The Michelangelo of Our Century

Guarino Guarini’s work has often served as a lightning rod for anti-Baroque criticism, especially by the French. So the following French guidebook passage from 1699 describing the Chapel of the Holy Shroud in Turin is particularly remarkable because it enthusiastically praises the architect:

Deseine Guarini

“Recently they built a very magnificent chapel in the Metropolitan church [i.e. cathedral] of Turin at the expense of their royal highnesses, who spent huge sums of money here.  This chapel is entirely covered, inside and out, with select black marbles with gilded bronze ornaments, of a very regular architecture by Father Guerino Guerini [sic], Theatine, the Michelangelo of our century.  In the middle of the chapel there is an altar with two sides, where one can say two masses at the same time without confusion or getting in each other’s way.  The machine or tabernacle here that contains the Holy Sudarium, or Holy Shroud, in which the precious body of our Savior was wrapped, is of gilded bronze laden with silver.   The altar front and sacred paraments are of precious cloths embroidered with gold and silver, with pearls and other precious stones of great expense.”
François-Jacques Deseine, Nouveau voyage d’Italie (Lyon: Thioly, 1699): 375.

sindone altar The reliquary altar in the Chapel of the Holy Shroud, Turin
Image: from Pietro Toesca,
Torino (Bergamo: Istituto italiano d’art grafiche – editore, 1911): 64 | Internet Archive |

Deseine’s guidebook was published only five years after the official completion of the Shroud chapel, inaugurated on 1 June 1694 with the ceremonial transfer of the venerated relic to its new home. Added as a postscript after the main guidebook text was already set for printing, this passage so far seems to have escaped the notice of Guarini scholars.* Such a flattering comparison of the Theatine to Michelangelo is unprecedented, appearing nowhere else in the travel or biographical literature. The topos “Michelangelo of our ____” (fill in the blank) has become commonplace in recent centuries, used to describe everyone from a character in Proust (“Michelangelo of our kitchen”) to Steve Jobs (“Michelangelo of our time”). But at the close of the seventeenth century its inspiration was probably more specific: a widely publicized epithet for Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).

During his lifetime, Bernini himself cultivated the image of being a new Michelangelo. A few months after his death the Journal des sçavans published an Éloge or eulogy of the sculptor in its 24 February 1681 issue. The Éloge was written by Pierre Cureau de La Chambre, a French friend of Bernini’s who had also spent some time in Rome. After several pages reviewing Bernini’s career, La Chambre concludes, “Finally, one can say that he was the Michelangelo Buonarroti of our days, having excelled in almost all the fine arts for nearly a century.” La Chambre lists the qualities shared by the two artists: both were cherished and held in high esteem by popes and kings; both of high moral standards and true believers in the faith; tireless in their work, and also successful in Italian poetry.** Apart from Michelangelo’s and Bernini’s celebrated proficiency in all media – sculpture, painting, and architecture – and the length of their careers, the other qualities La Chambre enumerates could arguably be applied to Guarini, the pious court architect also active as a playwright.

Who was the author who placed Guarini on par with Michelangelo? François-Jacques Deseine was a French bookseller in Rome from 1688-97, and these years in Italy probably explain his rather un-French appreciation of Italian Baroque architecture. He also wrote guidebooks on Rome itself, which were published in many editions and translations throughout Europe.† As a Frenchman in Rome, Deseine would have been familiar with La Chambre’s Éloge of Bernini, and more specifically with its comparison of Bernini and Michelangelo. Beyond Bernini, though, Deseine may have conflated Michelangelo’s Medici chapel in San Lorenzo, Florence, with Matteo Nigetti’s Medici dynastic mausoleum – the Cappella dei Principi – at the same church, since the latter was frequently compared with the Shroud chapel and probably inspired it to some extent (see Scott, 81-84).

One wonders if Deseine’s account of the Shroud chapel is first hand, or based on another source as suggested by its insertion as a postscript, and by its fanciful anecdote of the altar’s simultaneous use for two masses at once. The entire passage may have been hurriedly pasted together from a second-hand description with the Michelangelo topos added as a generic term of effusive praise for an artist.

In any case, the passage pays fitting tribute to two exceptional artists, united through a historical coincidence on today’s double anniversary: that of Michelangelo’s birth in 1475, and Guarini’s death in 1683.

Michelangelo and Guarini portraits
Michelangelo Buonarroti, born 6 March 1475 (left), and Guarino Guarini, died 6 March 1683 (right)
Images: Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington (left) and Getty / Internet Archive (right)

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*The passage was not included in the useful comprehensive digest of guidebook literature on Turin compiled by Valentina Assandria, Chiara Gauna, and Giuseppina Tetti, “L’architettura descritta: viaggiatori e guide a Torino tra Sei e Settecento,” in Giuseppe Dardanello, editor, Sperimentare l’architettura (Turin: Fondazione CRT, 2001): 325-345; nor is it cited in John Beldon Scott, Architecture for the Shroud (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

**Recent publications on the topos of Bernini as Michelangelo are Maarten Delbeke, Evonne Levy, and Steven F. Ostrow, editors, Bernini’s biographies: critical essays, (University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006): 127-32, 164-5, 170, 172-3; and Domenico Bernini, The Life of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, trans. and ed. Franco Mormando (University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011): 44-46, 49.

†On Deseine, see Elio De Domenico, “François Deseine e il suo Nouveau voyage d’Italie,” Bollettino del C.I.R.V.I 10:1, no. 19 (1989): 85-132; and Salvo di Matteo, Viaggiatori stranieri in Sicilia dagli Arabi alla seconda metà del XX secolo, 3 vols. (Palermo: Istituto siciliano di studi politici ed economici, 1999): I, 318-320.