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Playing the Palace

Seventeenth-Century Roman Palaces: Use and the Art of the Plan

by Patricia Waddy
The Architectural History Foundation and MIT Press, 456 pp., $47.50

Images of Nepotism: The Painted Ceilings of Palazzo Barberini

by John Beldon Scott
Princeton University Press, 243 pp., $75.00


The great palaces of baroque Rome, today so often transformed into embassies, banks, and museums, resemble luxury liners in drydock. They once housed an aristocratic and indeed theocratic elite of unparalleled splendor, but today without an effort of the imagination it is difficult to detect where first class ended and second class began, where one slept and dined, where outsiders were welcome and where they were not. As we move through these buildings we can only guess when we are intruding on old theaters of public ceremony, or stumbling upon the patterns of secret circulation permitted only to servants, lovers, spies, or scholars trudging to the family library.

Many later observers found the sparse sumptuousness of these residences repellent and uncomfortable. Nathaniel Hawthorne thought they were intolerably cold. “My fingers were quite numb before I got half way through the suite of apartments,” he wrote of his visit to the painting collection in Palazzo Borghese, while in Palazzo Doria “all the rooms are colder and more comfortless than can be imagined.” And Hawthorne wrote in the relatively warm nineteenth century, not in the “Little Ice Age” that Europe was passing through in the seventeenth. In the Renaissance there had been occasional attempts to revive the ancient custom of warm baths. But in the baroque age aristocrats stopped bathing. Women, so lively and gay in the pages of Castiglione’s The Courtier, lost their freedoms in baroque Rome, where they were corralled into isolated women’s quarters where no man ever went. The ruota or turnbox that still shocks visitors to the old convents of Rome, who cannot conceive that any society might need muratte vive or nuns “buried alive,” was really a feature borrowed from the most aristocratic palaces, where it stood at the entrance to the women’s quarters. The only palaces that could do without one were those of cardinals with no female relatives in residence.

Ariosto, in his satires on the life of the courtier, said that it would take the eyes of a lynx to see through the walls of the palaces like glass. This is the ambition of Patricia Waddy’s book. Her penetrating gaze has been abetted by extensive research in the archives of a select number of Roman baroque families: the Borghese, the Chigi, and above all the Barberini. Her strategy is to comb the documents for payments to masons and decorators that might also mention the function of a given room. She then charts the distribution of apartments between members of the family, and the changes in function over time. She is remarkably patient (and so must the reader be, too), for God is to be found here in small details: the gallery turned into a ball court, the vestibule become a chapel, the bedroom transformed into a sculpture gallery. The prince in Lampedusa’s Leopard, who counted it a point of honor not to know how many rooms there were in his palace, would not have liked Patricia Waddy snooping around his family archives.

Scholars in the mid-twentieth century, especially the great Rudolf Wittkower, put the centralized churches of the Renaissance and the baroque at the center of their work.1 These buildings, exemplifying theories of musical proportion and cosmic harmony, allowed the scholar to listen in, as it were, on the music of the spheres. However, a new and rather more sociologically minded generation of art historians began to come of age in the 1970s and turned its attention to palaces. These historians had a taste for the secular over the ecclesiastic and the political over the theological. Palaces fit such interests perfectly. They were the domestic stage on which were enacted the rituals of courtly life, and in which the careers of brilliant, scheming patrons were planned and celebrated.

A German scholar, Christoph Frommel, produced the first large-scale study of Roman High Renaissance palaces in 1973 by sorting out the tangled histories of forty-two of them.2 But it was Anglo-Saxon scholarship that concentrated attention directly on the function of domestic architecture. Mark Girouard, taking up the lead of such scholars as Hugh Murray Baillie, wrote incisively about the workings of great domestic buildings in his immensely popular and imaginative book on the English country house.3 Girouard is not concerned with Italy and thus is not mentioned by Waddy, but he made the entire field possible. In 1975 the magisterial book of a Danish scholar named Christian Elling was translated into English. He sketched in a lively impressionistic way the life that was lived in the palaces of the great Roman cardinals and princes, and he suggested how the retinue or famiglia was structured.4 Elling wrote urbanely and wittily, and the book is much too entertaining to be cited by Waddy, who wants to raise the study of palace life from a charming art to a science.

By extensive detective work Waddy has identified the function of every room, from basement to attic, in five of the most important palaces of several papal families. To the reader patient enough to follow her numbered plans of every floor she reveals the long-lost patterns of movement and the forgotten rituals around which these buildings were designed. She also makes extensive use of the old courtesy handbooks by little-known writers such as Sestini, Tantouche, Leti, and a man with the charming pseudonym Evitascandalo (“Avoid the faux-pas”).

Papal Rome was a strictly hierarchical society, in which connoisseurs rated families according to the number of centuries in the nobility: 400 years was good, 200 less so, 100 or less marked the arrivistes. But at the center of this society was an elective monarchy, the office of the pope, in which the roulette of the conclave could catapult a shoemaker’s son, or the son of an ambitious Bolognese lawyer or Sienese banker, to the summit. There was upward mobility through the clerical bureaucracy, and downward mobility too, as the older but impoverished families had to sell off their castles and estates to the nephews of the new papal families, gorged with money but starved for titles.

The Colonna family, for example, had long ago entrenched itself in a feudal stronghold carved out of an ancient sanctuary high on the hilltop of Palestrina near Rome. But in 1629 they sold the castle and the title that went with it to the Barberini, a fast-rising family that had come out of Tuscany and had just produced a pope, Urban VIII. A generation earlier the Barberini had had the good sense to get rid of the common horsefly that had been their heraldic emblem and replace it with a more attractive emblem, the bee. By the end of Urban VIII’s reign 10,000 painted and sculpted bees would decorate the cities of the Papal States. Not only did the Pope and his nephews build at a feverish rate, but they also poured kings’ ransoms into the purchase of title-bearing castles like Palestrina. Thus it was that the new Palazzo Barberini in Rome, and not the rambling old Palazzo Colonna, came to be known as the palace of the prince of Palestrina.

In this society rank counted immensely and was always being displayed and tested. Cardinals aped the pope and princes aped the cardinals in their train of carriages, their huge households, and their palaces. In a diplomatic capital ambassadors and statesmen were acutely conscious that the outward signs of their rank were a statement about the position of their masters on the chessboard of European politics. A slight against an ambassador’s coach could be an affront to the independence of the Duchy of Parma or the dignity of the Venetian Senate. But rank was measured indoors as well as out.

Foreign visitors to Rome were all struck by the long enfilades in which one passed through four, five, or six rooms in sequence with their doorways all lined up. When Montaigne visited the city in 1580–1581 he noticed that “the palaces are divided into numerous apartments, one leading to another; you thread your way through three or four rooms before you are in the principal one.” These enfilades deprived the rooms of any sense of privacy, but they served as finely calibrated instruments for the display of rank. A very important visitor had to be met at the head of the stairs, while another lower on the scale would have to make his way alone, or maybe accompanied by the host’s gentlemen, through sequences of antechambers until he was met at the door of the audience room, or maybe inside it, by a host who would offer his left hand, or maybe his right, and seat his guest, or maybe not, according to rules of byzantine complexity.

As with the number of guns in a maharajah’s salute, everyone knew exactly how many rooms and corridors and flights of stairs he was entitled to be accompanied on his way in or out of a palace. Departing ambassadors left behind lists to help their successors deal with almost everyone in the social hierarchy, from cardinal nephews and titled aristocrats down to the heads of the religious orders. A seasoned diplomat had to be ready when personages (or families or even the representatives of states) of ambiguous status arrived with overblown pretensions. He might have to say one thing with smooth words but another with the closely watched language of spatial compliment. And of course no rank list could ever be complete, and one can only admire the dexterity of the cardinal who feigned illness and received a strange visitor in bed rather than make a mistake about the number of rooms he should advance to meet him.

What Montaigne understood instinctively, and Patricia Waddy understands more scientifically, is the element of measurement in baroque courtesy. Palaces with absurdly long enfilades provided the finest calibrations in the demonstration of respective rank between visitor and guest. A French visitor who wrote about these palaces in the 1670s had the feeling of being on an enchanted stage when he entered them and saw the owner in the far distance, through doorway after doorway, like a point in perspective. The enfilade in the Palazzo Borghese was already long, but in the 1670s the prince lengthened it still further, so that it cut through ten consecutive rooms and continued out over a public street and through the house next door, terminating on the far side of the Tiber. This was the century of the telescope, and one senses a fascination with optics in the prince’s gesture, as well as a highly calibrated notion of courtesy.

Waddy has written a good, honest book that she modestly and picturesquely hopes will be absorbed into the discipline of architectural history in the same way that one of her palaces, the rambling old Palazzo Barberini ai Giubbonari, has been absorbed into the Roman quarter in which it was built. Doubtless it will be, and we can hope that her way of providing numbered plans of all the floors of a palace will be widely followed. It has already influenced John Beldon Scott, whose book on the Palazzo Barberini alle Quattro Fontane combines the study of frescoes, architecture, and patronage in its discussion of a palace as a cultural artifact.

  1. 1

    Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism (London: The Warburg Institute, 1949).

  2. 2

    Christoph L. Frommel, Der Römische Palastbau der Hochrenaissance, three volumes (Tübingen: Verlag Ernst Wasmuth, 1973).

  3. 3

    Hugh Murray Baillie, “Etiquette and the Planning of the State Apartments in Baroque Palaces,” Archaeologia (Volume 101), 1967, pp. 167–199; Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History (Yale University Press, 1978).

  4. 4

    Christian Elling, Rome: The Biography of Her Architecture from Bernini to Thorvaldsen (Tübingen: Verlag Ernst Wasmuth; copublished by Westview Press, 1975).

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