Palazzo Carignano: “Good Masses Spoiled by Bad Detail”

Guarini and Juvarra Reception in 1903

“Hideous,” “ugly,” “unsightly”: the following extensive passage from Russell Sturgis, How to Judge Architecture (New York: Baker & Taylor, 1903): 169-172, requires little commentary. It can stand alone as an example (now inadvertently humorous) of Baroque architecture reception at the turn of the last century. In his invective against ornament, Sturgis prefers Filippo Juvarra’s Palazzo Madama to Guarino Guarini’s Palazzo Carignano – but not much. Palazzo Madama is “a failure”, Palazzo Carignano “a disfigurement.”

Despite the mistaken caption, the accompanying image of Palazzo Carignano (upper photo on plate below) redeems itself by featuring the palace as it appeared before Carlo Ceppi’s neo-Baroque frontispiece was added in 1883-4. For more on Sturgis, see this biography provided by Avery Library, which holds the Sturgis Architectural Drawings and Papers in its collection.

Sturgis Carignano Madama

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“Plate LV shows the front of a well-known building in Turin [i.e. Palazzo Carignano], and here architectural detail has been so handled that it is indeed a disfigurement. If the reader will look past the astonishing window casings and the really hideous filling of panels like those in the pilasters of the basement, he will see a well understood front. … Here are six ‘flats’ of rooms, all abundantly lighted, and yet the front has been laid out in such a way that it has all the elements of a very imposing and stately structure. Even the singular soft rounding, with a plan made up of several curves, of the projecting central mass which includes the porch of entrance, is capable of perfectly dignified, and even stately, treatment. The appearance above of the great rotunda which holds the staircase, completes the composition of this central mass, and leaves one regretting that it might not be given to some modern designer of good taste, and a hard hand on the vagaries of his assistants, to work out the problem of this curious central mass, so manifold and so capable of unity.

“one cannot be expected to stand very long in front of such a building; it is a monster”

“But, now, if one leaves for a moment that abstract way of regarding the whole front and allows those window casings to secure his attention, why then all is lost, of course: one cannot be expected to stand very long in front of such a building; it is a monster, but it is that merely because of the exceptionally ugly and wholly unreasonable gim-cracks that are stuck all over it. If you should take the Hermes of Olympia and dress him like those ‘fantasticals’ at an old fashioned Paris masked ball, you would no doubt produce a very unsightly object and it would take the eye of an expert in human form, a sculptor, namely, to discover the beauty of the figure within.

“That Turin building is of about 1690; see now what the reaction brought forth and what gravity of design was possible to the artists of thirty years later in the same city! There seems no doubt that this front of the Palazzo Madama (see Plate LV) was built by Filippo Juvara about 1715. To look at it is a rest indeed after the enormities of the Palazzo Carignano: and yet even here one finds himself wishing that the wretched device of carved trophies of arms, as the single motive of the exterior sculpture, were absent here. Sculptured ornament was beyond the strength of the eighteenth century: when they tried to introduce it, then the result was a failure.”

Note: The quote in the post title here, “Good Masses Spoiled by Bad Detail,” is taken from Sturgis’s page heading on p. 171.

Image: Palazzo Carignano (above) and Palazzo Madama (below), both in Turin, from Russell Sturgis, How to Judge Architecture (New York: Baker & Taylor, 1903): plate LV facing p. 172.
Source: Internet Archive / public domain