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A Great Art Historian

Gothic vs. Classic: Architectural Projects in Seventeenth-Century Italy

by Rudolf Wittkower
Braziller, 192 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Palladio and Palladianism

by Rudolf Wittkower
Braziller, 192 pp., $22.50

Rudolf Wittkower, who died in 1971, was one of the most influential of contemporary writers on art history and one of the finest teachers in the subject. There is something deceptively simple about his writings. The facts are set out so clearly, one conclusion follows another so easily, the resultant point is so obviously true that one is tempted to say: “Surely I could have thought of all that myself”; but in fact the whole structure is founded on a far greater accumulation of knowledge than the author ever displays and on a profound understanding of art-historical problems which is never allowed to become obtrusive.

What Wittkower took the trouble to conceal was as important as what he revealed. He could sift masses of sophisticated rubbish and extract a few valuable ideas; he could read through pages of uninteresting detail, come up with one point of importance and dismiss the rest from his mind. His strength and persistence were without limits. No problem ever defeated him, whether it was mastering an obscure branch of archaeology, working out a complicated problem in harmonic proportion, or breaking the resistance of a recalcitrant sacristan in order to visit an obscure Italian church.

But the manner in which he ordered and imparted his knowledge was even more impressive. I can speak of this with firsthand knowledge, because, although Wittkower was only a few years my senior, I was for a long time—unofficially—his pupil. When I left Cambridge in 1937 and joined the staff of the Warburg Institute I had no training at all in art history, and it was at the Warburg that I gained it, partly from the inspiring example of Fritz Saxl, but even more from the day to day contact with Wittkower. At first this was over odd jobs such as editing articles for the Warburg Journal, but the largest task was revising Walter Friedlaender’s text for the first volume of the catalogue raisonné of the Poussin drawings. Friedlaender had wanted to write a book on Poussin as a draftsman and never relished the idea of writing a catalogue, which was suggested to him by Saxl; and the result was a text which needed complete remodeling.

Watching Wittkower at work on the minute and complex problems of scholarship involved was a lesson that I shall never forget. No detail was too insignificant to pursue and clear up—the precise source of a subject, the exact relation of a drawing to an engraving, the collectors who had owned the drawing—but even more exciting was the working out of the steps by which a composition was evolved through a series of drawings and the way Poussin approached the culmination in the painting.

Poussin was, of course, an ideal subject for Wittkower’s analysis because his own method was so logical. One could really feel that this was the way the artist had actually worked, not that this was an ingenious rationalization imposed on the evidence by a clever mind. Hundreds of Wittkower’s pupils at the Courtauld Institute and the Slade in London and at Columbia University will have had the same unforgettable experience.

In my own case this “private tuition” was continued during the war, when Wittkower, who was unable to get war work, was one of those who carried on the activities of the Warburg in the relative safety of Denham, which became a haven of worthwhile activity where one could feel some kind of contact with reality in spite of bombs or V1s and V2s. Wittkower also continued to help the skeletal existence of the Courtauld Institute during its migration to Guildford and after its return to London.

In teaching, one of his most remarkable achievements was to have convinced the students of the Slade School that art history was a subject of interest and relevant to their own work. It was I believe the first time in England that an art historian had aroused enthusiasm among art students. His lectures were crowded and his small seminars opened the eyes of many painters to problems of which they were totally unaware. The influence spread to other art schools, and with the active support of Sir William Coldstream then—and still—director of the Slade, a phase was inaugurated where the history of art became a serious part of any student’s curriculum. Would that one could say this was still the case; alas! the powers of darkness have triumphed and night has set in again!

In all these activities Wittkower was largely concerned with teaching the history of painting, but he was really much more at home with architecture and it was in this field that his greatest contributions to art history were made.

The first and one of the most brilliant manifestations of his talent in architectural history was Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, which appeared in 1949 but included reprints of earlier articles. The essays on the theories of Alberti and Palladio remain absolutely fundamental to this day, though many of the ideas in them have now so far passed into the current conception of architectural history that it is often forgotten by whom they were first formulated. At the time, for instance, it was a revolutionary idea to suggest, as Wittkower did, that the geometry on which the architecture of the High Renaissance was based was symbolical and that Bramante and his peers used the circle not only because it was a perfect geometrical form, but because its perfection symbolized that of God and was therefore appropriate to a church. This “iconographical” approach to architecture was, however, always complemented by precise technical analysis, for instance in the analysis of Alberti’s use of columns or in the discovery of the simple harmonic proportions on which Palladio based the designs of his rooms. Here the simplicity of Wittkower’s method is wonderfully apparent, but the results are none the less important for that.

But Wittkower did not neglect his other early love—sculpture—and in 1955 he published his monograph on Bernini which supplemented and enriched the basic work of his earlier book on the artist’s drawings, written in collaboration with Heinrich Brauer and published in 1931. In his penetrating analysis of the artist’s methods as a sculptor, he showed that Bernini more than any other sculptor was able to embody the principles which were fundamental to the Baroque. For instance, his analysis of the methods by which Bernini draws the spectator into the world of his sculpture in the David or the St. Theresa—or spreads his drama over the whole space of a church, as at S. Andrea al Quirinale, has affected our whole way of looking at sculpture.

In 1958 Wittkower’s method was applied on a larger canvas in the volume in the Pelican History of Art in which the author covered in 400 pages the history of painting, sculpture, and architecture in Italy from 1600 to 1750, a feat of compression which is almost superhuman. (In the third edition published in 1973 he was allowed an extra fifty pages.) The chapters on painting remain by far the best summary of this vast and complex subject; in those on sculpture Wittkower extended the methods used in his book on Bernini to place the other traditions of seicento sculpture in relation to the central stream represented by Bernini and his followers, and sculptors such as Duquesnoy and Algardi began for the first time to emerge as real personalities.

But it is in the chapters on architecture that the real brilliance of the book appears. It is fair to say that this was the first “modern” history of Baroque architecture, that is to say, the first history that moved a step beyond the pioneer works of Gurlitt, Riegl, and Wölfflin. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner had brought the subject into focus in his History of Architecture, but he was writing on such a small scale that he could only indicate the solutions to the problem. Wittkower—though still confined by the limits of the Pelican volume—was able to go into greater detail, and his section on Bernini, Borromini, Pietro da Cortona, and Guarini define in a masterly way the principles, on which these architects worked, and show how each in his own personal manner reflects the basic ideas of the Baroque. All four architects, for example, employ the element of movement which is fundamental to Baroque architecture, but Wittkower defines the different ways in which they apply it, distinguishing Cortona’s treatment of his façades in layers from Borromini’s finely graded more planar front at the Oratory and Bernini’s use of complementary ovals at S. Andrea al Quirinale.

Further he was the first art historian to embrace the whole range of Italian Baroque architecture and, though Rome dominates the story, the sections on Piedmont and Milan are of great importance as the first serious treatments of these areas. It was incidentally in this volume that he first brought to public notice one of his great discoveries, the Piedmontese architect Bernardo Vittone, the only man who understood the ideas of Guarini and went on from him to create new and equally inventive buildings in his own style. The categories which Wittkower defined—High Baroque High Baroque Classicism, Late Baroque Classicism—may now seem to us a little rigid and perhaps to need modification; but they are the basis on which the whole study of Baroque architecture is still built.

The two volumes reviewed here owe their existence to the energy and enthusiasm of his widow, who was his collaborator throughout his career, and who was co-author with him of Born Under Saturn, an analysis of the psychology of artists. They represent two different aspects of his interests. Gothic vs. Classic takes us on a voyage of discovery into completely uncharted territory. It tells of the discussions and disputes about the completion of Milan Cathedral, which occupied the authorities almost continuously from the mid-sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, and which centered around the problem whether the façade should be built in a classical or a Gothic style, or one which was a compromise between both. The designs produced are fascinating and show an extraordinary range of invention, running from the monumental Mannerist projects of Ricchino to the Gothic fantasies of Francesco Castelli, passing through every intermediate stage.

Even more interesting are the arguments put forward by the various parties. It is to be expected that those of the classicists should be traditional and based on the accepted principles of Renaissance architectural theory, but what is curious is that those who proposed a Gothic solution did so on equally traditional grounds. They appealed to the doctrine of decorum and argued that it was inappropriate to add a classical façade to a Gothic building; and so a Gothic design was defended on Vitruvian reasoning! This reasoning ultimately prevailed, and the façade which was actually put up on the orders of Napoleon—who incidentally as General Bonaparte had shown an interest in the project in 1797—closely followed the project put forward by Buzzi in the seventeenth century, which was the most “reasonable” of all the designs proposed. The same could not be said of Mussolini’s plan to erect a campanile 540 feet high, the building of which was mercifully prevented by the entry of Italy into the Second World War!

It is typical of Wittkower that he should have found this astonishingly interesting material in the most obvious place. Everyone supposed that the archives of Milan Cathedral—some of the best-ordered of all Italian archives—had been so long and so thoroughly studied that nothing could be left there to discover. This was true enough of the earlier period, but no one had looked at the documents for the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was Wittkower’s last piece of sustained archival research to work through these papers, with the help of his wife, and to reconstruct the story of one of the strangest disputes in the history of architecture. To a discussion of the documents about Milan Cathedral Wittkower adds an account of those connected with the completion of S. Petronio, Bologna. The drawings for the façade were for the most part already known, but the arguments and calculations about the heights of the vaults reveal a fascinating mode of thought, not to be found in other architectural controversies of the period.

All the material about these two controversies is ordered with the lucidity that we should expect from the author and the result is a book that sets before us a completely unknown aspect of architectural theory and activity in the Mannerist and Baroque periods. The problem of Gothic in the seventeenth century is one which has long teased historians of Baroque architecture, but hitherto the question had been discussed mainly in theoretical forms and had been greatly confused by racial prejudices. If Baroque was fundamentally allied to Gothic, then it was essentially northern, and German and Austrian Baroque was more truly Baroque than Roman. This nationalist approach had long since been abandoned, but the supposed affinities between Baroque and Gothic had given rise to much muddled thinking. Wittkower showed how architects actually thought and felt about Gothic architecture in the seventeenth century, and thus provided a completely new back-ground to the whole problem.

In the last chapter Wittkower touched on the influence of medieval architecture on two of the major Italian Baroque architects: Borromini and Guarini. In the case of Guarini the connection is demonstrable and is confirmed by the fact that he specifically praises medieval architecture in his treatise; but I do not myself believe that with Borromini the connection was so close, and some of Wittkower’s arguments seem to me unconvincing. When Borromini’s contemporaries called his architecture “gothic” they only meant “barbarous” or “irregular,” and did not imply, as Wittkower suggests, a specific stylistic connection. Further I do not myself see that Borromini’s geometry is like Gothic triangulation. The latter is used more for calculating the heights of vaults than for laying out plans—though admittedly a system of triangles can be found in Cesariano’s plan for Milan Cathedral—and Gothic triangulation never, as far as I know, used the circles circumscribed about the triangles or drawn with their apexes as centers which are an essential feature of Borromini’s setting out of plans, even more fundamental indeed than the triangles.

I am also not convinced that Borromini based his favorite pediment form, of which the grandest example is on the façade of the Oratorio di S. Filippo Neri, on the old Gothic façade of Milan Cathedral, which Borromini would certainly have known. The latter is composed of continuous ogee curves, whereas Borromini’s combines curved and straight sections. In my opinion this form can be traced back to the double pediment of Michelangelo’s Porta Pia via Giacomo del Duca’s door to S. Maria in Trivio. These are however minor points of disagreement, and are anyhow matters of opinion not fact.

Palladio and Palladianism covers more familiar ground. Indeed a number of the essays which it contains have already been published, but often in inaccessible places, and several are new. The volume covers a subject very dear to Wittkower, the architecture of Palladio himself, its influence in the Veneto, and above all the modifications which his ideas underwent in the hands of his English admirers. The book centers around the eighteenth-century figure of Lord Burlington, on whom Wittkower had for many years been planning a book. The material about the biography of Burlington, his friends, and his ideas which he left in the form of notes and drafts is, I understand, to be worked up and published by Mrs. Wittkower in the near future. The essays in the present book are primarily concerned with Burlington’s architecture and his activities as a patron and as a furtherer of the Palladian cult. In other essays Wittkower goes back as far as Inigo Jones and forward to discussions of Sensibility and the Chinese garden. We can count ourselves lucky that the publisher promises us at least one further volume of these essays.

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