Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Building a Mystery

No trip to Europe is complete without the requisite visits to the beautiful churches and palaces that stand as memorials to past power, both sacred and profane. Standing in those huge structures, you find yourself overwhelmed with the ornamentation, unsure of where to look and literally hurting yourself straining to see the details of the ceilings so far above. With their series on Italian Frescoes, Abbeville Press saves you the neck strain and allows you to bring the beauty of these places to your home to study at your leisure, just like the nobility who commissioned it once did. Steffi Roettgen’s Italian Frescoes: The Baroque Era, 1600-1800 completes the five-volume cycle begun with The Age of Giotto, The Early Renaissance, The Flowering of the Renaissance, and The High Renaissance and Mannerism. Through new photographic techniques and the talents of photographers Antonio Quattrone and Ghigo Roli, The Baroque Era brings these heavenly works down to earth for us to wonder at and understand. At the heart of the frescoes of the baroque period lies the power of illusion. In the fresco above (from the Sala d’Alessandro of the Palazzo Pepoli Campogrande in Bologna, Italy), we see Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot amidst a bravura display of illusionistic architecture and foreshortened perspective. “An ability to achieve a maximum of deception with the simplest of means was what distinguished the era’s foremost painters,” Roettgen writes. While delighting in the visual trickery, viewers also took in the sleight of hand in which the owner of the palace would take on some of the aura of past luminaries such as Alexander or the Greek Gods, gilding the façade of their own power through the ostentation of their surroundings. The Baroque Era takes you behind these curtains to reveal the secrets behind the trickery.

Of the twenty-two sites discussed, more than two-thirds are from secular places, to reflect the reality of the times and refute the common misconception of baroque splendor as a primarily religious trend. Of course, the secular and profane intermingled quite freely during that era, with popes often coming from the powerful families and religious and political dynasties blurring the virtually nonexistent line between church and state. During the baroque period, these religious sites evolved from picture galleries to cohesive works of art—a theatrum sacrum presenting a unified effect on the devout. Father Heinrich Pfieffer's The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision, also by Abbeville Press (my review here), outlined the programmatic nature of the works of the Sistine Chapel as dictated by religious scholars. A similar programming, albeit less complex, takes place in these religious places, in which the structure of the church itself is employed to great effect, as can be seen in the cupola vault of San Andrea Della Valle in Rome (above), which shows a swirling heavenly host witnessing the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Over time, however, such illusionary foreshortening as seen here was seen as too distorting for biblical scenes, which were later depicted without perceptional trickery as if the characters were floating free of all earthly bounds and architecture. While such perspective was permitted, it literally blew the roof off of these churches, opening up the imagination of the viewer to an entire cosmos of spiritual possibility.

When the powers that be decided to shift that power of that imaginative possibility and harness it to their own interests, they borrowed much of the sacred imagery for their own purposes. In the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, the Barberini celebrated their clan’s rise to prominence and eminence with The Triumph of Divine Providentia: Apotheosis of the House of Barberini and the Papacy of Urban VIII. The heraldic bees of the Barberini family buzz about as Maffeo Barberini becomes pope. The Barberini's Florentine counterparts, the Medici, similarly catapulted the propaganda by staging the apotheosis of Cosimo de’ Medici (the elder), who is shown before Jupiter’s throne. Roettgen’s text provides ample historical background to understand the motivations of these blood-stained dynasties not only to impress their lofty position to all those who looked upon their palaces, but also to rise above the earthly and turn their eyes to their place in the next life. The question remains as to how much these powerful figures believed their own personal mythology. Did such tyrants truly believe that commissioning paintings of themselves in such poses could somehow make them true?

Looking at these works and the symbolic language they present, you feel tempted to tease out the meaning of all of these complex works, lulled into the belief that a coherent message is there to be unlocked once the keys are discovered. Roettgen and other scholars now question “whether these pictorial programs were in truth as multilayered, coherent, and learned as scholars have long supposed,” being instead just an arrangement of the “reservoir of motifs” artists “employed as needed.” “Today,” Roettgen writes, “the prevailing view is that their ambiguity was calculated, leaving room for provocative detours, contrary associations, and witty enigmas.” While the grand apotheosis of a Barberini or Medici could be easily discerned and, thus, easily ignored after repeated viewing, more openly suggestive works such as the scene of Aurora and Apollo in the Chariot of the Sun (above) in the North Wing of the Palazzo Barberini encouraged repeated viewing through ambiguity. Roettgen describes this fresco as “an allegory, ambiguous and applicable in many contexts, of ascent, new beginnings, or triumph over the powers of darkness.” Such timeless works offer something for everyone, rewarding repeated inspection and even “adapting” (in the mind of the perceiver, of course) to suit the mood of the day.

Ultimately, it is this adaptability that has given the baroque fresco its staying power. When Louis XIV visited the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, he became enthralled with the Rooms of the Planets, which associate five planetary deities with stages in the life of an ideal hero. After seeing scenes such as Jupiter Crowning the Victorious Hero (above) in the Sala di Giove, Louis XIV wanted to transport that visual of power to his palace in Versailles. “Virtually no other fresco cycle from the Italian Baroque has been studied more intensively than that of the Rooms of the Planets,” Roettgen writes, confirming that the Sun King had excellent taste. Like “Impressionism,” the term “baroque” began as a disparaging word in the nineteenth century—a condemnation of the ostentation and clutter of the churches, palaces, and their decorations from that period. Steffi Roettgen’s Italian Frescoes: The Baroque Era, 1600-1800 helps restore the good name of the baroque and impresses upon the reader the impact these works once had for a contemporary audience and still have for modern audiences today. I found myself paging through the book over and over, pausing here and there to look closer and closer at the tiniest details, “lost” for centuries but now recovered through beautifully performed restorations and the magic of modern photography. The true meanings behind these images of heavenly and mundane power may always remain a mystery, but thanks to Roettgen’s text and the stunning accompanying photography, the beauty of the Baroque period in Italy no longer remains one.

[Many thanks to Abbeville Press for providing me with a review copy of Steffi Roettgen’s Italian Frescoes: The Baroque Era, 1600-1800 and for the images from the book.]

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