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25 October 2014

The Celebrated Architect

Praising and Burying Carlo Fontana at the Accademia di San Luca

For three solid days this past week Rome’s vestige of the Accademia di San Luca in Borromini's Palazzo Carpegna hosted mostly Italian speakers (with a handful of Germans, a couple of Americans, and one Frenchman) for a conference on the “celebrated architect” (that’s how he had described himself) Carlo Fontana, principe of the Academy at the turn of the seventeenth century. I’m rather partial to Fontana myself, both as a teacher (Gibbs, von Erlach, Hildebrandt, and Juvarra were among his celebrated students) and architect; as an architect he was Bernini’s heir, and if he lacked the master’s fertile iconographic mind, he managed a sophisticated compositional approach to the bel composto, and virtually defined the terms of early eighteenth-century Roman architecture.

For most of the conference the talks addressed particulars of Fontana’s atelier, his collaborators and successors; his work for the theater; or the Colosseum church project. Others focused on specifying his personal provenance, cataloguing his lesser-known works, or looking at the mechanics of his constructions. Most of these would qualify as praises, if faint; Paolo Portoghesi, in his overlong talk, seemed more interested in burying Fontana as an uninventive shadow of Bernini or Borromini—a rather outré opinion common among an older generation of scholars. The majority of the Italians, many of them architects, wanted to project onto Fontana’s operations the bureaucratic realities of modern Italian building, a natural if regrettable predilection.

There was little in the way of his relationship with the elephant in the room, the French Academy; essentially nothing on his compositional methods, his conception of space, or his urbanism; less than nothing, if that’s possible, on his iconography, the concetti Bernini privileged in the artistic act. Implicitly, no one really took Fontana seriously as an intellectual, a thinking artist. Instead, he was projected unquestioningly as a solid practitioner, an able administrator both in the field and in the academy, a clever political operator; coincidentally, many of the mid-career Italian presenters could have been mistaken for habitués of the Palazzo Madama.

I think there was a time, or I would like to think so, when the mission of scholars was to try to understand the past on its own terms, not as a mirror of ours. I also, fortunately, studied architecture at a time when history was considered relevant to modern practice; postmodern relevance it may have been, but it opened doors that seem to have closed again, perhaps even more definitively this time. I feel bad for those young Italian scholars equipped with a wealth of often esoteric information on specialist subjects, who aren’t taught to integrate their knowledge into a larger frame and see it as completely detached from modern practice (even as they, paradoxically, project modern practice onto the past). I feel bad, but I can’t change it, and all I can do is practice the alternative….


26 September 2014

The Baroque, Then and Now

The Frescoes

Ottobeuren, crossing
Since I’m a painter as well as an architect, the frescoes in particular of South German eighteenth-century churches interested me, and while there is much that they have in common, particular artists brought unique styles and interpretations to their subjects. From the sort of purple sfumato of the ceiling at Marktoberdorf, to the limpid clarity of the vaults of Ottobeuren, artists drew on diverse sources for their emulations and aimed at different qualities of form and light as the century progressed.



Maria Steinbach, nave ceiling
Not that this is all calculated and deliberate; different artists practiced with different hands, and the happy combination at Ottobeuren was not, in my experience, matched elsewhere. These ceilings of the Zeillers, seemingly and plausibly influenced by the crisp chiaroscuro of Tiepolo at Wurzburg, are to my taste the epitome of what such frescoes should be. They merit careful looking at in their own right, not merely as colorful eyewash scattered among the stuccowork.



Ottobeuren, nave

But the surprise of the excursion was the last stop in Innsbruck, where I went to see the Asam brother’s work in the cathedral of St. Lorenz. There I discovered that, having suffered damage in WWII bombing, part of the apse and transept were rebuilt and their paintings repainted—not copied, mind you, but new works inspired by the old were created. And credit for this goes to two local heroes, practitioners of an otherwise unknown twentieth-century baroque:

St. Lorenz, apse
Hans Andre worked in the apse, finishing his painting in 1950 for the third centenary of the translation of the miraculous Lucas Cranach Madonna and Child to the church:

St. Lorenz, right transept altar
But for me the star was Wolfram Köberl, who finished in 2003 (!) at the age of 76 the right transept altar painting, so Venetian in form and spirit:


So there’s hope. The glories of the eighteenth century are available to us if we have the will to Beauty, the desire and capacity to revel in the splendors of what we’re capable of at our best. It seems we mostly resign ourselves to Modernist ugliness, or mediocre “traditionalism” at best. But these two Innsbruckers remind us the fault is not in our stars, but ourselves.

13 September 2014

A More Nuanced View of the Enlightenment

Ottobeuren Abbey church, architect J. M. Fischer, stuccoes by 
J. M. Feichtmayr, frescoes by J. J. Zeiller
RESILIENT BAROQUE

Since reading Joseph Rykwert’s The First Moderns: The Architects of the Eighteenth Century (MIT) roughly three decades ago, I have largely accepted his reading of the eighteenth century’s trajectory toward the roots of Modernism, dominated by neo-classicists, the Goût grec, early Romanticism, Encyclopedic rationalism and proto-structuralism. And, naturally, rejecting Modernism, I was inclined to reject much that went along with the Enlightenment that seemed to have produced it. Not the Enlightenment of scientific advance and human rights, but the not-so-enlightened purism that rejected everything about the culture that had preceded it.

Maria Steinbach pilgrimage church, architect J. G. Fischer, stuccoes by
J. G. Übelherr, frescoes by F. G. Hermann 
Of course, that’s a diagram of history, not its fullness. Before my Germanic Late-Baroque tour, I was already reading a number of recent histories that rendered more complex that pivotal century. Nigel Aston’s Art and Religion in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Reaktion) introduces the many ways in which religion didn’t disappear in the eighteenth century; rather, between Protestant and Catholic cultures there was an intricate rebalancing of perceptions and priorities, the former becoming increasingly more accustomed to, and desirous of, Catholic religious painting, and the latter applying increasingly rigorous standards to the purging of the fabulous (unhistorical) from its iconography. And, as Aston shows, there was simply an enormous quantity of religious art produced in the eighteenth century, most of it remarkably beautiful, that has been too easily ignored.

The architectural historian Heather Hyde Minor, in The Culture of Architecture in Enlightenment Rome (Penn State), tracks a number of ways Enlightenment ideas shaped the building of Rome by church patrons in the first half of the eighteenth century. References to church history and scholarly debates about it, connoisseurship of the antique, an interest in lightness as intellectual metaphor, informed the building of churches, museums, and palaces in the papal city.

St. Martin, Marktoberdorf , architect J. G. Fischer, stuccoes by
A. Bader, frescoes by F. G. Hermann
More apropos the buildings that have filled my senses over the last week, Ottobeuren, Maria Steinbach, and St. Martin in Marktoberdorf, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann’s Painterly Enlightenment: The Art of Franz Anton Maulbertsch 1724-1796 (North Carolina) describes the career of a painter of spectacular ecclesiastical frescoes who was gainfully employed, with only modest changes to his style, by enlightened patrons almost right up to the end of the century. The church at Ottobeuren received its final interior touches only just after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But when one considers the composers working at that same time, like J. J. Quantz, C. H. Graun, or the slightly earlier J. J. Fux, the grace and elegance, formal richness and simultaneous clarity of that gallant music reverberates through these spaces, so clear in formal structure and so rich in ornament.


07 September 2014

If It Ain’t Baroque

Don’t Visit

At the beginning of a Baroque odyssey, of a compact smattering of sites treated in Henry Russell Hitchcock’s Rococo Architecture in Southern Germany (OK, I call it Baroque, he calls it Rococo, but then the pearl is born in the shell; not to mention that so far I’m in Switzerland, and will eventually wind up in Austria), I thought I would post some images from two spectacular, and related, monasteries: Einsiedeln and St. Gallen. For those who lament the loss of medieval St. Gall, read no further. I am besotted by these two places, so filled are they with joy, exuberance, and sheer love of beauty (if those are qualities one doesn’t associate these days with Switzerland, well, that’s a study for a sociologist; come to think of it, The Sociology of Modernism would be a worthwhile study for someone to do). I’m researching topics for my forthcoming book on Invention, but let me just point out one particular from St. Gallen that speaks to the wonderfully rich, and fundamentally human, culture that informed these two monastic complexes. The strength, to me at least, of the St. Gallen church’s decorative program is the figurative reliefs (the decorative rococo ornament work is spectacular as well, if hard to separate from its coloristic role). And here I just want to zoom in to one detail, which for me sums up the supreme humanity in the otherwise overwhelmingly artistic milieu.

Two monks offer bread to a poor woman with her child, and a grizzled old beggar man. He would be only a type if it weren’t for the fact of his peg leg, thrust out into space over the rococo ornament below (becoming the kind of diagonal accent that Alpers and Baxandall describe in Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence), so poignantly pulls us into the message of the relief. This genre detail, even if compositionally useful, is fundamentally human, even sadly so. What can get lost in the place’s wealth of detail—not to mention incredible artistic accomplishment, which so harshly illumines our contemporary mediocrity—is the sense of the corporal, the capacity of these rarified Benedictines to fulfill their mission of hospitality, and indeed compassion, as the inscription proclaims: VISCERA MISERICORDIAE.


Mercy from the gut. The flowering of brilliance in European culture in the first half of the eighteenth century—the like of which we haven’t seen since—was not divorced from the human, the real, the necessary. At Einsiedeln the beautifully ordered monastic complex abuts a hillside where their horses still graze, serenaded in the morning by alpine horns; the earthy, natural side of life fits seamlessly with the refined and spiritual sides. Would that we could recover that balance, although where it hasn’t been destroyed it lives still.