Bringing Back Algardi

Alessandro Algardi

by Jennifer Montagu
Yale University Press, 488 (two volumes) pp., $95.00 each volume

Last November the London Times ran a front-page headline: “£1 MILLION ALGARDI BUST BROKEN IN MUSEUM FALL.” A workman in the Victoria and Albert Museum had fallen from a ladder, knocking over and shattering a terracotta bust which, according to the museum’s regulations, should not have been left in the room while work was in progress. A public scandal, but one of a kind that is passed over quite quickly nowadays in London. It aroused no out-cry comparable with that which regularly greets the sale to an American museum of almost any work of art that could by some stretch of the imagination be called part of the British “National Heritage”—even an engraving, as the recent sale of prints from Chatsworth showed. The all but total destruction of one of the finest examples of seventeenth-century sculpture in England was taken very lightly: indeed had it not been for its valuation at £1 million sterling it would not have been thought newsworthy for readers to most of whom the name of the sculptor was no more familiar than that of the subject, Cardinal Paolo Emilio Zacchia.

A somewhat dim background figure in ecclesiastical history, the cardinal had his one moment of glory in 1605 when he narrowly missed being elected pope. Algardi, on the other hand, was one of the leading artists in the Rome of Popes Urban VIII and Innocent X, of Gianlorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini, of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorraine—the artistic capital of Europe. His works in St. Peter’s, the Gesù, Sant’Ignazio, the Chiesa Nuova, the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, and Villa Borghese are on well-beaten tourist tracks, and some are so imposing that they can hardly escape the eye. They are part of the baroque splendor with which the city was so wonderfully encrusted in the mid-seventeenth century. Although he is thinly represented by large-scale works outside Italy (none in the United States) numerous crucifixes and statuettes in bronze and silver based on his models are distributed throughout the public and private collections of the world.

In 1645 John Evelyn, on his visit to Rome, remarked that among sculptors “Bernini and Algardi were in the greatest esteem.” They have been paired in this way ever since; and Algardi, though neither as enthusiastically praised nor as violently condemned as Bernini, has never been entirely forgotten. Jennifer Montagu’s book is, nevertheless, the first to present a full account of his life and works—preceded by one brief and scrappy monograph published in Italian in 1973. It has been eagerly awaited by the relatively small circle of people interested in seventeenth-century Italian sculpture to whom it is addressed and whose expectations it fully answers. The catalogue raisonné, which includes not only works that can now be located (all superbly well illustrated) but many more that are lost or survive only as copies or derivations, together with an equally full account of rejected attributions, provides an exemplary display of meticulous scholarship and …

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