What is the Baroque?

What is the Baroque? Is it a period, a style, a civilisation, or a critical concept? It is all of these. ‘Baroque’ was a term that came into use in the eighteenth century as a negative descriptor of the style of the art of the seventeenth century. Like most such terms its meaning was elastic, with a general sense of ‘bizarre’, ‘excessive’ or ‘misshapen’ (like a baroque pearl). As Ernst Gombrich pointed out long ago, most Western art style terms are variations of ‘non-classical’, the classical being the norm against which all art was measured. Nineteenth-century German historians dropped the negative connotations, and because they were interested in the essential nature of an ‘age’ (the Zeitgeist, literally ‘spirit of the age’) the Baroque as a period-style term emerged. This idea still has popular currency, as when newspapers at the end of each decade try to define the characteristics of ‘the sixties’ or ‘the noughties’. ‘The sixties’ is clearly an arbitrary set of chronological boundaries, but ‘the Baroque period’ is more vaguely defined chronologically, and also in geographical extent. And whatever the chronological and geographic limits, is it really true that everything within them dances to the same tune?

Recognising these problems, and having lost interest in the German idealist philosophy that underpinned ‘the Baroque’ as a period style, art historians at the middle of the twentieth century sought to make more rigorous the concept of style while dropping the insistence on period, before losing interest in style altogether and moving on to other methodologies. ‘Baroque’ became a useful and generally agreed shorthand for a certain body of art beginning around 1600 in Italy, exemplified by the painters Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, the sculptor Bernini, and the architect Borromini, which could be usefully extended to other parts of (especially Catholic) Europe that was influenced by or developed from this. Musicologists use the term in a similar way (Bach, Vivaldi). The end of the Baroque ‘period’ is generally agreed to be around 1750, when for art historians ‘Neoclassicism’ (Jacques-Louis David) begins, and for musicologists ‘the Classical period’ (Mozart) begins.

But the essentialist usage of Baroque lingered, and received encouragement from French poststructuralist theory, which was interested in ‘epistemes’: ‘the body of ideas which shape the perception of knowledge in a particular period’ (OED). It was taken up by Spanish historians, such as José Antonio Maravall, who re-centred the Baroque from Italy to Spain. For historians in Franco’s Spain and Latin America ‘the Baroque’ provided a concept that was both historically grounded in the seventeenth century and potentially oppositional. Or more commonly, the Baroque it is seen as the embodiment of a religious movement, the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

More recently, cinema studies scholars have returned to the art historical idea of the Baroque as a style in order to extract from works of seventeenth century art principles or processes that can be discerned in contemporary cinema, and by extension in contemporary art and culture generally. These principles might be quite closely tied to particular formal operations in seventeenth century art, such as ‘a self-reflexive attitude to its methods of construction’ (in other words, the way that in a ceiling like that by Andrea Pozzo in S. Ignazio in Rome, the spectator simultaneously experiences an illusion while being aware that this is what it is). Or they might be something more abstract, such as ‘a sense of performativity and theatricality’ or even ‘madness of vision’. In seeking analogies between seventeenth-century art and twentieth- and twenty-first century cinema the concept of ‘baroque’ serves as a filter, so that the ‘baroque’ aspects of seventeenth century art and culture are privileged.

Manifestations of ‘the Baroque’ subsequent to the seventeenth century are naturally labelled ‘Neo-Baroque’. These can be straightforward imitations or revivals, such as the interest in ‘baroque’ (that is, seventeenth-century French) architectural style around 1900 (examples can be found in London and Melbourne), or the fascination with baroque style embraced by the aristocratic arty set in England in the 1920s and 1930s, such as the photographer Cecil Beaton, who were reacting against the rise of modernism and social democracy. It can be contemporary art that draws its inspiration from the art of the seventeenth century. In contemporary cultural criticism, ‘Baroque’ and ‘Neo-Baroque’ can be used as critical terms that parallel, or form a subset of, postmodernism. Or they can refer to quasi-mystical philosophical concepts unconstrained by place or period ‘radiating through histories, cultures, and worlds of knowledge’ (Deleuze). Because there is now no single significance of the term ‘baroque’ it can mean everything or nothing depending on what the writer wants to say.

But the one thing common to most usages of ‘baroque’ is the visual. Whereas other intellectual endeavours may be driven by economics, politics or morality, by science or numbers, the exploration of ‘the Baroque’ is driven by imagery, whether literal or metaphorical. If you see Andrea Pozzo’s ceiling at Sant’Ignazio, Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, or Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral, you are engaging with the Baroque and you can go from there.

This brings us back to the ideas that cluster around the original meaning of ‘baroque’. First, that it is non-normative in some way: non-classical (art); privileging creating invention over correctness (architecture); oppositional left versus authoritarian right (politics); illusionistic as opposed to representational (cinema studies); fantastic as opposed to realistic; over-the-top as opposed to straitlaced. There is a witty piece by Ellen Wills dating from 1979 that opposes ‘baroque’ sex to ‘classical’ (e.g. “Location: Outdoors is classical, except for crowded nude beaches. The back seat of a car is classical if you’re a teen-ager, baroque otherwise. … Clothing: The only truly classical outfit is nothing. Clothing evokes fantasy and fantasies are baroque. Black lace underwear is of course the classic baroque outfit. Red is baroque, as is anything see-through. Frilly white nightgowns are a baroque impulse with classical content.’

Second, that it is centred on Catholic Europe of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Put the two back together and you are presented with a box of fireworks exploding with forms, operations and processes. For those who do not dogmatically claim to already know all the answers, the Baroque is a treasure house of possibilities that might help us understand our present condition.


Gombrich, Ernst H., ‘Norm and Form: The Stylistic Categories of Art History and their Origins in Renaissance Ideals’, in Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance, London and New York: Phaidon, 1991, pp. 81-98.

Wölfflin, Heinrich, Renaissance and Baroque, London: Collins, 1964 (first published as Renaissance und Barock, 1888).

Ackerman, James S. and Rhys Carpenter, Art and Archaeology, Englewood Cliffs, N. J. : Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Maravall, José Antonio, Culture of the Baroque: Analysis of a Historical Structure, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, originally published as La cultura del Barroco. Análisis de una estructura histórica, Barcelona: Ariel, 1975.

Ndalianis, Angela, Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004.

Buci-Glucksmann, Christine, The Madness of Vision: On Baroque Aesthetics. Translated by Dorothy Z. Baker. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2013 [1986].

Calloway, Stephen, Baroque Baroque: Culture of Excess, London: Phaidon, 1994.

Deleuze, Gilles, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Beaven, Lisa and Angela Ndalianis, Emotion and the Seduction of the Senses: Baroque to Neo-Baroque, Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2018.

Ellen Wills, ‘Classical and Baroque Sex in Everyday Life’, in Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

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The Weirdness of the Topography of ‘The Favourite’

The Favourite is set in about 1705-1711 in London, at presumably, notionally, Kensington Palace, Queen Anne’s principal residence, where, according to Wikipedia, the final falling out between Queen Anne and the Duchess of Marlborough took place. The setting could, however, have been intended to be Hampton Court, the courtyard of which appears in one scene. It was filmed mostly at Hatfield House. Hatfield house is an Elizabethan country house that had a Victorian makeover so is slightly confused historically. (I did wonder whether the main room used was in fact a set. There is also a gallery with copies of Raphael’s Tapestry cartoons which I could not place.)

Every film needs locations, but here the location, as a remote rural country house, seemed to take over the plot, which, in its bare-Wikipedia outlines, but only in this, is factual. (The lesbian sexual dynamic is the fictional bit.) There are scenes of shooting birds in the back garden of what must be Hatfield, which looks very rural, but not so much as two crucial moments for the plot which situate the palace firmly in the country, although I suppose they make sense if it was Hampton Court. The first is where Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) rides out into the woods to gather herbs. The second is where Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) is dragged through what look like the same woods by her horse so far that no-one thinks to connect her unconscious body with the palace. She ends up at a brothel situated, bizarrely in the middle of these woods, rather like the witches house in Hansel and Gretel. Here the director could not resist indulging in the carnivalesque that is de rigueur for movies set in the eighteenth century, for which Gilray has much to answer, with plump prostitutes baring their bums at Lord Godolphin, whom Sarah had told the madam who is her rescuer/captor to find in return for a promised reward. The madam is told to find a man walking a duck in Hyde Park, so we are suddenly back in London. The duck appears at the beginning in a mildly carnivalesque scene of a duck race at the beginning, and in the middle being stroked suggestively in a sexual visual gag. And near the end is another carnivalesque scene of a naked fat man clutching his private parts while being pelted with eggs or something and thoroughly enjoying it. This scene is completely gratuitous as far as the plot is concerned. And there is much play between the soberly dressed Godolphin (Sarah’s man) and the high camp bewigged Harley (in alliance with Abigail). The former is played as old, the latter as young (in reality he was going on 50) and very tall, but not so young as the last role one remembers the actor for: the boy in About a Boy (Nicholas Hoult.)

Blenheim Palace appears as a model (it was built from 1705 to 1722) and in a reference to it being still just empty fields.

The costume design is fabulous, with a black and white theme that is very stylish. At a scene at a concert when the battered Sarah appears the women are wearing hair pieces à la fontanges, supposedly invented by the Marquise de La Fontanges, a mistress of Louis XIV, when she lost her cap while hunting who returned with her hair tied up in a ribbon. It was popular in the 1690s, possibly out of date by 1705. It has a fan like arrangement, like an art deco mirror, sometimes on a frame, but here they are more natural, while Abigail Hill wears one that is more a loose ribbon bow than à la fontanges. There is lots of faux-lace, like Sarah’s choker, which is emphatically not woven, usually black to set against white fabric or pale skin.

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Some Remarks on Panini, Piranesi and the Campidoglio

In 1761 Giovanni Battista Piranesi produced, as one of his Vedute di Roma, one of the more unusual representations of the Campidoglio, The Campidoglio from the side (Fig. 1).[1] Piranesi normally did his designs from scratch, and in this case we have his preparatory drawing in the British Museum (Fig. 2) which has a few differences, such as the sliver of a building at the right edge that appeared in early states of the etching. It has been argued that Piranesi wanted to foreground the so-called Trofei di Mario on the parapet, which he had published in detail in 1753 in I Trofei di Ottaviano Augusto.[2] According to Piranesi these trophies commemorated the victory of Augustus over Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, but they were in fact features of the castellum of the fountain of Alexander Severus located in the modern Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, and were moved to the parapet of the Campidoglio in 1590. The castellum is shown with the trophies still in situ in an engraving by Etienne Dupérac (Fig. 3),[3] and as it was in Piranesi’s day in another of the Vedute di Roma, the Fontana del’Acqua Julia. (The aqueduct that served it is now thought to be the Aqua Claudia or Aqua Anio Novus.)

Piranesi centred his composition on the left-hand trophy, which in the drawing is given added emphasis. In order to show it from an impressive angle he chose a low position on the area of uneven ground between the staircase of S. Maria in Aracoeli and the Cordonata of the Campidoglio. By observing features in the foreground and background that are aligned and plotting these on the Nolli map of 1748 one can deduce the viewpoint out the sightlines (Fig. 4). These indicate a viewpoint on the terrace in front of S. Maria in Aracoeli, but this is considerably higher than the Campidoglio terrace, so the viewpoint must in fact have been at the foot of the wall of the staircase, behind the Roman building, roughly at the point indicated in Piranesi’s view of the Campidoglio and S. Maria in Aracoeli (Fig. 5). (The difference is probably within the margin of error for sightline alignments.)

Panini did paint views of the Campidoglio, although rarely. The prime version is the ex-Farnborough Hall painting sold a few years ago in New York, which is signed and dated 1750, which adopts the traditional frontal viewpoint (Fig. 6). (See my discussion in the catalogue of the Christie’s sale, in New York in 2013.) [4] This was preceded by the view in Nolli’s map of Rome (Fig. 7) of 1748. In both the relationship between the parapet statues and the Palazzo Nuovo correspond closely, but the rest does not, which points to additive viewpoints and manipulations of perspective. The actual construction of the ex-Farnborough Hall painting needs further exploration.

The only time Panini does something approaching Piranesi’s oblique viewpoint is in a fictive painting on the left side of the Stuttgart Roma Antica of 1756/57 (Fig. 8).[5] Because this painting shows ancient Roman monuments, the modern ones being found in the companion picture, the Boston Roma Moderna, the subject of this fictive picture is the Campidoglio, but the antique statues of Castor and Pollux on the parapet which have due prominence from this angle. This is confirmed by the fictive painting above and to the left that shows the (ancient) Quirinal Horsetamers from a similar angle, with the (modern) Quirinal palace behind scarcely visible. In other words, whereas Panini adopts an oblique view (but from the right) to prioritise Castor and Pollux, Piranesi eleven years later adopts an oblique view from the left to prioritise, and place at the exact centre of the composition, one of the Trofei di Mario. In the Metropolitan Museum version of the Roma Moderna (but not the Boston or Louvre versions) Panini does include the Campidoglio (Fig. 9), but seen from the front, which serves to emphasise Michelangelo’s façade of the Palazzo Senatorio, causing the statues of Castor and Pollux to sink into its façade, and part of the Palazzo Nuovo. This view seems to be based on the Farnborough Hall picture, but with adjustments to the perspective.

© David R. Marshall 2019

[1] Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), Veduta del Campidoglio di fianco, 1761. Etching, 545 x 784 mm. From Vedute di Roma, Tomo II, tav. 9, Opere di Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Francesco Piranesi e d’altri, Paris: Firmin Didot Freres, 1835-1839, tomo 17. Scans from http://www.coe.l.u-tokyo.ac.jp on Wikipedia commons.

Inscribed: ‘Veduta del Campidoglio di fianco. 1. Statua enea Equestre di M. Aurelio nell’ aja Capitolina. 2. Palazzo di Sua Eccza il Senator di Roma. 3. Palazzo degli Eccmi Conservatori di Roma 4. Museo Capitolino. 5. Trofei d’Augusto, volgarmente detti di Mario. 6, 7 Colossi di Cajo e Lucio sotto il simbolo di Castore e Polluce. 8, 9 Statue di Costantino Magno. 10. Colonna milliaria. 11. Palazzo Caffarelli.’

[2] Malcolm Campbell (ed.), Piranesi: Rome Recorded. A Complete Edition of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma from the Colllection of the Arthur Ross Foundation, from the collection of the Arthur Ross Foundation, 5 May–14 June 1989, Arthur Ross Gallery, Furness Building, University of Pennsylvania,  New York, Arthur Ross Foundation, 1989, cat. no. 58. John Wilton-Ely, The Mind and Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, London: Thames & Hudson, 1978, p. 58. This is still one of the best accounts of individual works in the Vedute di Roma series.

[3] Etienne Du Pérac (1525–1601), Vestigi del castello dell’acqua Marcia, 1575.

[4] See my essay on paintings by Panini from Farnborough Hall, for Christie’s, New York, 30 January 2013, lots 41 and 42, The Campidiglio, Rome and Piazza S. Pietro, Rome.

[5] There is a painting in a private collection attributed to Panini of the oblique from the left, but this is clearly based on Piranesi’s etching.

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Chinoiserie Fabriques Part 2: William Kent

William Kent, Design for Chinoiserie garden temple, showing plan and detailed elevation with bamboo porch, c. 1730–1735. Pen and brown ink and brown wash on paper. London, Victoria and Albert Museum, E.384-1986. (Fig. 1)


English Chinoiserie pavilions explored a repertory of forms that was slightly different to those in Europe, and often had vernacular elements that was a consequence of their being simple and cheaply made. William Kent’s design of 1730–35 has a scale, presumably in feet, which gives dimensions of 15.34 feet wide, 11.30 feet deep, 10.21 feet to the top of the meander frieze, about 15.48 feet to the top of the ridge, about 17.01 feet to the top of the ridge ornaments, and about 2.90 feet from the ground to the bottom of the window openings (Figs 2, 3).

As in many English Chinoiserie designs Kent uses the Chinese fret motif, here on the dado part of the porch, evidently in bamboo. It is not quite clear whether these are on the plane of the porch or the pavilion itself; probably the former. The window openings are tall with pointed tops with slightly concave sides, which is somewhat gothic. Probably the narrow pointed forms within the larger are niches on the plane of the pavilion; the larger ones are openings in the front of the porch. The columns are also essentially gothic, with their tall concave-sided capitals. The band above these are artisanal half-circles. The equivalent frieze on the pavilion proper is a Greek meander. Although this has affinities with the Chinese fret, it is not properly a Chinoiserie motif. Chippendale, for example, in the Chinese designs in the Director has many friezes that function comparably, but none uses a Greek meander. Usually they are more complicated ‘Chinese’ fret designs (Fig. 4). Similarly Chambers used complicated designs that go beyond the meander.

It is the roof that is the most Chinese in style. As with the usual misunderstanding of how Chinese roofs worked, the concavity of the roof proper leads to convex eaves, which would have been hard to build. The roof ribs are round in section, which is quite Chinese, as are the convex ‘terracotta’ tiles. The ridges end in bird-like ‘dragons’ with bells suspended from their mouths, which is almost a requirement in English Chinoiserie pavilions.

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The Gateway at Montacute Pavilion and the Palazzo del Te

Although the gateway arch was initially intended to have been based on Serlio’s Libro Estraordinario, as it has unfolded it has become the Mannerist Gateway. The inside façade is based on Michelangelo’s Porta Pia, the outside one on Giulio Romano’s Palazzo del Te. One can suppose that Giulio created the external facade of the Porta Pia in the 1520s and it was destroyed during the Risorgimento (or earlier), and Michelangelo did the interior in the 1560s. Giulio, of course, anticipated the realignment of the Via Nomentana made by Pius IV …

This facade is currently under construction.

I always intended to make the exterior façade more aggressive and defensive than the interior façade, and so I toyed around for a while with massive rounded rustication. The ideal of an imminently falling keystone, like David Roberts’ view of a gateway at Baalbek was attractive (Fig. 1). I have also long had in mind the architecture parlante of Delafosse’s design for an imaginary prison, but this was a bit har to develop in this context. This lead me to various ruin fabriques at Schönbrunn (Fig. 2) and Eremitage (Figs 3, 4), the latter being more promising. This, however, really does read as a collapsing ruin, and is a bit too realistic. At one point I toyed with the idea of a broken lintel, tilting downwards in the middle, with big rusticated blocks above. In the end I decided this was a bit crass, a bit like something a contemporary starchitect like Gehry would do, like leaning or twisted office towers.

Eventually I settled on one of the interior courtyard facades of Palazzo del Te (Fig. 5). This is the complicated façade with the entrance. The pediment on brackets with the big rough keystone may look a little simplistic and linear but I seemed to work in the new context. The Doric entablature has the famous slipped triglyphs, one of the signature motifs of Giulio Romano’s Mannerism (Fig. 6). As Giulio uses it, it is more ornamental than threatening. That is, it does not convey a sense that the building is collapsing, but rather draws attention to the cleverness of the architect and to the way an entablature is constructed. As adapted, it is even more a sign rather than being expressive, in this case what it signifies, to the architecturally literature, is its source in Giulio Romano. Not being very expressive in itself, it is probably invisible to the profane observer.

The pediment and keystone, by contrast, have emerged as quite heavy and gutsy, and should have some expressive power (Fig. 7). Adapting this for once proved quite easy and pleasurable. I wanted to retain Giulio’s play of contrasts between rough textured blocks and smooth one. When I make the rough ones actually rough remains to be seen, but it might be worth pursuing, perhaps by mixing something gritty into the paint. Mostly I am relying on the distinction between timber 45 mm thick with rounded edges, and timber 35 mm thick with square edges. The design requires that these slabs be overlapped, and I am determined to properly master the router so I can do better lapping and tongue and groove joints. I have also realised that a planer-thicknesser might be useful, but this is an additional expense and I have nowhere to put these tools which have to be kept outside on the deck under tarpaulins.

With the dropped triglyphs, what is interesting is the fudging involved. With Giulio the triglyph and the section of entablature below has slipped. The architrave section has a slight taper, trying to convince us that the architrave is a straight arch consisting of multiple small pieces with sloping sides forming voussoirs. This is not very realistic, unless perhaps we consider it to be simply in relief, as it in fact is. Where a gap opens up at the top of the slipped triglyph (Fig. 8), Giulio actually tells us that the triglyph is quite shallow, resting against the wall behind and kept in place by the ‘flat arch’ architrave section. The triglyph is narrower than the architrave section, which means that there ought to be little square recesses above the architrave band, but Giulio, or later restorers, has ignored this or filled it in, which weakens the effect. I think I will restore these. The architrave section below is much deeper, and is slightly separated from the wall behind, to help cast a shadow and to heighten the viewer’s awareness of it as a true architrave (Fig. 9).

For the entablature to have slipped the architrave needs to have moved apart, but in practice things do not quite add up, especially on the right hand instance. Here the architrave block slopes at about 10 degrees and there is a gap which is filled at the bottom of the intact part of the architrave which forms prongs that seem to grip the slipped architrave and stop it slipping further (Fig. 10). As a result of all this the architrave band is significantly shorter than the space it supposedly once occupied, which is commensurate with the two halves of the architrave having moved apart. But there ought, therefore, to be corresponding gaps on either side of the triglyph slab. But this would imply gaps in the cornice above. In any case the idea of slipping — as opposed to splitting apart — is clearer if the triglyph fits tightly. Which brings us back to the architrave. If this had straight sides there would be nothing visually to stop it keep slipping, which is why the architrave has to be a flat arch. The whole slipping keystone motif is predicated on the idea of voussoirs, which is why the architrave needs it.

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Views of the Colosseum from the North 4: Panini’s ex-Earl of Dunraven Rome, a View of the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine, 1734

[For Part 1, of which this is a continuation, see https://villacastagnadaylesford.com.au/2018/11/12/views-of-the-colosseum-from-the-north-1-luigi-rossinis-panorama/

For Part 2, see https://villacastagnadaylesford.com.au/2018/11/16/views-of-the-colosseum-from-the-north-2-luigi-rossinis-view-from-the-palatine-towards-the-esquiline/

For Part 3, see https://villacastagnadaylesford.com.au/2018/11/17/views-of-the-colosseum-from-the-north-3-gaspar-van-wittels-view-of-the-colosseum-and-the-arch-of-constantine-c-1707/]

The ex-Dunraven Panini is probably the earliest version of Panini’s Colosseum compositions, with a date that has been read as 1731, 1734 and 1735, and is now confirmed as 1734 (Fig. 1).[1] It is without question his prime Colosseum veduta.

Many of Panini’s subsequent paintings are capricci or vedute ideate (recognisable monuments combined in an ideal space, usually based on the Campo Vaccino-Colosseum area). The ex-Dunraven painting is unusual in that it can be considered to be primarily a veduta. Many of Panini’s early topographical views derive from those by Gaspar van Wittel (Vanvitelli), but we need to be careful about what we mean by ‘derive’. When Panini came to paint topographical subjects he was undoubtedly aware of van Wittel’s painting, the only consistent body of painted Roman views. He was also aware of the long iconographic tradition were always temptated to follow, even copy, these precedents, rather than start from scratch. Van Wittel is unusual, if not unique, in using a camera obscura set up on site, with the gridded image on the camera obscura screen carefully transposed to large drawings, many of which survive (see Part 3). It is likely something of the kind occurred when van Wittel first created his Colosseum composition, as he did with his view of Piazza S. Pietro. [2] Panini could have chosen to simply copy these paintings, and in the case of his first Piazza S. Pietro paintings he may have done just this. His Dunraven Colosseum, however, differs greatly from van Wittel’s, and is clearly quite freshly observed; indeed, it is quite his most interesting view of the Colosseum in terms of its topographical interest and the vitality of its details. There is no doubt in my mind that this painting is based on studies from life. There are, however, few, if any, drawings by Panini of complete compositions, and his practice seems to have involved studies – or notations – of details (we find some of these in the British Museum sketchbook).

Sightlines of Panini’s Dunraven Colosseum. A. The Colosseum. (Right and left refer to the point of view of the painting.) Looking at the Dunraven Colosseum (Fig. 4) starting at the point where the upper arcades have collapsed at the right there are 16 arches visible to the left of this point before they curve out of sight. Starting at the same point, the point where the arcades are lined up with the centre of one of the four arcs that form the curvature of the Colosseum, helpfully marked by Nolli, is the pier at the left side of the third bay (Figs 2, 3). This line gives you one line running through the viewpoint. By drawing a tangent to the pier at the left of the sixteenth arch provides another. These intersect at point A1, which is the viewpoint of the Colosseum component of the picture.

The door in the houses lining the road to the left appears to be taken from the same viewpoint, and seems to be the gate in the garden wall (F1c) rather than the door in the building (F1a) (Fig. 5). You can see its little tile roof, the rounded top of the wall, and two bollards. The building (F1a) is on the bend in the road, so strictly speaking (according to Nolli) ought to be visible. But if we look at van Wittel (Fig. 6), there is a hint of further curvature (as well as a rise in the road). Van Wittel emphasises the rustication of the gateway, which is hardly visible in Panini. Healso shows the bollards.

Sightlines of Panini’s Dunraven Colosseum. B. Distances. Looking to the right of the collapsed upper stories, the structure is hard to read because the arcades on different levels merge, but there are two steps back in levels (Fig. 2). From the line of the edge of upper outer bays, there are 3 bays of the middle row of arches, as Nolli confirms, followed by 8 bays (if I have not miscounted) of the inner row of arches before the Colosseum curves around at the right. This provides one of four points than can generate two converging sight lines: (a) the edge of the Colosseum to the left edge of the monastery of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, and (b) the left edge of the Arch of Constantine line to the apse of SS. Giovanni e Paolo. This points to a viewpoint further to the left than the first (A2). This is necessarily so, as SS. Giovanni e Paolo is not visible from point A1.

This suggests that Panini made two separate drawings from life, one of the Colosseum and the street, the other of SS. Giovanni e Paolo and the Colosseum.

The presence of the high ground in the foreground, which is the remains of the platform of the Temple of Venus and Rome, confirms that his viewpoint was near point A2: the corner of the temple platform in Fig. 3 is exactly on the sightline left edge of Arch of Constantine–apse of SS. Giovanni e Paolo. Moreover, mound 2 is in the right place for such a viewpoint. The fact that these relationships works so well suggests that all of the side to the right of the Colosseum, foreground and background, is based on a single drawing.

Height. Panini’s horizon is lower than van Wittel’s, near the bottom of the first arcade and at the level of the temple platform, and a little higher than the garden wall at F1c. He shows road 5 below the temple platform. The viewpoint (K2) would therefore have been at the level of the temple platform. As Rossini’s view (Fig. 7, also Fig. 3) shows, the nearest high point across road 5 that would provide a viewpoint with the corner of the temple platform (K2) in line with the Arch of Constantine/SS. Giovanni e Paolo is on wall C, to the west of building G.

Conclusion. It seems likely that Panini’s Dunraven painting is a topographical paintings made from studies made on site, but that instead of using a single ‘camera obscura’ viewpoint like van Wittel, Panini made studies from two slightly different points (A1 and A2), one of the Colosseum and the street, the other of the view towards SS. Giovanni e Paolo from a little beyond the platform of the Temple of Venus and Rome, probably on wall C.

Panini and van Wittel. Because of his camera obscura technology, Van Wittel places distant elements in their correct topographical relationships, and can convey a great deal of information about the area between fore- and middle grounds to effectively map the space. Panini, by contrast, works from drawings—to judge from the British Museum sketchbooks, little more than notations—of self-contained units that are combined plausibly but not necessarily as accurate views from a particular viewpoint. He takes the basic distribution of elements and renders individual buildings accurately enough, but manipulates their positions compositionally and spatially to get the effect he wanted. Because of this the veduta ideata came naturally to him, and even his most assertively topographical pictures tend in this direction. Because the viewpoints used in the Dunraven Colosseum are relatively low, his composition resolves itself into a series of vertical planes, whereas van Wittel describes a horizontal plane extending out from his viewpoint, even if he pictorialized the foreground a little to avoid looking down on it.

Compared to van Wittel, Panini, at least in the Dunraven picture where he is new to the subject, picks up on numerous little pictorial incidents that enliven what could easily become a monotonous subject. The rendering of the arches in particularly lively (including the numbering of each bay with Roman numerals, which needs further investigation), as are the views through to glowing pink inferno-like interiors (Fig. 8). It is as if Panini has painted the gesticulating figures in front to draw our attention to them. And the landscape details are delightfully naturalistic: the view of SS. Giovanni e Paolo looks as if it were painted by Annibale Carracci (Fig. 9). Another delightful detail is the little bridge of Roman brickwork near point L (Fig. 10), presumably from some Roman ruin, which I am inclined to believe is topographically factual though I have not seen it elsewhere (it’s site is hidden by mound 2 in van Wittel).

[1] Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691–1765 Rome), Rome, a View of the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine, 1734. Oil on canvas, 99 x 135.5 cm. Signed with initials and dated on the step, lower left: I.P. P. 1734. Arisi 224. Provenance: Earl of Dunraven, Limerick; with Herner Wengraf, London, 1972; Rome, Finarte, 12–13 December 1973, lot 55, reproduced pl. XXIX; anonymous sale (‘The Property of a Gentleman’), London, Sotheby’s, 1 November 1978, lot 43, reproduced in colour (unsold); private collection.


[2] Christoph Lüthy, ‘Hockney’s secret knowledge, Vanvitelli’s camera obscura’, Early Science and Medicine, vol. 10, issue 2, 2005, pp. 315–339.

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Views of the Colosseum from the North 3: Gaspar van Wittel’s View of the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine, c. 1707

[For Part 1, of which this is a continuation, see https://villacastagnadaylesford.com.au/2018/11/12/views-of-the-colosseum-from-the-north-1-luigi-rossinis-panorama/

For Part 2, see https://villacastagnadaylesford.com.au/2018/11/16/views-of-the-colosseum-from-the-north-2-luigi-rossinis-view-from-the-palatine-towards-the-esquiline/]

Gaspar van Wittel was unusual, if not unique, in using a camera obscura set up on site. The gridded image on the camera obscura screen was carefully transposed to large drawings, many of which survive.[1] It is likely something of the kind occurred when van Wittel first created his Colosseum composition, exemplified by a version with Robilant + Voena in 2008 (Fig. 1).[2] This is datable to 1707.[3] His first version probably dates to 1703.[4]

Van Wittel’s viewpoint in plan. (Left-right orientations adopt the point of view of the painting.) Looking at the van Wittel Colosseum (Fig. 2) starting at the point where the upper arcades have collapsed at the right, there are 13 arches visible to the left of this point before they curve out of sight (Fig. 3). Starting at the same point, one can see straight down the first and second arches. A line through the middle of the pier between these gives us one line running through the viewpoint. A tangent drawn to the pier at the left of the thirteenth arch provides another. These intersect at point A1, in front of building G, which ought to be where van Wittel placed his camera obscura.

Other sight lines can be plotted on Nolli (Figs 4, 5.) From the line of the break in the upper outer bays, there are 3 bays of the middle row of arches, as Nolli confirms, followed by 8 bays of the inner row of arches before the Colosseum curves around at the right.

The start of the apse of SS. Giovanni e Paolo lines up with the right edge of a house and a little to the left of the Colosseum.

The right edge of the Arch of Constantine lines up with a point near the broken aqueduct near SS. Giovanni e Paolo about two arches width to its left.

The centre of the Meta Sudans lines up with the right side of the central arch of the Arch of Constantine.

A point to the right of the transept of S. Giovanni in Laterano lines up with the edge of the Colosseum.

These all converge near point A1, but slightly to the top left (north west).

Averaging all this data, one can conclude that van Wittel’s painting, with its broad extent, is taken from near point AF.[5]

Van Wittel’s viewpoint in elevation. Van Wittel’s horizon is aligned with the middle row of arches of the Colosseum, the bottom of the attic of the Arch of Constantine, and above the top of building F. As in modern photos and Rossini’s Esquiline view show (Fig. 6 and Part 2, Fig. 3), the level of the top of the temple platform (just visible at the right) comes at the middle of the lower row of arches of the Colosseum. This means that van Wittel’s viewpoint is quite elevated. Taking into account the plan viewpoints, the only plausible point for the point where he set up his camera obscura is on the upper storey of building G. In Rossini’s panorama view (Part 1, Fig. 8) this is shown to be quite high, higher than building F and comparable with the second level of Colosseum arcades. In Rossini’s Esquiline view the line of the middle of the second Colosseum arcade is aligned with the upper storey windows of building G.

It seems fairly certain, therefore, that van Wittel set up his camera obscura in one of the rooms in the upper level of building G.

Roads in van Wittel. Rossini reveals the various routes across the space to the north-west of the Colosseum, which can be indicated on Nolli (Fig. 7). The main routes were from the Via Labicana (and ultimately S. Giovanni in Laterano), throught the Arch of Constantine to Piazza S. Gregorio, through the rch of Titus to the Campo Vaccino and the city centre, and up the road to SS. Andrea Apostolo e Bernardino. There was a secondary road up Road 5. These routes worked there away around two mounds, mounds 1 and 2 (they had been levelled by the time of Rossini but their location is still evident there). A nodal point, point L, lay between them.

In van Wittel (Fig. 8) the foreground has probably been modified somewhat from an optical view. Mounds 1 and 2 are visible, but shifted somewhat to the left. The temple platform is visible, and the low space beside it that forms street 5. There are various fallen column drums in this hollow, and other pieces of masonry. These may be largely fictitious, as is customary in such foregrounds, based on the fallen column drums higher up on the platform at the right, and further up road 5.

[1] Christoph Lüthy, ‘Hockney’s secret knowledge, Vanvitelli’s camera obscura’, Early Science and Medicine, vol. 10, issue 2, 2005, pp. 315–339.

[2] Gaspar van Wittel , View of the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine, c. 1707. Oil on canvas, 48.5 x 108 cm. With Robilant + Voena in 2008. Signed on the capital at the centre: GASPARO VAN WITEL ROMA. Purchased in Italy, together with the View of Venice, by Friederik Sigmond van Bylandt (1749-1828); by inheritance to Anne Visser, née van Bylandt (1866-1929), whose coat of arms was formerly visible on the back of its companion piece; London, Christie’s, 16 December 1998, lot 69. Exhibitions: London, Robilant+Voena, Vanvitelli, 18 November – 19 December 2008, no. 4. Literature: L. Laureati, ed. by, Vanvitelli, exhibition catalogue, Turin 2008, pp. 29-31; L. Laureati, entry in the dealer publication on this painting..’

[3] Laureati, 2008, in Robilant + Voena, 2008: ‘Gaspar van Wittel presumably painted this View of the Colosseum, (which is slightly smaller than the version in Holkham Hall, that is identical in format and dated 1716), in 1707, because its pendant (Venice. The Bacino di San Marco, looking towards the Doge’s Palace and the Piazzetta, with the Bucintoro and other shipping; London, Christie‟s, 16 December 1998, no. 70. Fig. 1) is dated that year.’

[4] Briganti, 2nd ed., has examples beginning in 1703 (London, Briganti 55), 1716 (Holkham, Briganti 56) then 57, 58, 59, 60, 61. All are oil on canvas. Robilant and Voena in 2008 published Robilant and Holkham versions (Holkham, no 33 pp. 26-28; Robilant and Voena, no. 4, pp. 29 to 31). The Robilant version dated 1707 on basis of dating its pendant, a view of Venice, both sold Christie’s, London, 16 December 1998, lot 69.

[5] In discussing the Robilant + Voena version of Van Wittel’s composition Laureati identifies the viewpoint as being located in the gardens of S. Francesca Romana behind (see Robilant and Voena catalogue).


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Views of the Colosseum from the North 2: Luigi Rossini’s View from the Palatine towards the Esquiline

[For Part 1, of which this is a continuation, see https://villacastagnadaylesford.com.au/2018/11/12/views-of-the-colosseum-from-the-north-1-luigi-rossinis-panorama/]

A second print by Luigi Rossini is a view from the Palatine towards the Esquiline across the Colosseum, entitled Il Monte Esquilino (1827) (Figs 1, 2).

Rossini shows the arches of the substructures of the temple platform (K), which were exposed by French excavations in the Napoleonic period. These were necessary because the west part of the platform was built on the tufa bedrock, but at the east the ground dropped away and had to be built up with substructures.[1] The height of the temple platform (K) corresponds approximately to the level of the top of the lower arcade of the Colosseum. This is confirmed by modern photos (Fig. 3, from Google, taken from the Esquiline park). The fallen columns visible in the panorama are shown (B).

To the left of the Colosseum is building F. These have changed somewhat since the eighteenth century. If we look at Nolli (Fig. 4), be can identify three components: F1a, which is a two storey building with a door; F1b, which abuts this to the right but has no door; and F1c, which is a garden. These appear in Van Wittel, where F1b is two stories and three bays wide with a roof continuous with F1a, and F1c is a garden with a garden gateway. In Rossini’s Esquiline view things are more complicated (Fig. 2). The taller middle building with its own roof is probably F1a and F1b combined, though the F1b part has only one bay. To the right is a building seemingly with a continuous roof of 5 bays with a doorway (F1d). This is probably new since Nolli and van Wittel. There is still a garden wall and gateway (F1c) between F1a and F2, but F2 seems to have acquired additions that extend into the garden.

Judging from the cart tracks, the post important road through the area is the one from Via Labicana around the Colosseum to the Arch of Titus, and thence through the Campo Vaccino. Mound 2 is visible, and appears to have a broad flight of steps up it.



[1] John W. Stamper, The Architecture of Roman Temples. The Republic to the Middle Ages, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 209: ‘The large platform on which the temple stood was formed by natural tufa rock on the west and built-up concrete piers and vaults on the east.’

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Views of the Colosseum from the North 1: Luigi Rossini’s Panorama

This series of posts discusses the topography of eighteenth and nineteenth-century views of the Colosseum seem from the north. By looking at the sightlines of these views, plotted on Nolli’s 1748 map of Rome, the first comprehensive accurately surveyed map of the city, it is possible to work out where these views were made from when they are based on observation of the site.

This area north of the Colosseum is not often depicted in topographical views. The most useful is a set of three etchings made by Luigi Rossini in 1828 from the campanile of S. Maria Nova (Fig. 1, Fig. 3 point A3). These join to make a panorama, so that the left side of the first plate can be joined to the right side of the last (Fig. 2).

What we see here can be correlated with the Nolli map (Fig. 3). This shows a road leading north from the Colosseum (today Via del Colosseo) to a fork in the road at the church of SS. Andrea Apostolo e Bernardino dei Rigattieri, now S. Maria della Neve (Fig. 4). The area around this church is little changed, as a view from beside the church to the Colosseum shows (Fig. 5). To the north-east S. Francesca di Paola, S. Pietro in Vincoli, and the Baths of Titus. All of these are visible in Rossini’s etchings (Fig. 6).

However, moving in more closely to the area closer to the Colosseum (Fig. 7) things are much changed because of the construction of the Via dei Fori Imperiali, the line of which can be superimposed on the Nolli map by superimposing a modern cartographic image such as Google maps. Rossini looks down onto the platform of the Temple of Venus and Rome, on which S. Maria Nova is built. He shows clearly the sharp north edge of the platform at the left (Fig. 7, K1) and the corner (K2). The east edge towards the Colosseum is less clearly delineated because of the angle of view. Closer to the church ore some fallen columns from the temple (B). The north edge casts a deep shadow onto a pathway below the platform. The combined first and third plates of Rossini (Fig. 2) show that this is a roughly defined route to the back of the Basilica of Constantine that goes past fallen columns from the Temple of Venus and Rome (road 5, road E).

Looking at the Nolli map and Google maps (Fig. 3) we can see that road 5 corresponds to the modern Clivo di Venere Felice. The buttressed wall on the far side so conspicuous in Rossini (Fig. 2) is clearly marked on Nolli.

On the far side of this Nolli shows fields (Fig. 3), through which the Via dei Fori Imperiali now passes. On the far side of these fields Nolli shows a wall, running to a building on the corner (building G). On the far side of this building a street, the modern Via del Colosseo runs up to SS. Andrea e Bernardino. In Rossini (Fig. 7) this area is hard to read as there is a building that seems to be continuous with building F1, which appears in paintings by van Wittel and Panini at the start of the road leading left around the Colosseum to via Labicana. A closer inspection, however (marked with a line in Fig. 7, also Fig. 8) reveals this to be building G. It lies between a short section of buttressed wall (C) and the Via del Colosseo. Merlons line the wall running along the Via del Colosseo. Lining the street opposite is a building (H1), which I have not yet identified, and a smaller matching building (H2). At the right of building H1 is an entrance marked with a segmental pediment that gives access to a garden behind. Next to this is a gap, which is the street, road 4, that separates this from building F3, followed by building F2. A section of low wall with a garden is hidden behind building G. Then comes building F1.

Rossini’s high viewpoint shows the various routes across the empty public space to the north-west of the Colosseum. Coming from SS. Andrea e Bernardino the road splits, one branch following buildings F3 to F1 and on to the Via Labicana (road 1A), the other going to a central ‘interchange’ space (L) (road 1B). From this point one can go to Via Labicana, the Arch of Constantine, the Arch of Titus, or up road 5. These leave neutral spaces, a triangular one that corresponds to mound 1 in earlier paintings (there seems to be not muchof a mound at this date), and another, larger one that corresponds to mound 2.

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On Organic Geometry

In Luke Syson and Dora Thornton’s Objects of Virtue there is a nice comparative illustration of a carved ivory knife handle after Francesco Salviati (Fig. 1)[1] and a print by Cherubino Alberti of two designs of knife handles by Salviati of 1583 (Fig. 2).[2] The actual knife handle corresponds approximately to the left design, and depicts a griffin on top of two back-to-back caryatids. The authors question the usual assumption that the actual handle postdated the print—was copied from it—implying either that the print is based on the actual handle or, more probably, that both are derived from an original drawing by Salviati conceived as an exercise in disegno.[3] (The other design is interesting in that it shows the classical figure of Marsyas about to be flayed, with an older and smaller hook-nosed man between his legs grasping ‘Marsyas’ where it hurts (Fig. 3).)

But what struck me about the two images is how the figure of the griffin in the knife handle is, to my eyes, so much more powerful than the engraved one (Fig. 4). The engraved one is more fluid and naturalistic (Fig. 5), with more convincing wings, but the ivory one has the superb geometry of the inner neck, a near-perfect arc that terminates in the beak on one side and (as the engraving makes clear) a tuft of neck hair on the other. This responds to the arch of the beak and head, which flows in one continious curve to the back of the neck and its knobbly hairs. The dark background to the photo makes these arcs stand out. Following this observation around, we see that the chest and front left profile has some of this geometrical power, but the back has rather less, although, compared to the print, the wings are more closely tied to the profile of the back.

Another instance of such organic geometry that I used to show my undergraduate students is the area of the breast and belt of Judith’s maid in the Judith and Holofernes in Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling (Fig. 6). This is just like the torus, fillet, and scotia mouldings of one of Michelangelo’s architectural drawings. This would sometimes get a laugh from students, but it was not intended by me as a joke, nor yet my Michelangelo who would certainly have been aware of what he was doing. The Renaissance study of anatomy, including the famous écorché statue of Cigoli, saw the human body in engineering terms, the external contours being the result of the stresses within the tendons and muscles beneath, and ultimately geometrical.

One of the greatest things in art is this tension between geometry and naturalism, between the operations of the mind and mere likeness. Excessive naturalistic skill in the Renaissance could be at the expense of what is most important in art. The low point came with the concept of a picture as a photograph of a stage with frozen actors, as with Poussin. To be sure, naturalism can be transcendent, as with still-life painting. Earlier periods were in many ways more satisfactory, as with Romanesque animals that are similar to the ivory griffin but not the engraved one. Early modernist sculptors, quite self-consciously, returned to this problem of the balance between naturalism and geometry, and for a little while kept both balls in the air. But modernism had its own fatal flaw, which was not excessive naturalism, but the teleological fallacy. Having got to this point artists believed that their destiny was to keep moving further and further away from naturalism, failing to realise that the point of their early successes was this balance, not their contribution to artistic progress. We see this throughout the post-Impressionist-modernist trajectory. In sculpture Early Brancusi held representation and geometry in balance, but his later works are emptily geometrical, which opened the way for the even drearier Anthony Caro and his ilk. Cézanne realised that what mattered in landscape was the tension between surface and depth, and developed some extraordinary techniques to realise this. The early Cubism of Picasso and Braque ran with this but allowed modernist teleology to destroy it, making it into something crude and obvious, and worse, a ‘movement’. Braque recovered from this and went on to produce brilliant still life paintings that no-body is interested in any more, while Picasso draw the conclusion that all that matters was to be clever, which worked, because everyone is still interested in him. And for twenty years in the 1920s and 1930s Cubism provided the crucial tools for handling the geometry/representation balance in the decorative arts, which is where this period is most rich artistically. Otto Wagner reached a point of balance between historical forms and abstract ones during his Sezession phase which got him through to the Postsparkasse, after which he and every other architect lost the plot.

But back to the knife handle. The artisan responsible, it must be said, only half-grasps the problem. Although the naturalism of the wings is tamed, their geometry is pedestrian rather than transcendent, while the thighs are shapeless blobs. How would a Romanesque or early modernist sculptor have proceeded, having discovered the arcs of the head and neck? They would, I think, have worked on the silhouette, which shows promise. One problem area is the negative space between the paws, thighs and forelegs. This needs more emphasis, while the paws need strengthening geometrically with stronger repetition between the two (sets of) paws. The other problem area is the wings. Their attachment to the shoulders is messy, while their outer profile is too much subordinated to the curve of the back. What to do with them? This depends on the sculptor’s mode of working in three dimensions. The driving aesthetic so far has been two-dimensional. Does the sculptor work in planes, relying on superimposed shapes that generate linear shadows? Or do they work in masses that require it to viewed from above and behind? In other words, do that, like the Romanesque sculptor, start with a cubical block, or, as here, what is essentially a drawing. Either way, the knuckles of the wing could be brought forward to cover the blandness of the lower neck: this is done much better in the engraving, which hints at the profile of the wings being a series of humps and reflex curves. The engraver uses shadows to separate the wings from the body, as if they are about to unfurl. The sculptor does take this path, because he is confined within a planar conception. A sculptor in solids would start to spread the wings; a sculptor in planes would enrich the profile and superimpose them (it) on the body.


[1] After Francesco Salviati, knife handle. Italy, mid-sixteenth century. Florence, Bargello. After Luke Syson and Dora Thornton, Objects of Virtue. Art in Renaissance Italy, London: British Museum Press, 2001, fig. 156

[2] Cherubino Alberti after Francesco Salviati, Two designs for knife handles composing grotesques and naked male figures, 1583. Engraving, 249 x 102 mm. London, British Museum, 1872,1012.870. Lettered above ‘Frac Salviat in’, on the base of the handle of the knife at left ‘1583’ on blade ‘Secura …convivivum’, and Alberti’s monogram ‘CA’, at left ‘Cum privilegio sumi pontificis’. Curator’s comments: ‘An impression in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris BN (Estampes, B3a res) shows that this engraving and P&D 1872,1012.869 are printed from a single plate. (Information supplied by James Grantham Turner, February, 2015). Bartsch XVII.111.171. Images of other copies are available online, including a copyright-free image from the Cooper-Hewitt.

[3] Syson and Thornton, 2001, pp. 168-169.

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