Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 11, 2019
Pamela M. Jones, Barbara Wisch, and Simon Ditchfield, eds. A Companion to Early Modern Rome, 1492–1692 Brill's Companions to European History. Leiden, the Netherlands and Boston: Brill, 2019. 656 pp.; 119 ills. Cloth $206.00 (9789004391963)

A Companion to Early Modern Rome brings together thirty new essays that together offer a fresh perspective on the politics, urbanism, art, and culture of Rome between 1492 and 1692. The volume is an outstanding summary of the state of research and a showcase for innovative work across a wide range of disciplines. Each essay presents a succinct and focused discussion, with an analysis of previous literature and a conclusion that outlines possibilities for future research. Contributions by several leading Italian scholars are presented in translation. Covering an admirably comprehensive range of topics, the chapters chart exciting prospects particularly for collaboration and interdisciplinary work.

The standard overview of early modern Rome’s history and culture remains Ludwig von Pastor’s pious history of the popes, written in the nineteenth century; in the idealized images of Rome found in early modern printed maps, the city is represented as a spectacle of ancient wonder and Christian triumph. These essays, by contrast, are attuned to the overlooked, less palatable, and more conflicted aspects of Rome’s past, defining this period as a distinctly “early modern” one, rather than as a succession of Renaissance and Baroque eras. The volume is a useful illustration of what has been suppressed by the usual grand narratives, highlighting a history of disorder and protest that resonates in the present. The Tiber river flowed with sewage; Rome descended into tumult and violence with every sede vacante (the topic of John M. Hunt’s chapter); the city’s overwhelmingly male population encouraged widespread prostitution, which charitable institutions struggled to contain (as discussed by Anna Esposito). Eleonora Canepari and Laurie Nussdorfer consider how Rome was an unusually open city, offering opportunities for self-representation and social mobility to foreigners—at least the wealthy and well educated. Yet the Jewish community faced ritual humiliation, as in the infamous race of Jews staged during the Roman carnival, considered in Katherine Aron-Beller’s chapter.

In these essays, research on early modern Rome has become multilayered, cross-disciplinary, and attuned to the global. From the perspective of art history, one senses an impatience with past approaches such as the overinterpretation of “intentionality in patronage and meaning in iconography” (366). Concerned not only with the individual artist or patron’s perspective, several of the essays discuss networks of patronage and collecting, consumption and infrastructure, the relationship between urban space and diplomacy (Toby Osborne), or Rome’s enduring status as a destination for tourists (Jeffrey Collins). Stephanie C. Leone’s contribution considers the politics of land-grabbing by palace builders, while John Beldon Scott’s chapter on church facades proposes new alternatives to the approaches to dating and attribution, or stylistic analysis, that have long been dominant. Denis Ribouillault’s chapter on villas emphasizes issues such as the “integrated relationship between architecture and decoration” (368), as well as the place of music, science, and poetry in the Roman villa. While readers will not find an illustration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Lisa Beaven illustrates the lavish ceilings of Santa Maria in Trastevere and San Crisogono—built close to one another in Trastevere, Rome, by rival cardinals—as an example of how competition inspired art patronage (404). While several chapters discuss the role of pagan antiquities, the history of Christian archaeology receives particular emphasis, as in chapters by Simon Ditchfield and Giuseppe Antonio Guazzelli.

The overall perspective is on Rome as an “echo chamber” for competing expressions of power and culture. Authors are not only attentive to the internal dynamics of a city divided between the papacy (a secular power created out of ecclesiastical institutions), the Capitoline (a diminished seat of local, civic government), and the cardinal’s courts (a plurality of competing foreign interests). They also consider Rome’s external audience of pilgrims, tourists, Protestants, and “New World" converts.

The starting point of the book is 1492, the year of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas, and space is given to the self-proclaimed caput mundi’s response to Christianity’s globalization. Ditchfield’s essay emphasizes the importance of non-European and Protestant audiences in the cult of early Christian saints and in the invention of enduring concepts of the city’s early Christian past. Print culture was key to the worldwide propagation of faith: when the Madonna of the Snow, a miraculous icon of the Virgin in Santa Maria Maggiore, was reproduced in prints, it was styled according to the local image conventions in Mexico, China, and India. Despite their visual differences, all versions were said to be authentic, legitimate representations of the original icon painted by Saint Luke.

The volume benefits from a genuine sense of collaboration that is unusual for this type of publication, and essays often reference one another. Among the more interesting overlaps is that between the chapters of Carla Keyvanian and Katherine W. Rinne, which relate the architectural patronage of grand families and popes to the supply and distribution of food and water. Markets, fountains, and laundry basins make up a “vernacular urban fabric” (Keyvanian, 323), an overlooked counterpart to elite building programs. Keyvanian considers how Rome’s markets were strategically moved or suppressed. After the popes gained control over the restored ancient aqueducts, as Rinne discusses, water could be similarly politicized and used as a “liquid currency” to promote papal allies or control urban space (329).

Collectively, these essays suggest new possibilities for understanding Rome as “not just a place to visit but an idea to ‘think with’” (Ditchfield, 131), as a way of seeing that opens up a multitude of perspectives. With the lengthy closure of the Vatican and Hertziana libraries now in the past, the essays are optimistic about the future of research. Guiding principles emerge in, for example, Irene Fosi’s and Nussdorfer’s emphases on space as “a vehicle for political expression” (169), or Renata Ago’s conception of Rome as a thriving center of commerce and artisanal production. Ago’s chapter depicts Rome as a city not only of clerics but also of shops and inns, tailors and book dealers, where demand for goods such as carriages, rosaries, and festival equipment fueled local craft industries comparable to those of Florence. Recognition is also given to the fundamental importance of ceremonial and ephemera in Rome, as in Minou Schraven’s chapter on festivals and processions, Barbara Wisch’s discussion of the processions of confraternities, Pamela M. Jones’s consideration of canonization ceremonies in elaborate temporary theaters, and Arnold A. Witte’s analysis of the ephemeral decor of the Quarant’Ore. Chapters by Evelyn Lincoln on printers and publishers and Jessica Maier on maps of Rome consider Rome’s thriving print culture, another topic that has been obscured by the emphasis on churches, palazzi, and altarpieces in the art historical literature.

Overarching insights emerge from the authors’ vast experience in the Roman archives, as is seen in excellent contributions by Elizabeth S. Cohen and Thomas V. Cohen on justice and crime and Patrizia Cavazzini on patronage and collecting among the middle classes. The latter considers a flourishing trade in art outside of the commissions by elite patrons that have long been the focus of art historians. Cavazzini analyzes the particularities of Rome’s artistic culture—such as its relatively relaxed guild system—that encouraged an abundance of painters as well as the widespread consumption and display of paintings.

In their suggestions for future research, most authors express confidence that archival work will yield further discoveries. They also stress the importance of digital resources for the future of the field. The increasing numbers of early modern books and printed images available online has been a boon to research, as have digital humanities projects such as the digitized version of Giambattista Nolli’s map of Rome and Sarah McPhee’s Envisioning Baroque Rome, based on Giovanni Battista Falda’s map (1676). A helpful list of relevant electronic resources is provided at the end of the volume.

The book is well illustrated, but reproductions are often blurry, especially the color images. One can always quibble with chronological cutoffs; in this volume the early modern period starts in 1492, too late for the Roman quattrocento, which is unfortunately still largely inaccessible to students who cannot read Italian. At the same time, by focusing on the sixteenth century and beyond, the editors have highlighted many different aspects of Rome’s transformation, after the Sack of 1527, into a theatrum mundi and “stage for grand spectacle of the newly globalized faith” (Fosi, 171). They should be congratulated for this monumental achievement, which brings new life to the study of early modern Rome and fresh insight into its contradictions and complexities.

Kathleen Christian
Senior Lecturer, The Open University