. Pallavicino posits Alexander as an exemplum, a living image, whose virtue is represented to the faithful in the theater of the city.

Almost de rigueur, Delbeke must address Bernini’s bel composto—a concept that has pervaded studies of seventeenth-century art and architecture, especially Bernini’s work—which he does in the fifth chapter, “The Composite Work.” His point of departure is an account in Domenico Bernini’s Vita of a conversation between his father and Pallavicino at the foot of the Baldacchino in St. Peter’s in the 1660s, some thirty years after its completion, which Domenico prefaced by remarking that his father claimed that the success of the work—of bringing together the diverse elements of the site, the building, the vastness of the void in which the Baldacchino was placed (filling but not cluttering it), the beauty of the reliefs, and the richness of the materials—was achieved “by chance.” In the anecdote, Pallavicino asks Bernini how he could determine the size of the work’s component parts so that it would look so well proportioned from every viewpoint in the vast space of the basilica, to which Bernini replies, “by eye.” Pallavicino follows up by wondering how the eye could appraise the proportion of the parts before they had been arranged together; Bernini remains silent, and Pallavinco answers his own question: that no eyes other than Bernini’s are necessary. (Typically, Delbeke quotes Domenico’s text at length in its original Italian, but translates only key phrases while paraphrasing the whole.) Delbeke associates Domenico’s discussion of compositeness with Pallavicino’s own idea of contrapposto, or antithesis, expressed in his Trattato dello stile (1662), where he advocated the juxtaposition of diverse and even opposing words, things, and ideas—balancing art and chance—for elegance in writing. The anecdote also leads to a substantial discussion of the importance in Italian art theory of the giudizio dell’occhio, as well as the bending of rules, novelty, and the non sò che that produces composites whose “effect is an ineffable grace, which attracts, marvels and seduces the beholder” (145). Delbeke demonstrates that Domenico’s biography unites subject and object in presenting Bernini himself as a bel composto of virtues, whose non sò che is manifested in the Baldacchino.

With a focus on Pallavicino’s unfinished Fasti sacri, as well as the Poetica sacra (1648) and Prose (1649) of his friend, Giovanni Ciampoli, Delbeke extends his discussion of variety and novelty in the sixth and final chapter, “Sacred Art,” here in the context of the attempt to reform sacred poetry and reconcile classical literature with Christianity under Urban VIII. In his Arte della Perfezion Cristiana, Pallavicino posited the utility of these literary stylistic devices, which respond to natural human desires, for meditation (specifically on paradise). Variety and novelty gain a historical dimension in the question of whether or not immutable truths can be expressed in various and new ways. Both Pallavicino and Ciampoli affirmed that multiplicity and variety of forms, which may be seen as an analogue of the contingencies of history, are both inevitable and delightful.

Pallavicino understood art as a means of expression that was enlisted in the service of faith and that was subject to ethical, epistemological, rhetorical, and psychological considerations. The task of art was to move the believing audience along the right path to God and salvation. Since art should express truths, yet must do so through the production of representations, the problematic relationship—complex, indirect, and paradoxical—between truth and the mimetic arts, which often rely on deceit for effect, is central to Pallavicino’s understanding of art and constitutes a leitmotif of Delbeke’s study. As Delbeke points out, much of Pallavicino’s thought on the arts was commonplace, but it is nonetheless important because of his place “in the epicenter of baroque Rome” (23). Pallavicino also contributed original ideas to the discourse, especially the recognition of the untruth (yet also viability and positive productivity) of art and the connection of variety and multiplicity in style to an ethical human condition, namely, a desire for freedom and immortality.

Delbeke marshals an impressive variety and range of Italian and French sources for his arguments. He traces cognates, echoes, and contraries of the ideas inherent in Pallavicino’s texts and the Bernini biographies by contemporaneous and later authors, such as Dominique Bouhours, Lodovico Castelvetro, Ciampoli, Lelio Guidiccioni, Secondo Lancellotti, Agostino Mascardi, Claude-François Ménestrier, Lodovico Muratori, Ottonelli, and Emanuele Tesauro. His engaging and complex book is a major addition to the literature of early modern art theory. In a time when “neo-baroque” style in art, design, and fashion relies on the most generalized and hackneyed idea of “the baroque,” Delbeke presents the sophistication and nuances of art and theory in seventeenth-century Italy.

James Clifton
Director, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.