Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 8, 2004
Pamela M. Jones and Thomas Worcester, eds. From Rome to Eternity: Catholicism and the Arts in Italy, ca. 1550–1650 Boston: Brill, 2002. 278 pp.; 50 ills. Cloth $148.00 (9004124691)

The study of post-Tridentine art in Italy has, over the past two decades, enjoyed a kind of renascence, with the publication of a number of books, exhibition catalogues, and articles on—inter alia—the most important papal projects of the period, the leading historical figures of the Catholic Reform and their art patronage, Oratorian and Jesuit art of the period, the emergence of early Christian archaeology and its impact on visual culture, and Counter-Reformation art theory. These publications have gone far in illuminating the conjunction of art and post-Tridentine liturgy, new iconographies, and, most generally, the ways in which the visual arts both expressed and helped shape the larger institutional concerns of the Catholic Church during a period of religious transition. From Rome to Eternity: Catholicism and the Arts in Italy, ca. 1550–1650 is an outgrowth and extension of the exhibition, Saints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image, which was held at Boston College in 1999, and that exhibition’s symposium, “Religious Culture in Caravaggio’s Italy”; its goal, as articulated by Thomas Worcester in his introduction, is to build upon and go beyond this recent scholarship and to offer “new avenues of access to the complex interaction of Catholicism and the arts, in Italy, in the century or so after the Council of Trent” (1). It seeks to accomplish this in three distinct ways. First, several of the nine essays in the book, rather than taking a top-down view that focuses on the institution of the Church and its impact on the arts, reverse the lens and examine individual artistic responses to the larger religious culture. Second, the book not only treats the visual arts, but also embraces music, theater, and literature, both elite and popular. Finally, in contrast to much of the recent literature—and notwithstanding the book’s title—the essays take the reader considerably beyond the papal capital to Venice, Mantua, Tuscany, Milan, Turin, Naples, Peru, and Japan.

The volume is divided into three parts, with essays grouped (loosely, and not entirely successfully) according to theme. The first part, entitled “Italian Artists as Saints and Sinners,” takes as its foil Donald Weinstein and Rudolph M. Bell’s thesis that a “masculine type” of saint dominated the period in question (Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christendom, 1000–1700 [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982], 237). The three essays in this section, according to Worcester, test “the adequacy of Weinstein and Bell’s perspective on gender and holiness, as it pertains to Italy, and, specifically as it pertains to artists’ self-identities and defenses of their professions, in the context of Catholic beliefs about holiness and sin” (4). Two of the essays do engage the issue of artists’ self-identities, and one explores an artist’s defense of his profession. From the perspective of this reviewer, however, none of the three challenges Weinstein and Bell’s thesis, and only one explores an artistic response to post-Tridentine morality.

In his “In Figura Diaboli: Self and Myth in Caravaggio’s David and Goliath,” David M. Stone focuses on Caravaggio’s well-known painting in the Galleria Borghese, Rome, reading the artist’s self-portrayal in the decapitated head of the giant as an ironic and witty gesture of self-fashioning. Along the way, Stone offers a convincing argument for dating the picture to ca. 1605–6 (instead of 1609–10) and underscores the painting’s polemical nature. He is less successful, however, in clarifying how the painting might reveal Caravaggio’s attitudes toward holiness or express his hope for redemption, two issues that the essays in this section are meant to address. In an essay on the sixteenth-century Venetian courtesan and poet, “Veronica Franco’s Poetics of Redemption,” Fiora A. Bassanese provides a revisionist reading of a (very small) selection of her subject’s poems and letters. Rather than seeing their language as a reworking of some classical stoic tropes, she interprets them in penitential and moralizing terms—as an attempt, on Franco’s part, to redeem herself from her past life of sin. Bassanese’s reading of Letter 22, in which Franco tries to dissuade a mother from introducing her daughter into the world of elite prostitution, is, however, unconvincing. Rather than revealing a personal conversion, as the author argues, the letter is a frank and pragmatic statement about the dangers of the profession and an indictment of the society that places women in such a precarious situation in the first place. The most compelling contribution to the first section is Michael A. Zampelli’s essay on a seventeenth-century dramatist and actor, entitled “Giovan Battista Andreini’s Maddalena of 1617: Staging the Redemption of the Theatrical Profession.” After outlining what he calls the Church’s “antitheatricalism”—its denunciation of theater as obscene, immoral, and at odds with efforts at reform—he focuses on Andreini’s La Maddalena, a sacra rappresentazione first presented in Mantua in 1617. Through the staging of a play about a repentant sinful woman, Andreini defends theater (a sinful art) as something that is capable, like the historical Magdalen, of being redeemed. The Magdalen’s conversion, Zampelli argues, thus parallels the conversion of theater; as he puts it, “The Maddalena, the character and the play, are potent symbols of theatricality; [and] it is this theatricality that will undergo conversion and glorification” (74).

The four contributions in the second section of this volume, entitled “Arts of Sanctity, Suffering, and Sensuality in Italy,” are even more heterogeneous than those in the first. Coeditor Pamela M. Jones’s thoughtful essay examines the little-studied subject of early modern Italian chapbooks—inexpensive, popular pamphlets sold by itinerant vendors—focusing on those published after the Council of Trent that treated religious subjects. She provides a survey of the genre according to subject and place of publication and then offers a more in-depth analysis and comparison of chapbooks treating the lives of Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Catherine of Siena, highlighting “the ways in which their stories resonated [as exempla for women] in early modern Catholic culture” (97). Music’s contribution to seventeenth-century devotional culture is the subject of Robert L. Kendrick’s “Martyrdom in Seventeenth-Century Italian Music.” Rather than focusing on patronage of sacred music, which has been well studied, he provides a close reading of the musical structure and verbal message of four motets dealing with the theme of Christian martyrdom. Inquiring deeply into their homiletic structure and the ways they served both civic audiences and congregations, Kendrick underscores how these martyrial motets can also be viewed as “documents of interiority” (134), presenting martyrdom as an exemplary goal for individual salvation. In a wide-ranging and penetrating essay, entitled “ ‘Being Lustful, He Would Delight in Her Beauty’: Looking at Saint Agatha in Seventeenth-Century Italy,” James Clifton analyzes the tensions between the sacred and the profane in seventeenth-century Neapolitan depictions of Saint Agatha, with special emphasis on Francesco Guarino’s canonical painting in the Museo di San Martino, Naples. Utilizing both theoretical and more traditional art-historical modes of analysis and giving special emphasis to the issue of the gaze—both the viewer’s and that returned by Agatha—Clifton sheds new light on these striking images. Ultimately, he sees them as paradoxical, depicting the “sexually alluring virgin saint” (169). In the final essay of this section, “The Sovereignty of the Painted Image: Poetry and the Shroud of Turin,” Sheldon Grossman takes up one of Europe’s most famous relics, analyzing its cult and imagery after its transfer from Chambéry to Turin in 1578. His particular concern is the Shroud’s literary reception, which he carefully traces in the prose writings and poetry of Gabriele and Alfonso Paleotti, Torquato Tasso, Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, Giovambattista Marino, and John Donne. The result is an important contribution to the literature on the Shroud, a timely complement to John B. Scott’s new, magisterial Architecture for the Shroud: Relic and Ritual in Turin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), winner of this year’s Charles Rufus Morey Book Award.

The volume’s third section, entitled “Italy and Beyond: Rome and Global Catholic Culture,” includes two essays that are grouped as arbitrarily as those in the earlier sections. In his “Creating a Global Artistic Language in Late Renaissance Rome: Artists in the Service of the Overseas Missions, 1542–1621,” Gauvin A. Bailey traces the careers of several little-known Italian painters who found varying degrees of fame and fortune in Peru and Japan. He brings together what little is known about their overseas production, bringing to the fore the understudied subject of European artists working in foreign missionary contexts. Less useful are his attempts to characterize post-Tridentine sacred art, as he tends to make unconvincing claims and generalizations in his analyses of style, sources, and influences, and in arguing that the works spoke in a “global language” (249). Finally, in the concluding essay, entitled “Rome as Center of Information for the Catholic World, 1550–1650,” the distinguished historian Peter Burke presents a profile of the papal capital as the nexus of information and communication for the world’s Catholic community. Regrettably more a survey than an interpretive analysis, his text nevertheless provides a useful starting point for future research on the various modes of communication and the dissemination of information in early modern Rome.

Several of the essays in From Rome to Eternity considerably expand and deepen our understanding of aspects of post-Tridentine culture in Italy, fulfilling the volume’s stated goal. It must be said, however, that despite the best efforts of the editors, the book lacks thematic coherence. One also wishes that the pricey volume offered more than black-and-white illustrations (which fail to do justice to the works discussed) and that it had been more assiduously copyedited. These criticisms notwithstanding, this wide-ranging collection of essays is certain to stimulate the thinking of scholars in a number of fields.

Steven F. Ostrow
Professor, Department of Art History, University of Minnesota