Marble and Marzipan

Roman Baroque Sculpture: The Industry of Art

by Jennifer Montagu
Yale University Press, 244 pp., $45.00

When the French jurist Charles de Brosses wrote, in 1740, the letters from Rome that were later to be widely read, he remarked that the population of the city was composed of one quarter priests, one quarter statues, one quarter those who do scarcely any work, and one quarter those who do nothing at all. Anyone who walks from the Tiber to Saint Peter’s today will get the same impression, at least as far as statues go. Ten angels holding the instruments of Christ’s passion grace the Ponte Sant’ Angelo; ninety statues crown the skyline of Bernini’s colonnade, thirteen colossi are to be seen on the top of the façade of Saint Peter’s, and many more in the niches of the interior, not to mention the dozens of dreamy-eyed allegories on the many papal tombs. The decorations executed in the nave of Saint Peter’s in 1647–1648 included fifty-six large medallions of the early popes, 192 cherubs each over four feet high, twelve giant allegories in the spandrels of the arches, and 104 very large doves, the heraldic bird of Innocent X, the pope who commissioned it all. Critics called it a pigeon coop.

The other churches of the city house an uncountable number of statues. And yet all this is a fragment of what there once was. Hundreds or thousands of ancient statues have migrated to Naples, Florence, Paris, and almost every other capital. Almost no silver sculpture survives, and there have been great losses in smaller bronzes as well. Many statues had lives that were tantalizingly brief, such as those on the catafalques erected over the biers of the great, or on the pyrotechnic displays set alight in the Piazza di Spagna, or in the huge apparatuses constructed in churches like the Gesù to venerate the Eucharist during the Forty Hours’ devotion. No aristocrat could drive through the streets without the help of statues, but to get an idea today of the panoply of angels and allegorical figures that seemed to pick up baroque coaches and lift them over potholes, we have to go to the carriage museum in Lisbon.

Jennifer Montagu writes about what she calls the industry of sculpture that produced all this work. A genteel and slightly more traditional title might have been the profession of sculpture, but Montagu wants to give the men who did the heavy physical work their due. She is after the total picture, both of the sculpture and the men who carved it:

The [sculptural industry] was extensive and ranged manifold, and ranged from the great monuments of Saint Peter’s to a sugar bird on a dinner table or a pile of smouldering ashes in the Piazza di Spagna.

The great geniuses of baroque sculpture make an appearance in Montagu’s book, including Bernini and especially Algardi, about whom she has recently written an excellent monograph. But she also writes about artists further down the ladder of success, including some on the lowest rung …

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