Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 11, 2006
David R. Coffin Pirro Ligorio: The Renaissance Artist, Architect, and Antiquarian University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004. 242 pp.; 145 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0271022930)

Best known as the architect of the sprawling Villa d’Este at Tivoli and the charming casino of Pius IV on the grounds of the Vatican, the sixteenth-century polymath Pirro Ligorio has not—until now—been the subject of a general-purpose biography. This is surprising considering the range of his accomplishments; beyond architecture, landscape design, and painting, Ligorio’s talents included cartography, the restoration of antique ruins and sculpture, and collecting (his set of ancient medals and coins was said to be one of the very best in mid-Cinquecento Rome). David Coffin, who spent more than half a century studying Ligorio and published the seminal English-language monograph on the Villa d’Este in 1960 (The Villa d’Este at Tivoli, Princeton: Princeton University Press), has finally filled that gap. Reflecting the enormous range of its subject’s activities, Pirro Ligorio: The Renaissance Artist, Architect, and Antiquarian steps back from the dense iconographical decoding that typically defines Ligorio scholarship to concentrate on the day-to-day activities and difficulties faced in papal Rome by even the most learned and successful of Renaissance courtiers.

Born in Naples in 1512 or 1513 (the early documentation of his life is frustratingly sparse), Ligorio moved north to make a career in Rome, where his own fortunes shifted with the election and death of each pope. His first documented works were frescoes on the facades of Roman palaces, none of which survive today. Although hardly unique for its time, his one extant painted Roman work—the resolutely Raphaelesque Dance of Salome in the Oratory of San Giovanni Decollato—shows that Ligorio could have successfully competed for commissions with Francesco Salviati and Perino del Vaga if he had not had the good fortune to receive in 1549 the big career boost he sought. In that year, Cardinal Ippolito d’Este welcomed the artist into his court, and almost immediately Ligorio abandoned painting and concentrated on detailed study of the ruins of Rome and Tivoli (where the cardinal was installed as governor in 1550). Ligorio’s work in his first years as an antiquarian was largely scholarly, with his map of ancient Rome and short book on Roman antiquities (both published in 1553) the most notable products of this period, although much of his early study would later pay off in his rigorously referential programming and designs for the d’Este and the papacy.

With the election of Pope Paul IV in 1555, Cardinal d’Este was sent into exile in Ferrara, and Ligorio sought and found other Roman patrons whose interest in antiquity dovetailed with his own ambitions as a scholar and builder. Both Paul and the next pope, Pius IV (1559–1565), employed Ligorio on a series of projects at the Vatican, the most important of which was the casino, the classically inspired, iconographically complicated all’antica villa and facing loggetta to the west of the Belvedere court. Much pleased with the casino, Pius IV made Ligorio an honorary citizen of Rome (only the fourth artist or architect at that time to receive the honor) and placed him in charge of looking after the city’s ruins and antiquities. Pius allowed Cardinal d’Este to return to Tivoli, where Ligorio spent much of the 1560s overseeing the mammoth undertaking of converting a Franciscan monastery and surrounding hillside into the most splendid of Renaissance villas and gardens. Yet despite the deserved fame of the Villa d’Este and the honors heaped upon its designer, Ligorio’s privileged position was shortlived; the next pope, Pius V (1566–1572), not only had little interest in ancient Rome, but he stripped the casino of its “pagan” sculpture and disbanded part of the papal collection of antiquities that Ligorio had assembled. Having been effectively forced out of the Vatican, Ligorio returned to the employ of the d’Este, leaving Rome for the Ferrarese court of Alfonso II (nephew of Cardinal Ippolito) and working there until his death in 1583. The last fifteen years of his life were spent in modest and traditional court pursuits: ephemeral decorations, fresco programming, tapestry designs, d’Este genealogy, and the preparation of an encyclopedia of antiquity. He also had the freedom to observe various local phenomena, such as the birth of Siamese twins in Ferrara in 1579, of which he made anatomical drawings in one of his notebooks. In response to the devastating Ferrarese earthquake of 1570, Ligorio planned a treatise on the subject and even drew up plans for what many consider the first earthquake-proof house designed in the West.

With one exception, the organization of Coffin’s Pirro Ligorio is chronological. Chapter 1, “Early Years in Rome,” concerns what little is known about his early activity as a painter (the first recorded instance of which dates from 1542, when the artist would have been around thirty) and his burgeoning interest in restoration and reconstruction of the ancient city. The second and strongest chapter, “Ligorio in Papal Employ,” treats his work for three pontiffs, discussing the casino, his rebuilding at the Vatican, and the several Roman palazzi to which his name is attached. Concurrent with his papal projects and works elsewhere in the city was the Villa d’Este, which is the third chapter’s sole object of discussion. This allows Coffin to revisit his earlier monograph on the villa, updating it with more recent bibliography and providing a précis of the main themes of the villa’s decoration and landscape design. The final chapter, “Ligorio in Ferrara,” traces his final years and makes especially detailed use of the manuscripts he prepared (but did not publish) while in ducal service. The thoroughness of the four chapters continues in the four appendices, the last of which is a lengthy “checklist” of the lost and surviving figural and ornamental drawings by the artist’s hand, each with bibliography.

Coffin’s preface mentions that he had been thinking about writing a biography of Ligorio for over fifty years, his interest in the subject initially being piqued by a seminar with Erwin Panofsky at Princeton in 1945. When he began his dissertation research on the Villa d’Este, Coffin could claim in all honesty that little was known about the man who oversaw the design and construction of this most ambitious of Renaissance fantasie. In the intervening years, much more has been published on Ligorio’s work, not only as an architect but also as a programmer and antiquarian, most notably Graham Smith’s monograph on Pius’s casino, Maria Luisa Madonna’s numerous articles concerning Ligorio’s reinterpretation of ancient iconography, and the studies by Robert Gaston of Ligorio’s unpublished encyclopedias and manuscripts. Yet the very nature of Ligorio’s work—dense, complicated, directed toward the most learned of patrons—tends to have nudged Ligorio scholarship in recent years toward project-by-project research rather than toward a more generalized biographical approach outlining the means by which Ligorio forged his singular career. Coffin’s book serves as a helpful master narrative to a figure that had previously seemed difficult to approach.

The problems of constructing an accurate biography of Ligorio are several. He had no contemporary biographer; Vasari rather willfully chose not to include Ligorio in the Vite, despite knowing him personally and having full awareness of his many activities in Rome. (Coffin ascribes this to professional rivalry, particularly to what Vasari would have seen as Ligorio’s conservatism toward the past in relation to Vasari’s hero Michelangelo’s free reinterpretation of antique motifs.) Baglione’s reasonably accurate 1642 sketch of Ligorio in his Vite provided the foundation for most subsequent biographical studies, but there still remains some elemental confusion about his emergence as an artist. Nothing is known about his training in Naples and his first years in Rome after his arrival at around the age of twenty, and the largest disappointment of Coffin’s book is that no attempt is made to define the formative artistic environment in Naples during the tumultuous period of the late 1520s and early 1530s. Who did he study with there, and what commissions did he receive during his first ten years in Rome? This book would seem the place to at least itemize the possibilities and assess how such an ambitious striver ascended to prominence in the crowded field of mid-sixteenth century Roman archaeologists, antiquarians, artists, and architects.

A second difficulty in Ligorio’s biography concerns collaboration and restoration. In addition to his supervisory positions on the casino and the Villa d’Este, he had a hand in rebuilding preexisting structures and designing a number of long-term architectural projects at Rome both within and beyond the Vatican, in particular at La Sapienza, San Giovanni in Laterano, and the Vatican Archives. The precise nature of Ligorio’s involvement with these projects has been much debated in the last thirty years. On this count, Coffin’s book is invaluable and comprehensive; cutting through an often tendentious bibliography, he carefully identifies Ligorio’s work on all these buildings and on the many bits of rebuilding undertaken at the Vatican during his time in papal employ. (He also takes the occasion in the book’s third appendix to dispel the attribution to Ligorio of the so-called “Palazzetto di Pirro Ligorio” on the Capitoline Hill.) In fact, the greatest strength of Pirro Ligorio is the working chronology of Ligorio’s many architectural projects and how it sets straight the received idea that the learned flourishes of Pius’s casino and copious gamesmanship of the gardens at the Villa d’Este constitute the entirety of Ligorio’s contribution to sixteenth-century architecture and landscape design, a legacy that would typically define his work as Mannerist. Instead, in many other much more quotidian projects such as the Vatican Archives, Ligorio adopted (in Coffin’s phrase) a “principle of decorum” that eschewed frivolity and could at times even be characterized as “rather severe” (67). Similarly, Coffin reminds us that Ligorio’s antiquarian activities were not always well received by contemporaries: several of Ligorio’s colleagues considered his command of classical languages poor, and others accused him of falsifying ancient inscriptions for his encyclopedia on antiquities.

The breadth of Ligorio’s achievements make him undoubtedly one of the most daunting sixteenth-century figures to fully capture in print. We are fortunate that Coffin, whose own intellectual biography was so inexorably intertwined with that of his subject, found the chance to complete this book before his death. He passed away in October 2003, three months before its publication.

Mark Rosen
Associate Professor of Aesthetic Studies, Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History, University of Texas at Dallas

Please send comments about this review to