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13 December 2014

The Cast Party

 Shadows of the Past 

The Bartolini Collection at Florence's Accademia Museum
The week after my talk at the British Institute’s Harold Acton Library on 3 December, I visited the Charles Cecil Studios in Florence, where wonderful work is being done in the legacy of Charles’ mentor R. H. Ives Gammell and his forebears. On my way to the train later in the afternoon I stopped by the Accademia Museum, happily relatively empty at this time of year. After the monumental Michelangelo work, the room of Bartolini casts had new resonance for me, with its recollection of the Romanelli casts connected to the Cecil Studios in Borgo San Frediano.

Casts have become, in the contemporary parlance, “a thing;” there is a site dedicated to them qua artifacts:
The Passagli Collection on Display at
Lucca's Palazzo Ducale

Once upon a time casts were models of excellence, the choicest examples of ancient and modern sculpture available in 3D for students, like the Passaglia collection at Lucca’s liceo artistico:

But at some point in the second half of the nineteenth century, they became white forms with complex shadows and reflected lights to be drawn meticulously in the academies; they were no longer models to aspire to, paragons of Bellori’s l’Idea del Bello, but merely forms in light to serve aspiring drawing students. That, in the end, is the difference between classicism and realism: the extent to which casts are 1. ideal models to imitate and emulate, and 2. more than stable figures without color. The casts are back after their near-eradication in the middle of the twentieth century, in particular at the many ateliers and so-called academies that have sprouted in the last two decades; but are they, in a paraphrase of the title of Michael Baxandall’s book, shadows or enlightenment?





POSTSCRIPT: The V&A's cast collection recently reopened, the media have their usual nonsensical take on things:
"Originally opened in 1873, the galleries were conceived as a definitive collection of great works from Europe, full-size fragments of exotic cathedrals and palaces, duplicated in London for all to see. It was an aristocratic grand tour for the armchair explorer, conveniently compressed into two rooms."

I'm sorry, but what moron ever entered the V&A's cast gallery and thought they had been transported to Florence, or thought that the Florentines had sold the David to the British? I suppose calling them "fakes" imparts an edge of, well, edginess that The Guardian is expected to deliver to its readers. Never mind the reality, here's the past.... Plus, the casts were, technically, not "duplicated in London" but in Paris, where some of the greatest casters were. And aristocrats still went on actual Grand Tours to Florence itself. Whatever.

17 November 2014

Emulation Talk at the British Institute in Florence

Emulate the Best

In anticipation of my upcoming talk at the Harold Acton Library of the British Institute in Florence, I thought I’d post this apposite extract from my favorite English poet, John Dryden:

Kneller's portrait of Dryden
Of various Parts a perfect whole is wrought;
Thy pictures think, and we Divine their Thought.
*Shakespear, thy Gift, I place before my Sight;
With awe I ask his Blessing e’re I write;
With Rev’rence look on his Majestick Face;
Proud to be less, but of his Godlike Race.
His Soul Inspires me, while thy Praise I write,
And like Teucer, under Ajax Fight;
Bids thee thro’ me, be bold; with dauntless breast
Contemn the bad and Emulate the best…
—John Dryden, “To Sir Godfrey Kneller, Principal Painter to His Majesty”, from Miscellanies (1694), in The Poems of John Dryden, ed. John Sargeaunt, Oxford Editions of Standard Authors, 1948, p. 168.
*Shakespeare’s Picture drawn by Sir Godfrey Kneller, and given to the Author

The talk is open to members of the Library, but joining the Library is rather straightforward, in person at the Institute.

An encouraging review of The Challenge of Emulation has been published by the Sacred Architecture Journal:

And here are some links to recent articles of interest:




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.