Go for Baroque

Roma Barocca

by Paolo Portoghesi and Barbara Luigia La Penta
MIT, 490, 475 gravure illustrations and 60 line drawings pp., $50.00

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press has published a translation of Paolo Portoghesi’s Roma Barocca under the title Roma Barocca. This will be considered, according to taste, either pretentious or unenterprising: but, in fact, even the most persevering English or American reader may, however deficient his knowledge of Italian, come to the conclusion after reading this gigantic book that these are about the only two words in it that require no special effort to understand. This is not the fault of the translator. Over the last generation or so Paolo Portoghesi has emerged as one of the most brilliant of Italian architectural historians, who has made several decisive contributions to our knowledge of the baroque, but he has never been an easy writer and his style has grown progressively more recondite. Although I have not been able to check the Italian of some distinctly peculiar sentences, experience of earlier articles by him leads me to doubt whether they would make much more sense to anyone not in tune with his highly convoluted thought processes.

Perhaps one should turn first to the several hundred photographs, most of which have been taken by the author himself. Their richness, variety, and brilliance will alone make this book an indispensable source of pleasure and instruction for anyone who loves Rome. No city, surely, has ever been surveyed in quite this way before. At times the camera swoops over vast areas, opening up perspectives that would have astonished Piranesi himself; at others it fastens on some minute and beautiful detail that can be known only to the most intrepid of pigeons. Yet again and again the sheer virtuosity of the illustrations leads to a perverse and meaningless example of showmanship of the very kind that was so long considered characteristic of baroque architecture by its many enemies.

The situation is ironical, for Portoghesi’s whole thesis is concerned to defend—on the most sophisticated level—the principal architects of seventeenth-century Rome from the misunderstandings which have, so he implies, obscured the true nature of their achievements. For all the learning that has gone into it, his book will be largely meaningless unless one reads it as a sort of moral tract which has more in common with The Stones of Venice than with the scholarly researches of Wittkower—or of the younger Portoghesi.

He begins with a series of apparent paradoxes. Baroque Rome was designed by some of the most adventurous architects in European history employed by a “feudal” and autocratic society for which Portoghesi has no sympathy. And the city first came under systematic attack from the writers of the Enlightenment who, despite the “progressive” nature of their political opinions, proclaimed a dogmatic adherence to the rules established by the theorists of classical antiquity.

Underlying the large numbers of formal analyses which constitute the bulk of the book and which range from the elaborate, stodgy, and incomprehensible to the subtle and illuminating is a constant attempt, relentlessly pursued through the most devious twists and turns, to impose…

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