Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 10, 2017
Clare Robertson Rome 1600: The City and the Visual Arts under Clement VIII New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 460 pp.; 80 color ills.; 220 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300215298)

The reign of Clement VIII (1592–1605) witnessed a confluence of extraordinary circumstances culminating in the Jubilee of 1600, when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims descended upon Rome. The aftermath of the Council of Trent and the founding of several new religious orders led to a growing understanding that art could be used as a valuable vehicle for disseminating the church’s message, prompting, in part, a flurry of church construction and renovation. Meanwhile, the city experienced an influx of artists from all over Europe, arriving to study from both the city’s famed antiquities and “old masters” like Raphael and Michelangelo, and hoping to secure commissions amid a boom for both religious and secular decoration. Among these artists, Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci, both of whom arrived in the last decade of the sixteenth century, had the most seismic impact.

Clare Robertson’s Rome 1600: The City and the Visual Arts under Clement VIII is a comprehensive study of the plenitude of projects commissioned by various patrons against the tumultuous and transforming backdrop described above. Using surviving documents (most of which were previously published elsewhere), including contracts, payments, letters, and inventories, as well as seicento biographies, maps, and avvisi, Robertson “aims to recreate a snapshot of Rome around 1600, at a crucial moment” (2). In two earlier books, Robertson studied both the patronage of Alessandro Farnese and the career of Annibale Carracci (Il Gran Cardinale: Alessandro Farnese, Patron of the Arts, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992; and The Invention of Annibale Carracci, Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2008). Perhaps naturally, then, Robertson’s concerns in Rome 1600 skew heavily toward two subjects that frequently overlap: the patronage of the papal nephew Pietro Aldobrandini and the commissions given to the Carracci and their pupils. The book profits from Robertson’s decades of experience working with the sources and objects central to early modern Italian art.

In the absence of a sustained historiographical discussion, the reader might be forgiven for assuming that Robertson is the first to address many of the book’s topics in one place. Instead, she is drawing on a long line of other art historians’ work, many of whom she culls from liberally. Rome 1600 owes a great deal to the first important study of the period, Johannes Albertus Franciscus Orbaan’s Rome onder Clemens VIII (Aldobrandini), 1592–1605, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff), which appeared nearly a century ago (1920), as well as the patronage-focused social art history forged by Francis Haskell in his classic Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations Between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque (London: Chatto and Windus, 1963). Strikingly, one of the most frequently cited resources on Clementine Rome since its appearance has been Morton Abromson’s 1976 dissertation: “Painting in Rome during the Papacy of Clement VIII (1592–1605): A Documented Study” (New York: Garland, 1981). Abromson’s research not only drew on extensive archival work in Rome, but also presented important topics that would be pursued by later scholars, like the field of Christian archaeology. In a sense, Robertson’s book is a much-needed updating of Abromson’s dissertation (without supplanting it entirely), one that shows a command of the past four decades of often-sprawling literature on a diversity of topics, and one that benefits from being handsomely illustrated throughout. Rome 1600 also synthesizes important studies by Stefania Macioce (Undique splendent: Aspetti della pittura sacra nella Roma di Clemente VIII Aldobrandini [1592–1605], Rome: De Luca, 1990); Jack Freiberg (The Lateran in 1600: Christian Concord in Counter-Reformation Rome, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995); and Xavier Salomon (unpublished 2005 dissertation, “The Religious, Artistic and Architectural Patronage of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini [1571–1621],” Courtauld Institute of Art), as well as monographs and exhibition catalogues on various artists. One can only imagine what it was like to attempt to wrestle with and summarize several decades’ worth of writings on Caravaggio alone.

Robertson’s study is organized into five chapters, the first four addressing various types of patronage as their principal concern. The book privileges painting above all else, rarely addressing sculpture or so-called “decorative arts,” despite much recent work in these fields. She begins, naturally, from the top, with a study of Clement VIII’s artistic and architectural projects. The Florentine cardinal Ippolito Aldobrandini (1536–1605) ascended to the papacy in 1592, inheriting two massive projects then underway: the building of New St. Peters and the renovation of San Giovanni in Laterano. Here Robertson deals with two seemingly contradictory impulses that appear to characterize Clement VIII’s activities: a simultaneous reformist sensibility and an understanding of art’s role in beautifying Rome for the 1600 Jubilee. Clement is described as austere and pious; he was very closely associated to the Oratorians and Cardinal Cesare Baronio. But Clement was far from retrograde in his artistic tastes. One of his most important papal commissions was the Sala Clementina in the Vatican palace, where Clement employed the Tuscan quadraturisti Giovanni and Cherubino Alberti, whose illusionistic ceiling presaged later developments in high-Baroque vault decoration. The room’s south wall also contains Paul Bril’s large seascape of The Shipwreck of Clement I (ca. 1602), a remarkable early example of the genre.

In the second chapter, Robertson clearly relishes discussing the patronage of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini (1571–1621), whose secular and religious commissions both extended his uncle’s reformist aims and exhibited a markedly more conspicuous display of wealth and power. A skilled diplomat, the cardinal nephew and his patronage became the exemplar for subsequent papal kin, whether through his construction and decoration of a suburban villa (the Villa Aldobrandini in Frascati), his display of art in city palaces, or through his unscrupulous collecting practices. In terms of collecting, Pietro’s taste in painters ran toward both the classic (for example, Titian’s Bacchanals and Giovanni Bellini’s Feast of the Gods works [1514–29] from the Camerino d’Alabastro confiscated during an early trip to Ferrara) and contemporary, with a penchant for Annibale Carracci and Domenichino. Notably, and unlike many of his peers, Pietro did not collect Caravaggio; yet despite Robertson’s thoughtful analysis of Pietro’s collecting, readers are left to speculate why this was the case. Pietro also commissioned several important religious works in churches, and in this sense was aligned with his “uncle’s counter-reform agenda” (117).

The third chapter examines some of Pietro’s contemporaries; this chapter, together with the subsequent ones, gives context for the striking heterogeneity of artistic commissions occurring beyond the Aldobrandini circle. Pietro’s peers built elaborate palaces and villas and collected extensively in antiquities, earlier masters, and contemporary art. As Robertson writes, the presence of the curia in the city led to an influx of noble families and arrivistes requiring either existing palaces to stay in or space to build their own. In one of her three appendices, Robertson publishes a 1601 document listing many of the major palaces in the city, and while she offers little analysis of the list, the document provides a tantalizing resource for other scholars. While families like the Farnese hired artists to complete elaborate fresco decoration in these palaces (or executed the frescoes themselves, like Federico Zuccaro in his family’s residence), others, like the Giustiniani or the Mattei brothers, used their dwellings for the display of often-rich painting and sculpture collections. Because of the Aldobrandini’s apparent indifference to Caravaggio, it is in this chapter where the Lombard painter is first discussed, in the context of his important patrons, including Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, the Giustiniani, the Mattei, and the banker Ottavio Costa.

In the fourth chapter, devoted to public religious painting, Robertson wrangles the expansive material—both the literature and the visuals—into a clear and considered survey. Following the Council of Trent, Rome experienced a surge in commissions for church decoration, mostly painted. Robertson tackles the thorny question of the Clementine attitude toward religious painting in the aftermath of the Council of Trent and its famously nebulous decrees on the matter. Drawing on recent research by Opher Mansour, Robertson summarizes the visitations to churches made by Clement VIII, and concludes that he had “more bark than bite” (83). Many of the most important church commissions came not from Clement himself but from the new religious orders established in the sixteenth century: the Jesuits (at the Gesù and San Vitale), the Oratorians (Santa Maria in Vallicella), and the Theatines (at both San Silvestro al Quirinale and Sant’Andrea della Valle).

Along with the art commissioned by these orders, Robertson looks at many of the cardinals’ restorations of older churches, newly constructed churches, and specific chapels belonging to private individuals. These include important sites like Santa Susanna, with commissions by Cardinal Rusticucci, and the Cavaletti Chapel at Sant’Agostino, both the subject of an exemplary study by Pamela Jones (Altarpieces and their Viewers in the Churches of Rome from Caravaggio to Guido Reni, Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008) (click here for review), as well as the epoch-defining marble sculpture by Stefano Maderno of Santa Cecilia for her titular church in Trastevere, also the subject of several recent studies. Altogether, Robertson, while rarely furnishing either original information or interpretations, provides worthwhile overviews of nearly forty different churches or individual chapels. The chapter concludes with a topic that has garnered much attention in recent years: the putative rejections of Caravaggio’s altarpieces and the need for a more nuanced view of the subject given the lack of concrete documentation and the emerging market for religious painting within private galleries. Though not exhaustive or conclusive, Robertson’s summary is a useful précis on the subject.

Robertson’s final chapter addresses the artists themselves. The discussion of the artists—those from Rome, Tuscany, Bologna, the North, and elsewhere—will be a welcome guide for readers, especially students, who can find the thicket of non-household names (i.e., not Annibale or Caravaggio) unfamiliar and tricky to untangle. A section on self-portraits by figures like Giovanni Baglione, Guido Reni, the Cavalier d’Arpino, and Ludovico Cigoli, many in private collections, seems to beg for prolonged future analysis, or at least public display. Still, this chapter fits a bit uneasily with the rest of Robertson’s book. Many of the artists and their commissions are mentioned in preceding chapters, making the discussion repetitive. Additionally, there is very little discussion of paintings themselves, and a palpable apathy to questions of style (signaled by the omission of Sydney Freedberg’s Circa 1600: A Revolution of Style in Italian Painting [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983] in the bibliography).

Robertson touches on many of the seeds planted during Clement’s reign that would flower later in the seventeenth century: the Catholic Church’s globalizing mission, elaborate villas with ostentatious displays of wealth, illusionistic fresco paintings in churches and private residences, an emerging art market, and more. Robertson’s clear prose and formidable command of the issues concerning the period make Rome 1600 a useful compendium for professors and students and accessible reading for the educated public. For graduate students in seventeenth-century Italy, an increasingly endangered species, the book’s illustrations and extensive bibliography offer an indispensable resource for exam preparation and, moreover, will surely inspire valuable new directions in research. Beyond this, the book transports readers to Rome circa 1600, when, for then as now, while trying to see the city’s artistic treasures, “una vita non basta.”

Jeffrey Fraiman
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, Rutgers University