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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….