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Painting outclassed by bricks and mortar: on the arts in Rome under Clement VIII

Did the arts really flourish the Pope's patronage?

Unlike Europe’s political history, which is dotted by milestones attached to seemingly random years—1648, 1789, 1914 and so forth—the history of its art seems to organise itself more neatly, by century. Quite distinct images are evoked by references to the quattrocento or to the 18th century. It is equally remarkable that the basic round numbers are often associated with a particular place—1500 with Florence, 1900 with Paris—and it is in this spirit that Clare Robertson has produced a deeply learned volume, Rome 1600: the City and the Visual Arts Under Clement VIII.

Her opening sentence justifies the enterprise without hesitation: “Rome in 1600 was the centre of the artistic world.” Over the next 400 lavishly illustrated pages, she makes the case: first by discussing the city’s chief patrons, the Aldobrandini Pope Clement VIII and his nephew Cardinal Pietro, and then by laying before us the dazzling array of artists and projects that brought a new style, the Baroque, into being. This is not a matter of a single year, of course, but Robertson does not wander too far from 1600, especially since that Year of Jubilee was one of the pope’s chief preoccupations.

One of her conclusions is that spending the largest sums on art did not always make the Aldobrandini discerning patrons. An altarpiece that Pietro commissioned, for instance, is in her view “a thoroughly mediocre painting”. The pope was a harsh, rapacious, and conservative figure, old-fashioned in his tastes. The nephew was more open to new ideas, more urbane and in his architectural projects—notably the villa at Frascati—the sponsor of superb achievements. But where painting was concerned the leadership in vision lay elsewhere.

If one identifies the artists working in Rome in the late 16th and early 17th centuries who brought about a basic shift in artistic styles, the chief names would probably include Caravaggio, Carracci, Rubens and Reni. None was a native Roman, but all were drawn to the city by the relics of its ancient past and by its recent artistic efflorescence. They came, however, not just to study and emulate the examples of antiquity or of Raphael and Michelangelo, but to seek the abundant patronage that their predecessors had enjoyed. Here the Aldobrandini played a lesser role than the Farnese, the Giustiniani, the Mattei, and individuals like Cardinal del Monte. Pietro did commission works by Carracci and Reni, but neither he nor his uncle had an interest in Caravaggio. The major marks they left on the city were architectural rather than painterly.

Robertson deals with both branches of the arts, but she devotes the majority of her study to painting. Though we learn about the many palaces, villas, churches and chapels that were built and decorated, it is the latter that prompts the fullest introduction to the commissions and masterpieces that helped transform the city. The stories are often complex or incompletely documented, but one can always rely on Robertson to offer plausible judgments of the evidence. Her account of the creation of the Contarelli chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, for instance, is exemplary, making clear what is not known, but giving good grounds for her conclusions.

There is no better introduction to the site or its famous Caravaggios. Nor is there a more perceptive guide to the way Rome looked before the age of Bernini, despite the destruction that ensued. And a few pages on censorship and rejection carve a clear path through another fraught subject.

In a final chapter, Robertson examines the lives that some of the leading artists of the time led in Rome. Here she is able to give attention to the Zuccaros, Elsheimer and other figures who have appeared only briefly in earlier pages. Taken together with Patrizia Cavazzini’s Painting as Business in Early Seventeenth-century Rome, this chapter offers a comprehensive and vivid insight into the interests, the pressures, the advisers and the structures with which these artists had to contend. If their workshops and an institution like the Accademia di San Luca gave some degree of order to their daily existence, their numbers and the alternatives they faced ensured that they seemed always to be scrambling for their next opportunity. And the vignettes of relatively unknown painters like Cigoli bring the atmosphere of the period to life.

This is a beautifully produced volume in which I noticed only one typo (Innocent XI instead of IX), but one cannot avoid wondering about its opening sentence. After all, just a few years ago there was published a massive tome (nearly 50% longer than this one) entitled Prag um 1600. There the case was made that, at least in terms of sculpture (notably Adrian de Vries), the climax of Mannerism, and the most fascinating patron of the time (Rudolf II), this was the liveliest artistic centre in Europe.

Making such comparisons is what keeps scholars and taste-makers busy. For those to whom these books are addressed, however, the dominant reaction must be gratitude for so rich an immersion in these crucibles of creativity in the visual arts.

• Theodore K. Rabb is the emeritus professor of history at Princeton University. A specialist in early modern Europe, he is a frequent contributor to The Art Newspaper and the Times Literary Supplement. His most recent book is The Artist and the Warrior, and he is currently working on a book of essays about the visual arts

Rome 1600: the City and the Visual Arts Under Clement VIII

Clare Robertson

Yale University Press, 460pp, £45 (hb)