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 will be of permanent value to museum officials, private collectors, and art dealers.
Alessandro Algardi was born in 1598, that is to say the same year as Bernini and within a few years of Nicolas Poussin (1594), Francesco Borromini (1599), Anthony van Dyck (1599), Diego Velázquez (1599), and Claude Lorraine (1600)—the brightest stars in the constellation that rose over the artistic horizon in the 1620s. His birthplace, Bologna, was equally significant. It had no strong local tradition of sculpture—the finest sculptures in the city were all by artists from elsewhere, including Michelangelo, none of whom settled there. But it was the home town of a famous school of painters, the Carracci family, Guido Reni, Domenichino, and others who were generally ranked among the greatest in Europe from their own time until the mid-nineteenth century and have only fairly recently regained their former reputation. Algardi learned to draw in the academy founded by the Carracci and retained close links with painters throughout his life. As a sculptor he began as a modeler in stucco, not as a carver. The distinction between the two practices is fundamental to the whole art of sculpture. And when Algardi later began to use marble he seems to have approached it as would a modeler: form tends to be felt as something malleable and the specific properties of marble—those of its surface to reflect and absorb light, for instance—to be disregarded.
At this period, of course, and for long afterward, sculptors normally used clay or some other soft medium to build up their models, which could either be cast in bronze or, with varying degrees of help from their studio, carved in marble. Bernini was no exception. But he always “thought” in marble while modeling in clay and gave the works he finished himself an eye-catching brilliance of surface effects. Algardi never acquired such virtuosity in the manipulation of the drill, chisel, and rasp, nor does he appear to have demanded it of his assistants. The full-size terra-cotta bust of Cardinal Zacchia has—or perhaps one should now say had—a subtlety of handling that was lost in the marble version (in the Berlin Museum) completed after Algardi’s death.
After his training in Bologna and a brief period at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, Algardi settled in Rome in 1625. Urban VIII had been elected pope two years before and, so the story goes, greeted the twenty-five-year-old Bernini with: “It is a good piece of luck for you, Cavaliere, to see Cardinal Maffeo Barberini Pope, but far greater is our good fortune that the lifetime of Cavaliere Bernini should fall in our pontificate.” Patronage was still necessary for painters and even more for sculptors, who could not work without large and expensive blocks of marble and quantities of bronze. Algardi did not have the luck of attracting a patron as rich, generous, and intelligent as Urban VIII. The first was Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, nephew of the previous pope, who employed him to restore antique statues—the kind of work that kept the wolf from many a Roman sculptor’s door thoughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For Marcantonio Borghese, nephew of the last pope but one, he modeled caryatid supports for a superb bronze table, carved a small statue and some decorative objects. But the Barberini family ignored him. When the Conservatori—the civic council of Rome—had the not altogether happy idea of transforming an ancient Roman torso of Julius Caesar into a statue of the Pope’s deceased brother, they commissioned the head from Bernini and the legs from Algardi.
Not until he had been in Rome for nearly a decade was Algardi given commissions for large-scale sculpture. In 1634 he received that for the tomb of Leo XI, who had been elected pope in 1605 (in preference to Cardinal Zacchia), had declared his intention to put an end to nepotism, and, providentially for the visual arts, died twenty-seven days later. This was the first of the great series of Roman baroque papal monuments to be completed. In its close integration of three figures in a single bold pyramidal composition it makes a striking contrast with its immediate predecessor, the tomb of Paul V in Santa Maria Maggiore, composed of a statue surrounded by reliefs carved by a number of different sculptors and set in an elaborate architectural framework. The tomb of Leo XI was not, however, installed in St. Peter’s until after that of Urban VIII by Bernini had been unveiled on the other side of the apse. Thus, even before it was seen by the public, Algardi’s work in plain white Carrara marble was outshone by Bernini’s larger and far more dramatic multicolored multimedia creation with gilding on its bronze statue of the Pope and skeletal image of death, its black marble and bronze sarcophagus, and its voluptuous personifications of Charity and Justice and their attendant naked putti in creamy-white marble.
Urban VIII, who had prudently had his tomb almost completed in his lifetime, died in 1644. His successor, Innocent X, was no friend to the Barberini nephews, who made haste for France. Thus Bernini not only lost his best patrons but fell into disfavor as their former protégé. Algardi tactfully presented a silver crucifix and a group of the Baptism of Christ to the new pope (whose baptismal name was Giovanni Battista). And he was soon engaged by the papal nephew, Camillo Pamphilj, to design the Villa Belrespiro (now known as the Villa Doria Pamphilj), just outside the city walls. How far he was responsible for the architecture is debatable but he certainly provided the designs for the exquisitely refined stucco decorations inside. His major commission under Innocent X was for a gigantic marble relief of Saint Leo the Great and Attila in the apse of St. Peter’s. It is his most prominent work but, partly on account of the material, seems to melt into the architecture and seldom arrests the attention of visitors who have just passed by the glittering mosaic altarpieces and been overwhelmed by the grand bravura of Bernini’s baldacchino, his tomb of Alexander VII and vast exuberant shrine for the chair of St. Peter.
Algardi came off better in the Palazzo dei Conservatori where his bronze statue of Innocent X was placed in the same room as that in marble of Urban VIII by Bernini, providing a unique opportunity for comparison not so much of the “counterfeit presentment” of two popes as of the different gifts of the two artists. Both monuments doubtless began as models in clay, but whereas Bernini’s statue reveals both the possibilities and limitations of marble (here carved mainly by his assistants) Algardi’s exploits the potentialities of bronze to suggest the rustling movement of draperies and the transience of facial expressions. As Dr. Montagu remarks, “Algardi approaches as near as a sculptor can to the impressionism of that other great portrait of Innocent X by Diego Velázquez.”
The Pamphilj were neither as open-handed nor as enlightened in their patronage of the arts as the Barberini had been. The Pope’s sister-in-law, the notorious Olimpia Maidalchini, who played a dominant part in temporal affairs, was far more interested in getting than in spending. Algardi portrayed her in a vivid bust which seems to confirm all the stories of her arrogance and greed destined to live on in myth and provide the subject for a lurid nineteenth-century novel by the art critic Etienne Delécluze (no admirer of Baroque art). It was, however, Bernini who, so the story goes, profited from the situation. For when the project for a fountain in Piazza Navona was under discussion he gave her a silver cast of his model and snatched the commission from Algardi. One contemporary preferred Algardi’s design—now known only from a drawing of a personification of the Tiber perched atop an elaborate plinth—and Dr. Montagu remarks that “we may or may not agree.” There can be very few, however, who regret Bernini’s great fountain of the four rivers.
Time and again, Algardi challenges comparison with Bernini. Dr. Montagu does her best to make out a case for Algardi, claiming, not unconvincingly, that in some respects he had greater originality. But she tends to stretch the point. On the evidence of a drawing, for instance, probably copied after one by Algardi, possibly intended as a design for the tomb of Innocent X (which he did not live to execute), she remarks that he, rather than Bernini, may “have introduced the figure of the kneeling Pope into baroque funerary art.” Such academic conjectures provide very shaky foundations for an argument. And the fact remains that the first tomb statue of a pope kneeling in proud humility servitus servitorum dei (a phrase that often accompanied pontifical pronouncements) appeared on Bernini’s tomb for Alexander VII. More often she relapses into special pleading as when, at the beginning of the book, she writes that the contrast between the two sculptors was one “of natural genius as much as circumstances”: Algardi was “a slower developer, an artist of narrower range,” slyly adding, “which did not include the skills of a courtier or a salesman.”
Eventually Dr. Montagu comes near to commending him as the creator of an art that “does not lend itself to iconographical analyses”—with an ill-concealed allusion to recent Bernini studies such as Norbert Huse’s of the Piazza Navona fountain and Irving Lavin’s Bernini and the Unity of the Visual Arts,* which goes far beyond the scope of a learned monograph, such as that under review here, to enhance our understanding of seventeenth-century art as a whole, with wider implications also for European aesthetic values. But of course the very nature of such books is comment enough in itself. Similarly wide-ranging and penetrating studies of Algardi are not to be found for the simple reason that, in his case, there is much less to penetrate.
Dr. Montagu is the curator of the photographic collection of the Warburg Institute in London and thus well up in iconography, with expertise to identify mythological subjects and allegorical personifications. But she is reluctant to go any further, although she identifies the subjects of portrait busts and writes well about the people they represent. In her account of the bust of Cardinal Zacchia, for example, she remarks that it was the first to make “use in a secular context of the gesture of turning the pages of a book”—an observation of little interest. That Zacchia was a writer, the author of a treatise on the Immaculate Conception and two volumes of letters, is not mentioned, though the book and gesture are obvious allusions to this.
Of course, none of the people Algardi portrayed is at all well known today, with the exception of Innocent X, the prepotente Donna Olimpia, and Gaspare Mola, one of the most skillful goldsmiths of his time. A list of them might give the impression that he was no more than a poor patrician’s Bernini. They were, nonetheless, members of the society for which he worked and rather more could have been said about them. Antonio Cerri, the subject of a very fine bust now in the Manchester museum, was one of the most intimate counselors of Urban VIII. Ottavio Corsini, who looks down from the wall of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, Rome, was the author of one of the first secular melodramas (in the original meaning of the word), the papal nuncio who tried to persuade Louis XIII of France to take up arms against Protestants, and the governor of the Romagna obliged to deal with disbanded mercenaries from the papal army.
Dr. Montagu is also rather timid about drawing conclusions from the new knowledge gained by her research. One of her interesting discoveries is the preoise subject for the relief on the tomb of Leo XI, which has generally been misunderstood. Since the Pope’s reign was so brief, it records the most notable incident in his previous career. In 1596 he had been sent as papal legate to France, administered the oath by which Henry IV abjured Protestantism (Paris having already proved well worth a mass) and two years later that by which he ratified a treaty ending warfare with Spain. “From matters regarding the majesty of the true religion and the Pope, the Cardinal Legate passed to those which concerned the peace of the realm, and the peace between Christians,” a historian wrote in 1630. And this was how Algardi presented the subject, as Dr. Montagu explains. By the time he began work in 1634, however, the French were again veering toward war with Spain and, to the horror of the Curia, siding with Protestants against Catholics in the Thirty Years’ War. A visual record of the oaths of Henry IV may therefore have had some topical significance. Dr. Montagu does not go into that, however, even though the monument was commissioned by one of the more outspoken members of the pro-Spanish, anti-French faction in the College of Cardinals—the faction that wished to have Louis XIII excommunicated.
Algardi’s giant relief in St. Peter’s of Saint Leo the Great confronting Attila was wholly appropriate for the chapel in which the relics of the saint were enshrined. But it was also a defiant affirmation of divinely instituted papal power in the face of the loss of authority both inside the Church (with the spread of Jansenism) and in the political world (after the Peace of Westphalia which acknowledged the independence of the Dutch Republic and made large concessions to the Protestant states in Germany). Bernini’s art was enlisted in the same cause at this time, his monument in St. Peter’s to the Countess Matilda (begun in 1634) incorporating a relief of the German emperor Henry IV kneeling before Gregory VII at Canossa. That the contemporary political implications of such images were taken seriously is shown by the conflict between the Venetians and Urban VIII over the removal of an inscription declaring the papacy’s indebtedness to Venice beneath a picture in the Vatican of Frederick Barbarossa kneeling before Alexander III—it led to a break in diplomatic relations.
In this way, by ignoring the wider implications of his work, Dr. Montagu tends to isolate Algardi from the main historical events and religious movements of his time. It may be that he was less deeply concerned with them than were those who commissioned and determined the subject matter of his sculptures, but that does not lessen their relevance for those seeking to understand and appreciate his work. Nor can he have been totally impervious to public events. Dr. Montagu scoffs at Ludwig von Pastor’s great History of the Popes which gives such a vivid account of life in seventeenth-century Rome, based on an extraordinarily wide knowledge of original documents, and written with a partiality so transparent that it hardly matters. It was a “source unavailable to Algardi,” she cheaply remarks, listing it in her bibliography only in the Italian translation without reference to the date of original publication in German, let alone the eminently readable English version. (Other books are listed without the important first date of publication, including C.C. Malvasia’s Felsina pittrice which prints letters from Algardi.) In fact, her book seems to be intended exclusively for rather old-fashioned art historians and it abounds in coterie asides—“as perceptively noted by Anna Nava Cellini,” as “detailed by Minna Heimbürger Ravalli,” and so on.
One of Algardi’s last works has a miraculous subject: Saint Nicholas of Tolentino receiving curative bread from the Virgin. It is almost exactly contemporary with Bernini’s famous Transverberation of St. Teresa, but the differences between the two works are as profound as they are characteristic of each artist. Dr. Montagu writes:
Bernini represents the saint at the climactic point of her ecstasy, and every effort is directed towards intensifying the drama of the moment. Algardi uses no dramatic effects because he is not representing a drama, nor even a moment. As in St. Philip Neri, he is meditating, and inviting us to meditate in a state of calm reflection, not so much upon a miracle as on the divine grace which performs such miracles, manifested in this case by the bread of St. Nicholas.
This is well put; and yet it can hardly be denied that whereas Algardi is concerned with a somewhat abstruse piece of hagiography of diminishing significance even to the pious, Bernini crystallized the idea of the mystical experience in an image that retains its power even for nonbelievers. Nowadays, rightly or wrongly, it is often given a psychological interpretation—which indicates its continuing relevance.
Bernini’s genius was expansive; he worked outward from the donnée toward the expression of some general theme or idea. His busts are more than just brilliant portraits, speaking likenesses, they reveal the whole ethos of his subjects, especially those of popes, of Louis XIV, Cardinal Richelieu, or that zealous persecutor of Protestants, Cardinal Bellarmine. Though extremely vivid, they keep their distance, as if giving audience to the spectator. Algardi’s are more intimate, perhaps more human, likenesses and they are based on long and close scrutiny of the features of his subjects (often taken from painted portraits). But they are no more than that. Similarly with their papal tombs, Bernini’s are monuments to the majestic power and transcendental spirituality of the papacy, Algardi’s is the memorial to an aging pontiff, a tired old man whose beneficent humanity transcends his temporal authority. Even with a subject as potentially dramatic and of such wide general significance as the beheading of Saint Paul, Algardi was extremely restrained, draining it of everything that might give it an immediate impact. His group of two larger-than-life-size figures commissioned by an Oratorian as a memorial to his father in a church in Bologna—extols Saint Paul’s acceptance of martyrdom as an act of grace. The muscular executioner becomes a divine emissary of death rather than a cruel headsman and a dramatic, even sensational, subject is transformed into one of pious contemplation, creating a meditative, one might almost say quietist, atmosphere.
That there should have been some spiritual affinity between Algardi and the Oratorians is hardly surprising and no sculptor of the time was better fitted by artistic temperament to carve the effigy of their founder, Saint Philip Neri, the gentlest, most accessible, and least tormented of Counter-Reformation saints. His statue in the sacristy of the Chiesa Nuova was Algardi’s first major work. Dr. Montagu convincingly suggests that at first Algardi thought of representing him on his knees with arms spread in a dramatic gesture of adoration. However the statue shows him standing as many people of the time in Rome may well have remembered him (he had died in 1596) wrapt in compassionate thought. His moment of mystical ecstasy, when his heart is said to have expanded, breaking two of his ribs, is alluded to by no more than a bulge in his chasuble. The angel kneeling beside him with a book might easily be mistaken for an earthly acolyte or one of the boys who read discourses in the sacristy before the evening performances of music for which the oratory was famous (oratorios are named after it). Algardi here succeeded in creating the image of a modern saint who extolled quiet joy rather than stern asceticism or otherworldly exaltation. It expresses the most human and humane aspects of seventeenth-century Catholicism.
But if Algardi’s art was reticent, almost self-effacing in its concentration on particularity of subject matter and subdued emotionalism, it had greater and more beneficial influence on a younger generation of sculptors than that of Bernini. Bernini depended so much on his inventive fecundity, his unequaled virtuosity as a carver and his entrepreneurial ability to command large teams of assistants, and all these helped to fuel the antipathy which his brilliance and enormous success inevitably aroused. Within a decade of his death the reaction set in. By 1693 the director of the French Academy in Rome was writing: “It can be said that three men, Bernini, Pietro da Cortona, Borromini, entirely ruined the fine arts by the liberties all three took to indulge their individual taste or, it would be better to say, their caprice.”
Algardi escaped condemnation partly, no doubt, because his works were less conspicuous. But he had also been, by this time, detached from Bernini and the other great Roman Baroque artists and architects by the antiquarian Giovanni Pietro Bellori who extolled him in a book published in 1672. Bellori’s idealistic, classically orientated theory of the arts made a deep impression on academic teaching at the time and his theories were revived in the mid-eighteenth century by Giovanni Bottari, who was more responsible than anyone else for associating Baroque art with the Jesuit order, both of which he detested. His volume of imaginary conversations between Bellori and the painter Carlo Maratti, written in the 1730s and published in 1756 (not 1826 as Dr. Montagu supposes), contributed to the continuing attack on Baroque art and the reputation, by exclusion, of Algardi. Bottari also played a part in revising one of the standard guidebooks to Rome (originally written by Filippo Titi), and was probably responsible for calling Bernini’s monument of Alexander VII “bizarre” and describing Algardi’s bronze of Innocent X as “the most beautiful of all the pontifical statues in Rome.”
Similarly, the first historian of Italian sculpture, Leopoldo Cicognara, was far less severe on Algardi than he was on Bernini. But when in the present century the qualities for which Bernini’s works had been censured—their irrationality and religious emotionalism, their super-abundant vitality of form and their brilliant finish—came once again to be understood and admired, Algardi was left out in the cold, as he had been when the commission for the fountain in Piazza Navona was snatched from him. Nevertheless, we can now see that Algardi, too, made a distinct contribution to the richly complicated nexus of Baroque art He was an estimable artist who inspires cool praise rather than hyperbole, and he has finally received the tribute he deserves from modern scholarship in Dr. Montagu’s estimable book.
April 24, 1986
Irving Lavin, Bernini and the Unity of the Visual Arts (Oxford University Press, 1980). In a footnote to a remark on Bernini’s interests in mysticism, Dr. Montagu strangely cites alongside this work an essay by Anthony Blunt which keeps alive the hoary old story (exploded by Lavin together with much else of the same kind) that Bernini followed the religious exercises of Saint Ignatius. ↩