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23 January 2010

Just back from a day trip to Ariccia....

Gianlorenzo Bernini is a model for emulation as he is for so many other aspects of art and architecture. Take, for example, his relationship with the Pantheon. Since he believed it was without fault, it was a natural default for him when designing a church dedicated to the Assumption of Mary for the Chigi pope, Alexander VII, in Ariccia south of Rome. But he did not copy the Pantheon as a 19th century neo-Classicist would have done; instead, he offers not only a variation on the venerable Roman monument, but what might almost be considered a modest critique, or at least an attempt to improve some of the faults of its context, and maybe more overtly make it Christian rather than pagan.To do this he might have turned to Palladio’s chapel for Villa Barbara at Maser, if not for the apparent lack of evidence of a trip to the Veneto in his life, and the fact that the chapel is not included in the Four Books. In any event, his operation on Maser is no less radical than his transformation of the Pantheon, both of them sponsored in large measure by responding to the context.

Ariccia climbs to the papal palace on the crest of a hill along the ancient Via Appia; while today most people approach it from the west across a rebuilt 19th century viaduct, in Bernini’s day the main road threaded through town from south (toward Rome) to north (toward Naples). So the first view of the church if you were coming from Rome was from below, and behind (since it naturally had to face the papal palace to the north). Bernini takes the small towers Palladio added to his Pantheon (derived from those of the Lateran?), and puts them surprisingly behind the church, calling down to the valley below and framing the approach; but he then wraps the church in apparently symmetrical fabric, leaving a remarkable slot of curving space following the round church. This fabric is his answer to the great defect of the Pantheon in his day, the fact that it was embedded in ramshackle medieval buildings. He not only corrects that, but ennobles the fabric’s main façade with an order that complements the church’s portico, weaving them together in a way that recalls the ancient building’s original context.

This is emulation at work in architecture. It requires clarity of mind, and commitment of ideals. It is rational, rigorous, and inspired. It is not “organic” urbanism as some New Urbanist might want it: it is classical in the best sense. Would that it happened more often today….

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