Baroque in Rome

Review of the exhibition at the Palazzo Cipolla

As someone who has lived in Rome on and off over the past seven years, I found this exhibition on the Baroque in Rome particularly enjoyable. It helped me gain a greater understanding of this city whose history is so woven into the surfaces of its streets and squares, the facades of its buildings and their interiors.

The sculpture, paintings and architecture of the 17th century form some of Rome’s most characteristic sights. The Piazza Navona, for example, was transformed during this time. The Palazzo Pamphilj, the Church of Sant’Agnese and the Fountain of the Four Rivers, comprising the piazza’s most dramatic architecture, were all either completely re-designed or constructed at the height of the Baroque period. All are found within the same photo taken by millions of tourists each year.

My reference to photography is deliberate. These tourists are unwittingly perpetuating a practice that was heavily pursued through works of Reni, da Cortona, Rubens and Bernini: the dramatic potential of capturing the moment. This was one of the key ideas of the Baroque movement.

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The drama of the moment is paramount throughout the exhibition at the Palazzo Cipolla. In the first room we stand before energetic scenes such as Guido Reni’s Atlanta and Hippomenes, floundering mid-race, yet frozen in time. Reni depicts the image with extraordinary grace: the protagonists’ skin and shadows are softly rendered yet prominent against the dark backdrop. Through the angles of their limbs, the artist cleverly carries the viewer’s eye in an arc across the canvas.

But above all we see biblical stories reflected dramatically through the Baroque art on display. Da Cortona’s Angels Scaling the Foreheads of the Children of Israel, for example, is viewed from the surface of the sea, at night, a confused sight of angels flying above the boats that contain the children of Israel, marking crosses upon the desperate passengers’ foreheads. The painting represents a vision of the Apocalypse, with the division of risen souls on the Day of Judgment. The chaotic scene is illuminated by a glowing crucifix held aloft by an angel.

Another sensational moment is captured by the Bolognese sculptor Alessandro Algardi with his bronze statuette, Saint Michael Overcoming the Devil. Saint Michael, sporting feathered wings, stands over the Devil. His right arm is raised. His left holds a chain fixed to a manacle that clasps the arm of the devil that is in flames beneath, writhing, mouth and eyes open, frantic.

Baroque artists were encouraged to captivate their audiences. They were expected to capture all the drama of the Christian narrative in order to draw crowds into the churches that fell under the papal domain. Politics demanded it. Luther’s damning theological critique of Catholicism provoked the Council of Trent, which led to the Counter Reformation. Consequently, art had to persuade: it invoked drama, magnificence and the intense spiritual expression of Caravaggio.

Together, this movement created what the art historian Robert Hughes has described as “the last great universal language of spirituality”. This language can be clearly understood at the Palazzo Cipolla exhibition.

Catholic Herald


Venice Biennale: The Pavilion of the Holy See

“The Encyclopaedic Palace” was the title of this year’s Venice Biennale. It was taken from Italian-American artist Marino Auriti’s 1950s model for a 136-floor Encyclopaedic Palace, intended to house all humanity’s achievements. Curator Massimiliano Gioni described it as the fulfilment of his aim for an exhibition to be about “the desire to see and know everything”.

I had assumed this label to be expedient; a name which would allow the show to accommodate the vast array of art shipped-in from the four corners of the world. And, in many ways, the biennale was no different from previous years. There was an absolute abundance of art. As a collection, its diversity and seeming incoherence was matched only by its size. It continued to surprise until my senses could no longer respond. To the cynic, or the plain lazy, it could feel as if the exhibition is merely a reflection of our era; excessive, disparate, grabbing, elitist.

But the assembled work at the Arsenale was actually very different. Firstly, it appeared close to a unified whole. While their form varied immensely, and the origin of the art too (such incongruence perhaps being a truer representation of modern societies, as bound by the sum of their distinct parts) they shared an altogether more profound commonality: Most of the artists shared a desire to generate knowledge.

Auriti’s model was a towering aspiration, but other art, such as the philosopher-educationalist Rudolf Steiner’s cryptic sketches or Ivorian artist Frédéric Bouabré’s colourful pictograph drawings from his own “World Knowledge” series, are an exuberant and optimistic attempt to build and sustain human knowledge.

This earnest connection between artistic expression and the creation of knowledge was unusual, in an era when contemporary art is so often ironic. The exhibition subverted Enlightenment ideas in which human knowledge must be the product of scientific rationalism. Much of the art was Outsider-ish; childish, playful, narrow and folkish, exemplified by Patrick Van Caeckenburgh’s photorealistic trees.

The other affront to traditional Enlightenment ideas was that knowledge generation must somehow be a secular domain: for the first time ever the Vatican hosted a pavilion.

It was curated by Micol Forti, who curates 19th-century and contemporary art at the Vatican museums. “It’s very important for the Holy See to be here”, she said. “It’s a different situation where you can create a space for a dialogue with different ideas, different ideological thinking, different religions. Here at the biennale, it is not important where you are from: the only important thing is that there is a place where you can speak.”

The idea was the brainchild of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, an enthusiastic polymath who, as president of the Pontifical Council for Culture since 2009, has often tried to build bridges between the Church and contemporary culture.

In this market-place of ideas, the Vatican was actively promoting its role in furthering human consciousness, if not esoteric knowledge of the kind exhibited in the open-plan rooms of the Arsenale. Their three rooms covered three themes. Intense, large-screened interactive videos by the Milanese collective Studio Azzurro focused on creation. These were followed by stark black and white photographic images of man’s destructiveness, by Czech photographer Josef Koudelka. American artist Lawrence Carroll completed the narrative with his hopeful paintings, hinting at restoration and renewal.

The pavilion successfully conveyed these themes, as well as the underlying notion that the Roman Catholic Church remains central to the story of human knowledge. As such the biennale argued convincingly that the sources of human knowledge have always breached the Enlightenment ideal; knowledge has always derived from hermitic outsiders and centralized religions as much as from secular rationalists.

Lawrence Carroll
Lawrence Carroll


The Catholic Herald