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Go for Baroque

Roma Barocca

by Paolo Portoghesi, by 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 a new moral order on the history of baroque architecture. In this the author displays a good deal of ingenuity, and after the blanket dismissals of the past and the blanket admiration, or scholarly detachment, of more recent writers, the attempt certainly has its fascination. Indeed, it is so long since art historians have brought stern moral judgments into their learned works that the temptation to compare Portoghesi’s book with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century accounts of the baroque is irresistible. So far as scholarly achievement and the deployment of a vast range of new information are concerned the comparison is a meaningless one, but in other respects there are significant similarities.

This is a history with heroes and villains—but the cast has changed. Gone are the Spaniards and Jesuits—those bugbears of patriots and rationalists—and pilloried in their place we find now “reactionary classicists,” who, in former days, used to win grudging admiration for having tried to maintain traditional standards in a world gone perverse or mad. Borromini, ruthlessly condemned for nearly two centuries as just about the maddest and most perverse of all the protagonists of the baroque, is now the patron saint of the movement. But it is not this reversal of values which constitutes the novelty of Portoghesi’s approach—the Borrominian revival has, after all, been with us for many years now. It is rather the standard against which he measures achievement. And that standard is, as often as not, one of advance in social consciousness.

Borromini a forerunner of Karl Marx? Not quite—but an extended quotation will give some idea of the author’s approach to him and to baroque Rome generally.

In its Roman origin Baroque architecture, unlike painting or sculpture and also unlike its European development, is an art that does not respond to the exigencies of one class, understood as the sole consumer of the product, but is concerned rather with the delicate and schematizable relationships between the various classes….

The Roman Baroque language postulated an eminently civic architecture that exploits every resource in order to provoke a profound resonance not only among the connoisseurs and the cultivated, but also in the man of the street. The political program of the ruling class to distract the people with beautiful images of civic life became, in the linguistic effort of the artists, a desire for a universal communication, a discourse articulated on many levels of accessibility in order to preserve significance and meaningfulness for both the man of culture and the humblest observer, and often, within the limits of architectural expression, became the clear hypothesis of a different and more human society….

Borromini, in certain of his works and above all in their decoration, showed an attachment to the artisan tradition of the Lombards that endows his creations with something of a common and popular expression. He actually aspired to an identification of the cultured with the popular tradition, as is demonstrated by his constant capacity to transfigure motifs of humble craft origin. The exaltation of the value of human work that becomes richness and vitality of form, as opposed to the value of material that expresses merely the ostentation of the power of money, was in Borromini a polemic born from a conviction of class….

In the early years of the eighteenth century, when the reactionary wave of the classicists was displaced by a resurgence of the Borrominian language…there was born, from the remote Borrominian heredity and from the availability of workers already sensitized and trained by this tradition, a true and proper vernacular language that authentically expressed values closely related to the everyday life of the humble classes….

Most people who have thought at all about the lives of great architects from the days of the Pyramids onward will at times have felt a twinge of discomfort, to say no more, when trying to reconcile in their minds on the one hand spoiled and imperious patrons and on the other the artists who designed temples and palaces for them—let alone the slaves or underfed workmen who carried the bricks and clambered up the scaffolding. At certain moments in history—and there is much evidence that we are now living through one of those moments—this discomfort has turned into an almost vindictive hatred directed against the beautiful legacies which have been left behind by admittedly intolerable societies. If Portoghesi can, therefore, through a sort of Ruskinian championship of Borromini’s artistic language, convert a potentially hostile public to renewed appreciation of the baroque, everyone will have cause to be thankful. But we may nonetheless have doubts about the historical assumptions that lie behind his defense.

Borromini’s origins as a small craftsman have long been held by observers to account for some of the facets of his particular genius. But is there the remotest evidence that the richness and vitality of his forms constituted a “polemic born from a conviction of class”? Was such an attitude conceivable for any architect working in seventeenth-century Rome? Frankly, as an explanation of the façade of S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane I find the Counter Reformation, the Jesuits, the Spaniards, madness, moral degeneration, and all the rest somewhat more convincing.

Nor is Portoghesi much more persuasive when he approaches these problems of artistic creation from the opposite angle and accuses certain architects, such as Fuga, Salvi, and Vanvitelli, of expressing timidity “and a tactical adaptation to the tastes of the powerful.” This whole conception of the independent artist struggling against a philistine society or cravenly conforming to its wishes is derived from conditions which did not seriously arise until the middle of the eighteenth century, and though with some modifications it is still relevant today (as Portoghesi, himself a practicing architect, doubtless has good cause to know) there is virtually no evidence to suggest that it was prevalent in baroque Rome. Borromini may be a much greater architect than Fuga, but the moral connotations of “polemic born from a conviction of class” as against “tactical adaptation to the tastes of the powerful” are surely facile, misleading, and irrelevant.

To be fair, Portoghesi is aware of the dangerous ground on which he is treading. He goes out of his way to assert that:

…a criticism that sets as its final objective the philological reconstruction of the reactions which a work evoked from its contemporaries would end in slighting one of the specific aspects of artistic activity, the one that permits, beyond the continual metamorphosis of conventions and linguistic codes, a communication between different generations and civilizations, a communication made possible by the permanent factors in human culture.

There need be no quarrel with this. We can only appraise the achievements of the past convincingly according to our own tastes and beliefs (or, at least, willing suspensions of disbelief), and Portoghesi often does this with great skill; but to argue from this that these tastes and beliefs should necessarily have been those of our predecessors leads to one of the most dangerous of historical fallacies.

The book is generally weak on history. Sometimes the mistakes are trivial: Urban VIII, for instance, became Pope in 1623 and not in 1624; and who are the mysterious writers who have credited “not always on certain grounds” Monsignor Agucchi (who died in Venice in 1632) with devising the allegorical program for the great hall of the Barberini Palace (which was begun in 1633)?

But at other times, they involve questions of wide and fundamental importance. Is it really true, for instance, that “the protection given Campanella by Urban VIII seemed destined to transform radically the undiscerning habits of the Roman court, and indeed had an important influence on that new regard for quality that developed in the years around 1630”? Such remarks, supported by no serious evidence, are scattered throughout the book and give a misleading impression of cultural depth. Campanella certainly helped Urban VIII in his astrological investigations, but there is little reason to believe that his influence at court went much further. Certainly it would be rash to agree with Portoghesi that:

…without the animistic component, so lucidly expressed [by] Campanella, the Baroque sensibilization of material could not be explained: there would be no explanation of the dramatic masses of draperies which so often convey the ecstatic tension of Bernini’s sculpture or the sense of erupting mass acquired by certain of Borromini’s cornices….

Reading such passages as this, one can only echo Byron on Southey and “wish he would explain his Explanation.”

Fortunately not many people will read them. For this is a book to be skipped, though certainly not to be ignored; a book which is of great value for its illustrations and for the vast amount of information it contains, unavailable in any other form. But its huge and unmanageable size, its combination of acute observation and wild hypothesis, its doubtful methodology, secondhand history, and arcane learning, its mixture of current political trends and old-fashioned social orthodoxies—all these make it truly “baroque” as our grandfathers would have understood the term.

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