Early Modern Monuments to Deliverance from the Plague

As lockdown restrictions due to the coronavirus COVID-19 begin to ease after six to eight weeks, one gains new appreciation for humanity’s historic experience of epidemics. It is no coincidence that the word “quarantine” derives from a forty-day period of isolation, nearly identical to the length of our collective lockdown. The monuments erected to celebrate deliverance from historic epidemics also appear in a new light as we emerge from our circumscribed private lives back into the public realm. These commemorations historically included paintings and regular performances but the selection below focuses on votive buildings and sculpture.

The two prominent Venetian churches, Palladio’s Redentore and Longhena’s Santa Maria della Salute, begun after the plagues of 1575-76 and 1630, respectively, underscore Venice’s position as a prosperous port city subjected to recurring waves of disease introduced by international trade. The numerous central European plague columns (or pyramids), such as those in Vienna and Maribor, represent more modest but no less fervent expressions of civic gratitude. The Obelisk (or Guglia / Spire) of San Domenico in Naples also belongs to this category of monument. Guarino Guarini’s high altar in San Nicolò, Verona, like Santa Maria della Salute, fulfilled a vow to celebrate the end of the plague of 1630, although the altar was not installed until the mid-1670s and statues were still being added in the early eighteenth century.

What form will the coronavirus monuments take? Arguably, adequate healthcare infrastructure and universal healthcare access for everyone on the planet would be the most lasting way to express thanksgiving and prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Further Reading

Harold Avery, “Plague Churches, Monuments, and Memorials,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 59(2), February 1966: 110–116.

Celebrating the End of the Plague (Festa del Redentore),” Google Arts and Culture. (h/t @schelbertgeorg)

Defying the Baroque: Rome Turin Paris 1680 – 1750

Update June 2020: Exhibition Extended Through 20 September 2020

Exhibition at Venaria Reale, 13 March – 14 June 2020

Though not involved in the planning myself, I am pleased to note the upcoming exhibition Sfida al Barocco at Venaria Reale, near Turin, organized by my friends at the Fondazione 1563 per l’Arte e la Cultura, and curated by Michela di Macco and Giuseppe Dardanello.

As described on the museum website:

An extraordinary artistic journey towards modernity.

Over 200 masterpieces from the most prestigious museums and collections around the world [assembled] for an not-to-miss exhibition, set up in the grandiose spaces of the Juvarra’s Citroniera at Reggia di Veneria.

The defiance to the Baroque is launched by artists in the name of modernity with the experimentation with new forms and new communication languages developed between 1680 and 1750. A search that develops between Rome and Paris, the two poles of attraction of modern Europe, with which the Turin of those years entertains an intense dialogue of ideas and exchange of works and artists, which contribute to an epochal season of renewal of the arts on the international scene.

The ancient fables in theatrical history paintings, the sacred tales in altarpieces, the seduction and grace in sculptures and paintings, the planning of spectacular architectural models and the precious refinement of furnishings and ornaments (together with the splendid Savoy Bucentaur, to close the exhibition) accompany visitors along the exciting and amazing journey in search of a modern identity.

The Fondazione 1563 has produced an informative blog (in Italian) tracing the development of the exhibition, and chronicling some of the earlier exhibitions on baroque art and architecture held in Turin during the course of the twentieth century. The exhibition press release may be downloaded from the foundation’s website.

One can only hope that the current public health crisis in northern Italy eases in the next weeks so that the exhibition can open as planned. Fingers crossed for the team in Turin!

The Baroque Holy Ark of Trino Vercellese

Holy Ark of the Synagogue of Trino Vercellese, Piedmont, 1770s. Today in the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv.
Source: Wikipedia [he.wikipedia.org] / User: Michaeli / © This image is copyrighted. The copyright holder allows everyone to use the image for any purpose provided that the copyright holder is properly credited.

This stunning ark, a fine example of Piedmontese baroque woodworking, was created for the synagogue in Trino Vercellese in the late eighteenth century. Portions of the synagogue were designed by the Turin court architect Benedetto Alfieri, although the name of the cabinetmaker responsible for the ark remains unknown. The ark features rich carving, faux marble, and gilded details, and the architectural scene on its doors alludes to the Temple of Jerusalem.

The synagogue in Trino was one of several built in Piedmont in the baroque era, including those in Casale Monferrato and Biella. Today, according to most sources, the synagogue in Trino has been secularized, and its contents dismantled in 1965.

In 1973, the holy ark was acquired by the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. There it was installed in a pavilion designed by the architect Werner Joseph Wittkower, the younger brother of the famous architectural historian Rudolf Wittkower, who was the leading international scholar of Piedmontese baroque art and architecture between 1945 and his death in 1971.

Around fifteen years ago, the museum undertook an extensive restoration of the ark. It was then reinstalled in the Ethnography and Folklore galleries of the museum in 2006-7, along with additional elements from the synagogue in Trino. As the Eretz Israel Museum website explains:

A Holy Ark, or Torah Shrine, as it was called by Italian Jews, complete with its original Torah lectern, worshipers’ benches, and the latticed railing from the women’s balcony, is situated in a separate hall built according to the original synagogue plans. The Baroque and Rococo style of the Ark is typical of the Piedmont district of northwestern Italy and represents an excellent example of the influence of local style on historical Jewish themes. The set of doors carved with architectural images symbolizing the Temple still to be built in Jerusalem is the highlight of the Ark, expressing the centrality of Jerusalem in Jewish tradition.

The Holy Ark of Trino Vercellese stands as an impressive witness to the malleability of the baroque style, demonstrating how it could transcend the Catholic propaganda so often ascribed to it.

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In solidarity with the Tree of Life Congregation, Pittsburgh. Stop the hate.

Precious Stones: Fragments of the Chapel of the Holy Shroud

New Sculpture by Giulio Paolini

Last week, the Turin cultural sponsoring consortium Consulta per la Valorizzazione dei Beni Artistici e Culturali di Torino announced the upcoming work Pietre preziose that it commissioned from the artist Giulio Paolini. The sculpture, to be installed in the Giardini Reali behind the Palazzo Reale in Turin, will incorporate architectural fragments of Guarino Guarini’s Chapel of the Holy Shroud, which was severely damaged by fire in 1997. The sculpture will be unveiled on 26 October.

The Consulta prepared a preview video of the work (below) and issued a press release describing the project. To judge by the video, the work will consist of the architectural fragments of black Frabosa marble arranged on a stylized plan of the Chapel of the Holy Shroud, with additional new figural elements. The piece should be a highlight of the newly restored royal gardens, adjacent to the palace wing containing the chapel.

Additional reporting on the preview of Pietre preziose is available in La Stampa and La Repubblica. Currently, restoration of the Chapel of the Holy Shroud itself is scheduled for completion in 2018.

Fellowships on the Age and the Culture of the Baroque

Deadline 16 July 2017

I am delighted to share this information about the fellowship program for emerging scholars in Baroque studies run by my friends at the Fondazione 1563 per l’Arte e la Cultura in Turin. The topic for this year’s edition is “The Portrait, 1680-1750.” Please use the links below to learn more, and address any questions directly to the Fondazione 1563.

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The Fellowships Program aims to assign individual fellowships to promote original studies on the Age of Baroque, also in an international comparative perspective.

Research proposals for the 2017 call will need to pertain to the following theme:

The Portrait
Mandatory formulas, fortunate source of various models, vehicle of the affirmation of new directions in the narration of identity and in the culture of representation for figures, places, and contexts. The theme of the Portrait (as a genre, a product, an allegory, a testimony, and a memory) may be applied to various disciplines connected to historical, political, philosophical, musical, literary, historical-artistic, and historical-architectural culture, also with regard to art collecting, museology, art literature and treatises. The research proposal, unpublished and original, will need to focus on the period 1680 to 1750, it may follow a diachronic or synchronic approach depending on the scientific requirements of the project.

The competition is open to researchers born after 1st January 1982 holding a university or master’s degree, or other equivalent degrees, issued by an Italian or equivalent foreign University.

Priority will be given to applicants holding a PhD or equivalent from an Italian or foreign university.

Applications will be submitted exclusively using the forms available online and following the procedure indicated on the Foundation’s website under Bandi/ Borse di studio sull’Età e la Cultura del Barocco 2017 at www.fondazione1563.it.

Applications must be submitted by 16 July 2017 at h 24.00 (midnight).

Important: For the complete Notice of Competition for the fellowships, consult the PDFs in English or Italian.

Fortuna del Barocco in Italia

Historiography of Baroque Art in Twentieth-Century Exhibitions


As part of its Programma di studi sull’Età e la Cultura del Barocco, the Fondazione 1563 per l’Arte e la Cultura has organized the upcoming conference Fortuna del Barocco in Italia: Le grandi mostre del Novecento (Turin, 28-29 November 2016).

The conference, based on a related research project headed by Michela di Macco and Giuseppe Dardanello, will examine issues concerning the reception of Baroque painting, sculpture, and architecture in twentieth-century exhibitions. The first day of the conference features a special emphasis on the exhibitions of Piedmontese Baroque art and architecture in 1937, 1963, and 1989, as well as exhibitions of Baroque sculpture and architecture in general. The entire second day of the conference will be devoted to exhibitions of Italian Baroque painting as reflected in shows focusing on the various regional schools in places like Bologna or Naples.

Speakers include Tomaso Montanari and Joseph Connors, and special appearances will be made by the grandes dames of Piedmontese Baroque studies, Andreina Griseri and Mercedes Viale Ferrero. I am delighted to be participating as a respondent for the discussion of architectural exhibitions.

Download the conference program for full information about schedule and venue, as well as the contact for RSVP (by 23 November).

Newsreel clip showing the eighteenth-century Peota Bucintoro gondola of the Savoy being transported to the Palazzo Carignano, Turin, for the 1937 exhibition Mostra del Barocco Piemontese
Source: Cinecittà Luce / YouTube

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.

You Gotta Have Art

Sign Petition to Save the Detroit Institute of Arts

The title of this old commercial for the Detroit Institute of Arts says it all: please sign this petition begun by Professor Jeffrey Hamburger of Harvard University and addressed to Mr. Kevyn Orr, Detroit emergency manager.  As a Detroit-area native and former DIA employee, this cause is very important to me.

Petition Text

Prevent sale of works from the Detroit Institute of Arts

Dear Mr. Orr,

We, the undersigned, write to express our profound dismay at the news that the city of Detroit is considering auctioning off the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts to meet the city’s obligations as part of the current bankruptcy proceedings. The Institute of Art’s collections are not only among the finest in the United States; they rank among the greatest in the world and contribute to the city’s international reputation. To sell them, in whole or in part, would seal the city’s shame, dispose of one of the most visible manifestations of its proud history, and inflict permanent, irreparable harm on the city as a center for culture, tourism and commerce. One doesn’t help a patient, even one who’s very sick, by cutting out his or her heart. We urge you to resist the pressures being brought to bear by creditors to resort to what would be an act of draconian cultural iconoclasm without parallel in modern times.

Yours sincerely,
Jeffrey Hamburger
Harvard University

Click here to add your name to the petition.