Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 17, 2020
Babette Bohn and Raffaella Morselli, eds. Reframing Seventeenth-Century Bolognese Art: Archival Discoveries Visual and Material Culture, 1300–1700. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019. 192 pp.; 9 color ills.; 41 b/w ills. Cloth €89.00 (9789462986336)

For centuries, Bologna’s determinedly local self-consciousness of its art and architecture has been inscribed in the archival and published record. This mentality becomes methodology in the writings of Carlo Cesare Malvasia, who relied on documents for his Felsina pittrice, or Lives of the Bolognese Painters, published in 1678. An efficient tour of the Bolognese archival record and such attendant publications introduces this slim volume of six essays based on presentations at the 62nd Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America in 2016. Today, scholars of Emilian art refer often to the writings of Antonio di Paolo Masini, Giovanni Pietro Zanotti, Luigi Crespi, Marcello Oretti, and Michelangelo Gualandi, but they are less likely to know about the methods, sources, and perspectives of these early writers; the editors’ brief survey provides a useful starting point. The introduction examines a wide range of records, including correspondence, ledgers, working notes, building descriptions, inventories, contracts, and church and family archives. Curiously omitted is the important category of the institutional records of the civic corporation of artists (see Gail Feigenbaum, “Per una storia istituzionale dell’arte bolognese, 1399–1650,” in Il restauro del Nettuno, la statua di Gregorio XIII e la sistemazione di Piazza Maggiore nel Cinquecento, Minerva, 1999, 353–77). The implication is that the relationship between art and archive in Bologna was exceptional, but readers must take this on faith because no comparison is drawn with other centers of the arts on the Italian peninsula.

The essential argument of the editors is that documents, whether known or newly discovered, can inspire fresh questions. If the archive does not always tell art historians what they wanted to know, it embodies its own organizational logic and offers different narratives; it is the scholars’ response to the record that constitutes the “reframing” of the volume title. This thinking may have driven certain editorial decisions: documents are cited in footnotes, very few are transcribed, and quotations are translated into English. While a specialist might wish for the nuances of fuller transcriptions, the goal here is not to showcase mere discovery but, rather, to explore different affordances of the archive. The first part of the book is anchored in Bologna, after which the essays open out to examine the city’s radiant effect. In the seventeenth century at least, as these essays demonstrate, many considered the Bolognese school of painting to be the finest in Italy.

Bologna’s high repute is apparent in Raffaella Morselli’s analysis of thirty-five surviving letters by Francesco Albani. Scholars typically mine such letters for information—attributions, patronage, prices, chronology—but Morselli explores their value in registering the network of personal and ideological relations among correspondents, especially the ties that bound the key figures in the Bolognese and Roman art in the wake of the Carracci. What is more, Morselli recognizes that in attending to these resonances she is in sympathy with Malvasia, who himself participated in such dialogues and networks in his own time. Bolognese artists tended to hold fast to their local identities, working and settling elsewhere frequently but with difficulty, and geographic frictions flavor the letters between correspondents in different cities.

The collection of the noble Fantuzzi family of the early eighteenth century was decidedly local, as seen in Joyce de Vries’s close-up view of a site in the terrain of Bolognese collecting that has been mapped in recent years by Morselli and Olivier Bonfait. It may not have dazzled with many stupendous works of art, but the Fantuzzi collection was outstandingly well documented. Sequences of inventories are supplemented with detailed diagrams of the hangings, a rare and precious find. The documents offer surprises: many framed drawings were integrated with paintings hung in the gallery and representational rooms of the palace; there was a significant drop in the market value of the Bolognese works by the mid-eighteenth century; and an immense expenditure was undertaken for carved gilt frames to create a grand and cohesive display of paintings in prominent spaces by the foremost artists of Bologna, oddly coupled with images for instructional purposes.

An analysis of the collecting of work by Bologna’s women artists raises knotty new questions. Babette Bohn has scoured the archives, and while her charts and statistics are admittedly based on spotty sources, they provide intriguing data. Forty-four women artists are reported working in Bologna in the seicento, about half of whom executed public commissions. Malvasia noted that Bologna was exceptional in its prominent number of women artists. Elisabetta Sirani was the key figure in this phenomenon, her successful career providing a beacon for other women painters and inspiring younger women to follow her path as peintre-graveur. Given that Sirani died at age twenty-seven, her impact is all the more astounding. Bohn convincingly suggests that Sirani’s fame imparted a new bounce in the collecting of work by Bologna’s most gifted woman artist of an earlier generation, Lavinia Fontana. Regrettably little is known about many of the archivally attested women artists beyond their names in inventories or contracts, often with no attached works. Occasionally, an artistic personality can be teased out of the archives, and Bohn manages to draft preliminary notes for a profile of Lucrezia Scarafaglia. Unlike Sirani or Fontana, Scarafaglia did not come from a family of artists, and her only known work is the captivating Self-Portrait Painting the Madonna of Saint Luke of 1678 (Galleria Pallavicini, Rome). Bohn claims it was inspired by Sirani’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1658; Pushkin Museum, Moscow), but its manifestly independent character begs further analysis. Bohn’s other case study is of painter-etcher Ginevra Cantofoli, who also had no artists in her family and who was identified as an immediate follower of Sirani. Massimo Pulini tried to construct Cantofoli’s oeuvre in a 2006 monograph on the basis of scant documentation and a paucity of securely attributable work. A single shaky attribution served as the basis on which Pulini assigned thirty-five other paintings to Cantofoli, but with Bohn’s reversal of that attribution, an oeuvre collapses. Bohn’s investigations point to Bologna’s women artists as providing rich ground for further research.

The second part of the book charts efforts in Mantua, Forlì, and Florence to obtain a share of Bologna’s glory. As Roberta Piccinelli shows, records of commissions by the last Gonzaga dukes of Nevers and other Mantuan nobility testify that they energetically sought the expertise and creativity of Bolognese artists and artisans to build and decorate new villas and residences. The requisite competence was not available locally to realize the big projects that patrons wanted done in a hurry. For the quadratura that was in style for ornamental sculpture, extravagant staircases or balustrades, and fountains, and equally for the administrative capacity to set up workshops and supply chains for materials, leading practitioners had to be brought in from Bologna.

Small cities in Romagna had unexpectedly splendid art collections that were rich in Bolognese paintings. Notable was the Albicini Marchis Collection in Forlì, the focus of Barbara Ghelfi’s essay, which is the only one in the volume to include an appendix of new documents. Extensive correspondence between the family and artists reveals much about negotiations, prices, and other facts of life and collecting. In the collection were five original paintings and four copies by painter Guido Cagnacci, who wrote to urge Albicini to send him canvas right away for his commission Virgin of the Rose, “as the weather is nice, the child can be undressed now, but when the cold weather comes he cannot be undressed because babies are fragile and suffer greatly [September 4, 1647].” Here is further proof, if our eyes were not enough, that this was one artist who worked directly from his models.

Even those in a generative artistic capital such as Florence strenuously sought out the work of Bolognese artists. An abundant archival record, mainly of the Medici family, has long been dredged for information, yet Elena Fumagalli’s command of familiar sources yields new insights and perspectives. A veritable and abiding fixation on Bolognese art on the part of the Medici began in the 1630s when Angelo Michele Colonna and Agostino Mitelli brought their skill in quadratura to the Medici properties, where their capability eclipsed and embarrassed the local talent. Soon Medici intermediaries were thick on the ground in Bologna hunting for good paintings, which were scarce and expensive. All the paintings by Annibale Carracci in Bologna had been taken away by past papal legates, complained one correspondent, calling to mind the dearth of paintings by Titian to be found in Venice a few decades after his death. Owners were unwilling to part with good pictures, and clouds of copies surrounded the originals. It was a seller’s market, and the Medici were unwilling to pay the high prices. Fumagalli points out that the preponderance of Bolognese paintings that came to Florence featured individual figures, often three-quarter length, or heads—gallery pictures—but very few had ambitious compositions or were history paintings. Successful acquisitions may have been limited, but complicated and failed negotiations enriched the archive, which is, after all, the theme of this volume.

A conceptual approach to the archival record allows case studies, built on essential documentary evidence, to function as something more illuminating than an assemblage of microhistories. The volume shines new light on Bologna’s impressive capacity of artistic endeavors during this period. Demand in other centers for Bolognese skill and prestige extracted both works of art and the artists themselves. If this picture is not entirely unfamiliar, reframed it comes into much sharper focus.

Gail Feigenbaum
Associate Director, Getty Research Institute