Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 9, 2021
Chiara Franceschini, Steven F. Ostrow, and Patrizia Tosini, eds. Chapels of the Cinquecento and Seicento in the Churches of Rome: Form, Function, Meaning Milan: Officina Libraria, 2020. 272 pp.; 120 color ills.; 10 b/w ills. Paper €45.00 (9788899765934)

The goal of this well-rounded edited collection is to bring new scholarship on Rome’s remarkable early modern chapels to a “wider public” (5), in line with the mission of the Fondo Edifici di Culto (FEC) of the Ministry of the Interior of Italy. Happily, FEC sponsorship allowed for new high-quality photographs to produce a richly illustrated book. The volume comprises an introduction and nine essays in English by Italian and American scholars. Each essay carefully lays out the scholarly apparatus of construction dates, vicissitudes of patronage, and issues of attribution. Most of the essays offer previously unpublished archival evidence on their respective monuments and all are rigorously grounded in close reading of seventeenth-century texts, objects, images, and built spaces.

The introduction by the editors offers a succinct overview of the fundamentals of the topic and of the themes that unite the essays. They begin with the definition of a chapel, emphasizing the flexibility of the term and of the physical spaces and decorative campaigns it can denote. As they define it, a chapel is an entity at the intersection of the physical fabric of architecture, the rituals that fabric serves, and the economic and social status such a space could endow on a prelate or a family. Patronage—and the balancing act between private and public interests it entails—is accordingly a central theme of the collection. The introduction also situates the book in the post-Tridentine era and in the context of efforts on the part of Church reformers, like Carlo Borromeo, to prescribe good ecclesiastical architecture. A key idea that emerges here and throughout the essays is variety: in the physical forms a chapel could take, the purposes they could serve, the interests they could further, and the approaches to their decoration that were used over the course of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Within that variety are several unifying interests: the urge to commemorate family or sacred figures; the development of a rich language of material polychromy; and the persistent negotiation of the past and the present, especially Rome’s early Christian legacy in the aesthetic and confessional context of early modernity.

The essays are arranged chronologically, beginning with Patrizia Tosini’s analysis of complementary textual and visual enterprises: a manuscript history of the Frangipani family by Onofrio Panvinio and the construction of the family chapel in the church of San Marcello beginning in the 1550s. As Tosini demonstrates, the chapel is a matrix in a double sense: the austere, grid-like arrangement of the wall tombs links the family to the Capitoline Fasti (epigraphs in stone panels of Republican Rome’s chief magistrates), civic government, and ancient Rome, while the chapel’s location in San Marcello and the subject of the altarpiece are acts of clientelismo, declaring the Frangipani faithful servants of the Farnese. Observations on attribution of the marble busts will be of interest to sculpture scholars, as will Tosini’s reflections on the mobility of such portraits between domestic and secular spaces.

Fabio Barry’s study of the Cappella Gregoriana is an erudite examination of architectural ekphrasis at the court of Pope Gregory XIII. Barry offers a close reading of two little-known Latin texts written in the 1580s in the chapel’s honor. Emphasizing how such texts could be spoken aloud, creating intertwined visual and literary monuments, his essay recovers the excitement inspired by a space that is critical in the history of Roman chapel design but that has lost definition in the richly homologous expanse of Saint Peter’s as it was subsequently completed. One of the texts, a poem by Lorenzo Frizolio, is rife with floral metaphors that call forth a lushly botanical world from the hard stones of the chapel. The chapel’s rich decoration was key to its success but also raised issues such as the decorum of grotesques in a Catholic space and the reconciliation of the “paleo-Christian” mosaic technique with Michelangelo’s revered Renaissance architecture (47).

Enrico Parlato analyzes the building history and sculptural program of the Caetani Chapel in the church of Santa Pudenziana, paying particular attention to the figurative use of polychrome marble. He reads the chapel’s construction and decoration against the shifting political fortunes of the Caetani family. In tracking the impact of the Caetanis’ fraught relationships on the chapel, Parlato notes that Pietro Paolo Olivieri’s altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi proclaims a bond to Pope Sixtus V that had been broken by the time of the chapel’s completion. The altarpiece is thus a programmatic orphan, out of step with the family’s political fortunes. It serves as a useful reminder of the potential disjunctures between social and art histories and of the slow progress of sculptural programs.

With Steven F. Ostrow’s essay on the confessio chapel (a subterranean space predicated on the presence of relics or a saint’s tomb) in Santa Susanna we move momentarily away from material richness and into a study in the architecture and iconographies of post-Tridentine orthodoxy. Attributing the design to both Domenico Fontana and Carlo Maderno, Ostrow situates the chapel in the context of the development of the confessio as an architectural form and in the emergence of the characteristically Baroque oval plan. The furnishings and decorative program of the subterranean chapel exemplify the spirit of early Christian antiquarianism in the service of Catholic renewal, threading a narrow path between preservation, emulation, and innovation.

The question of how to reconcile early Christian and modern devotional tastes is at the core of Chiara Franceschini’s contribution on the Salviati Chapel at San Gregorio al Cielo. As the title suggests, this is a study in “visual interactions”: between Christian antiquity and seventeenth-century modernity, between elements of the chapel’s decoration, and among a constellation of chapel projects undertaken by the Salviati family. Tracing the physical shifts of a group of Marian images, Franceschini argues that they were devotionally activated through relational installations. In her compelling reading, Annibale Carracci’s (now lost) altarpiece for the chapel at San Gregorio al Cielo acted as vivid testament to the miraculous nature of the chapel’s Marian picture, amplifying the venerability of the late medieval Madonna while also compensating for its aesthetic shortcomings.

Guendalina Serafinelli’s essay focuses on the patronage of a family of Jewish converts, the Boncompagni (originally Corcos), and their consolidation strategies in Christian Rome through the adornment of the sacristy chapel in Santa Maria in Vallicella. Alessandro Algardi’s statue of Philip Neri testifies to the key role played by the Oratorians in the family’s conversion and is a declaration of campanilismo (regional loyalty) to the Bolognese Gregory XIII, who granted the family their new name as well as a noble title. Within two generations and in the same space, a Boncompagni patron proclaimed instead his Romanità (Roman-ness), making the chapel a kind of sedimentary deposit of tactics in social integration. As Serafinelli lucidly argues, the Boncompagnis’ mission to commemorate their story and Christian identity led to significant iconographic innovation in the mystic representation of Neri and a powerful use of the sculpted altarpiece as perpetual testament to saintly presence and miraculous conversion.

Louise Rice begins not with a patron or a space, but instead with a humble piece of architectural furnishing: the balustrade. Her study makes fascinatingly visible a generally overlooked element of chapel design, opening a new avenue of research on early modern chapels. She demonstrates the balustrade’s usefulness as an architectural shape shifter, a highly flexible form that can limit or extend a spatial boundary. As a case study, Rice focuses on the innovative-to-the-point-of-anomalous example in the Spada Chapel in San Girolamo della Carità, attributing the conception to Virgilio Spada and considering it in the context of Counter-Reformation Eucharistic practice and iconography. Rice addresses questions specific to the figurative Spada balustrade, in particular why it can be considered a failure, as well as broader issues of viewer engagement and decorum in seventeenth-century Roman art.

Didactic engagement is key to Alison C. Fleming and Stephanie C. Leone’s examination of the chapel of Saint Francis Xavier in the Gesù, which takes Xavier’s arm relic as the underappreciated key and guide to the chapel’s decorative program. Analyzing the symbolic use of marble polychromy and the iconography of the frescoes, they argue that the chapel articulates a visual rhetoric of sanctity that foregrounds Xavier’s everyday miracles and the incorruptibility of his body. Transported from Goa and encased in silver in the Jesuit’s home church in Rome, Xavier’s arm remains communicative, perpetually gesturing to the Order’s global ambitions.

The collection ends in the 1680s, with Fabrizio Federici’s analysis of the Cybo Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. Federici considers its patronage by the Cardinal Alderano Cybo as compensation for thwarted political ambition and its style as dissent against the prevailing cultural climate. He outlines the building history of the severely sumptuous chapel and follows its connections to another family chapel in their principate of Massa, where a Madonna by Pinturicchio is enhanced like the medieval images discussed by Franceschini. Instead of the remains of early Christianity, Cybo’s Roman chapel engages instead most closely with Renaissance precedents, particularly Raphael, to proclaim the glory of the Cybo family and to lobby for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

On the whole, this is a tight-knit collection, with themes and key figures—such as Gregory XIII, Spada, and Neri—recurring like flashes from the facets of a polished stone. One might wonder about the absence of German scholars who have worked on the topic, but this is undoubtedly a valuable publication with much to offer scholars of early modern Rome and of visual and material cultures of devotion more broadly.

Karen J. Lloyd
Assistant Professor, Stony Brook University