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.

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