Shopping for Marble in Venice

A Court Agent From Turin Sources Materials for Guarini

A letter of 6 June 1676 from Fra Arcangelo di Salto in Venice to Francesco Guglielmo Carron, Marchese di San Tommaso, in Turin sheds light on the methods Guarino Guarini used to source unusual marbles for his commissions in the Savoy capital.  The relevant passage in the letter, published by Gaudenzio Claretta in 1873 and until now apparently overlooked by Guarini scholars, would seem to refer to a commission Guarini was preparing for the Marchese himself, although it is entirely possible that San Tommaso was coordinating the commission on behalf of another court patron.

The Carron di San Tommaso family served the Savoy court administrative bureaucracy for generations, most famously as Secretary of State or “primo segretario” for a series of dukes, duchesses, and kings. They were patrons of rich chapels in churches in Turin, notably in San Francesco da Paola and Guarini’s San Lorenzo. But they also had Guarini design an altar for a chapel in Buttigliera Alta outside Turin, their ancestral seat (Dardanello, 1988, p. 199 n. 178). To my knowledge this altar, documented in a payment for the altarpiece in 1681, has yet to be traced or reconstructed.

InternoChiesaSanLorenzoTorino2 (2)Detail of nave and chapels in Guarini’s San Lorenzo, Turin (1670-1680)
Source: Wikimedia Commons / Ste73ve (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The passage in the letter states:

“Ho fatto le dovute diligenze per le colonne ma non ne ritrovo delle desiderate dal R. M. D. Guarino e le più preziose e vaghe sono d’africano, che mettono diversi colori, cioè turchino, giallo, rosso, bianco e nero, delle quali avendone vedute due, parmi che in Torino ancora non ve ne sia delle simili. Se queste fossero di soddisfazione, costano cento ducati da lire tre e soldi due di moneta di Savoia l’una, e si darebbero fatte in tre mesi dal giorno dell’avviso.”

The agent thus unsuccessfully attempted to find specific columns requested by Guarini. He suggested an alternative in other columns of attractive precious marble known as “marmo africano,” “African” marble (which, however, in antiquity was quarried in present-day Turkey). The African marbles Fra Arcangelo saw in Venice were blue, yellow, red, black and white, and unlike anything in Turin at the time. He then specifies the price, in case the columns sound satisfactory, and says they would be ready three months after ordering.

The letter allows us to make a few conclusions. Guarini apparently knew exactly what kind of marble he wanted, and had perhaps seen it in Venice before. Indeed his travels in the Veneto in the early 1670s are well documented. Delegating marble acquisition to an agent made sense for Guarini, since he was tied up with multiple responsibilities in Turin: supervising construction at San Lorenzo and the Cappella della Sindone, preparing publications such as his Trattato di fortificatione (1676), and other duties as a Theatine priest. Further, the marble was needed for a project in or near Turin. San Lorenzo comes immediately to mind, with its rich embellishment in marble and precious stones. The timing of the marble acquisition, though, is somewhat puzzling for the San Lorenzo construction chronology. The eighteen large red marble columns surrounding the main vessel of the nave and framing the chapel openings and high altar had been put in place already in 1673. Other smaller columns within the chapels and on their altars seem to have been installed beginning only in 1678. Certainly with the three-month period from order to delivery, the architect may have been planning ahead for chapels to be constructed a year or two later.

The commission timeline for the Carron di San Tommaso chapel in San Lorenzo suggests this may well be the case. The family chapel (first on the left) was dedicated to the Virgin and Souls in Purgatory, with the altarpiece painted by Giovanni Peruzzini commissioned already in 1673, completed in late 1674, and sent to Turin in early 1675. Major construction on the dome of the entire church did not begin in earnest until 1678, and was completed in 1679, so interior decorative work could not proceed before 1678; documents indicate the architectural and sculptural portions of the Carron di San Tommaso chapel were executed by the Carlone family before 1679 (Dardanello, 1988, p. 197). Thus, components for the chapel were apparently being assembled several years before they could be installed in the church. Dardanello summarizes that, of all the chapels in San Lorenzo, that of the Carron di San Tommaso most closely reflects the local Turinese decorative aesthetic, and is most distant from Guarini’s personal style.

So did the Marchese and Guarini decide to order these columns of marmo africano? Probably not, at least not for the family chapel in San Lorenzo, which was built with columns of black Ligurian marble (nero portoro) framing the altar (Gomez Serito, 2006, p. 359). Naturally, the columns Fra Arcangelo viewed in Venice may have been intended for the chapel in Buttigliera Alta or an unidentified secular commission for the Carron di San Tommaso family or other court figures.

Images of the quarries in Arzo, Ticino, the source of the eighteen large red marble columns in Guarini’s San Lorenzo, Turin (photos 1937)
Photographs: ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv / Photographer: Wehrli, Leo / CC BY-SA 4.0

Maurizio Gomez Serito has shown how the marbles used in San Lorenzo were sourced from many regions: Piedmont, Triveneto, Lombardy and Ticino, Tuscany and Liguria, Rome, and France. This variety was unusual for churches in Turin. Gomez Serito notes how the Piedmontese marbles in the altars tended to be used for framing and architectural components, while the more exotic stones were employed for the decorative elements (Gomez Serito, 2006). For most of the stones, particularly the Piedmontese ones, we know exactly where they were quarried. The most spectacular feature of the nave of San Lorenzo, the eighteen monolithic columns of red marmo brocatello donated by the Savoy dynasty, had been quarried in Arzo (Ticino).

Finally, the colored marble mentioned in Fra Arcangelo’s letter and its distribution through a market in Venice recalls Guarini’s high altar for the Theatine church of San Nicolò in Verona. The architectural portions of this altar seem to have been constructed between 1675 and the early 1680s, with some of the sculpture perhaps completed in the next decades. Although the letter published by Claretta clearly refers to a commission in Turin, we can well imagine Guarini or his agents returning to the supplier in Venice to select the rich materials for the Verona altar.
Verona altar collageGuarino Guarini, high altar of San Nicolò, Verona, after 1675, (left) photo in situ and (right) published project from Dissegni d’architettura civile, et ecclesiastica (Turin, 1686), plate 22.
Sources: (left) Viaggio Senza Vento, (right) Getty Research Library / Internet Archive

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Further Reading

Gaudenzio Claretta, “Sulle avventure di Luca Assarino e Gerolamo Brusoni,” Atti della R. Accademia delle scienze di Torino 8 (1872-3): 112-141, 303-343, 385-407, 512-571; here, 557.

Giuseppe Dardanello, “Cantieri di corte e imprese decorative a Torino,” in Giovanni Romano, ed., Figure del barocco in Piemonte (Turin: CRT, 1988): 163-204, 237-252.

Maurizio Gomez Serito, “I marmi di San Lorenzo,” in G. Dardanello, S. Klaiber, and H. A. Millon, editors, Guarino Guarini (Turin: Umberto Allemandi & C., 2006): 356-363.

Giuseppe Dardanello, “L’esperienza del colore e il gusto dei materiali: fantasie decorative per organi e altari,” in G. Dardanello and R. Tamborrino, eds., Guarini, Juvarra e Antonelli. Segni e simboli per Torino (Cinisello Balsamo: Silvana Editoriale, 2008): 209-217.