View largeDownload slide View largeDownload slide One of the most striking images in Christine Casey’s Making Magnificence is of ‘The Devil’s Bridge’ by JMW Turner, painted c. 1803. It shows a group of travellers about to cross the daunting Saint Gotthard Pass that connects Ticino in Italian-speaking Switzerland to the German-speaking cantons and onwards to northern Europe. The vertiginous surroundings are emphasized by the artist’s atmospheric embellishments and dramatized by the way a solitary figure appears so unguarded on the slender bridge. Three hundred years ago specialist decorative plasterworkers (stuccatori) traversed the pass from their Ticinese home to create interiors of ‘sumptuous plasticity and powerful performative effect’ in Austria, Germany, Italy and beyond, from the ‘meagre materials’ (p. 1) of lime, gypsum, sand, water and animal hair. Casey’s formidable work traces the physical and artistic journeys of seven such master craftsmen, focusing on those who flourished in Britain and Ireland, including Giovanni Battista Bagutti (1681–1755), Giuseppi Artari (c. 1690–1771) and the three Lafranchini brothers: Paolo (1695–1776), Filippo (1702–1779) and Pietro-Natale (1705–1788). As in Turner’s scene, geography, artistry, and travel are central to the narrative. Making Magnificence is designed to be bipartite: the author describes the first section as devoted to ‘grand perspectives’ to explain the pan-European phenomenon that engendered the British squadra. Subsequent chapters focus on the trajectory of their work from the ‘training grounds’ of the German-speaking lands of the Holy Roman Empire and thence to England and Ireland, where among the interiors they worked on were the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford, St. Martin in the Fields in London, Russborough House in County Wicklow and houses on St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin. Casey sets out her agenda early on, admitting to a ‘hint of the manifesto’ (p. 6) in championing ornament, craftsmanship and intuition in architectural production. Her polemic tone is partly to counter ‘the barbs of the boundary police’ (p. 7), including a colleague who asked ‘But is this architectural history?’ and who will be embarrassed by the riches in this volume and the cogency of Casey’s argument. At the heart of the first chapter and underpinning the entire volume is a concern with the relationship of architecture and stucco decoration from its Italian revival in the late fifteenth century, and in particular, Casey argues, the role of plasterwork in the ‘creation of the room’s fundamental composition’ (p. 10). As a medium, it was a versatile and durable way to evoke tectonic structure on the interior, to fill, frame and simulate through the articulation of pilasters, roundels and archways. Plasterwork was not only commissioned (and sometimes designed) by architects of new buildings but could be used to reshape the interiors of existing structures, for example in the dramatic remodelling of the Cathedral of Passau by the Carloni workshop in the late seventeenth century. Of course, the work of the stuccatori transcended the emulation of architectural elements to include powerfully performative iconographic programmes, particularly as ‘the representative function of palace and residence expanded’ (p. 23). The chapter ‘Maestri dei Laghi’ brings us to the shores of Lake Lugano to observe the area from whence the stuccatori came, and where, in typically precise form, Casey numbers fourteen small communities sustained by the quarries of Monte San Giorgio. As well as exploring the education of the future maestri and the plasterwork schemes that decorated their places of dwelling and worship, this part of the book intimates the rhythm of their lives to the reader. The author is ever-alert to social milieu, emphasizing the gap between artisan and peasant, pleasingly described as ‘those destined for the world and those destined for the hillsides’ (p. 61), and notes a pattern whereby the migrant workers were absent for at least nine months of the year, ceding an unusual degree of autonomy for women who acted in caput familiae. Casey’s exemplary primary research fixes details of births, marriages and deaths that point up the importance of kinship in the groupings of stuccatori at home and abroad and also gives them a voice, most fully through the letters of the Oldelli family. Sensitive to the telling phrase that suggests their physical experiences and inner lives, she tells us that in 1713 the teenage Alfonso Oldelli was ‘unperturbed by matters of property, generation and mortality’ and complained of the privations of the road, describing the food in Cologne as ‘alla usanza delli animali’ (fit for animals) (p. 76). The older men were more inclined to write of mancanza (longing for loved ones) until their return in autumn (if working within a short enough range) ‘to hillsides of red and gold, a harvest of good wine, a candlelit parrochia and tender embraces’ (p. 81). Design historians should find particular interest in Casey’s chapter on ‘the Stucco Industry’ as it contributes much to our understanding of the ‘nebulous boundary’ (p. 84) between fine and decorative art in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and offers a bravura reading of the interplay between design and making. She emphasizes how the Italian apprenticeship system produced stuccatori adept at both drawing and modelling, leading to their supremacy over native craftsmen in Britain and Ireland. A close analysis of original drawings and in situ plasterwork demonstrates how verve and fluency in graphic representation was coupled with the intuitive and gestural nature of the craft. As with the rest of the book, Casey charts a course here between new information that will enhance the knowledge of specialists, particularly regarding training and earnings, and more general observations that contribute to the broader field of design in early modern Europe. The three remaining chapters in Making Magnificence focus on particular locations and individuals: In partibus Germaniae, England. And then finally ‘end game’ with the Lafranchini brothers in England and Ireland. Offering new information and interpretations based on Casey’s years of research, it is in the detailed analyses of the work itself that she really lets fly with confident aesthetic judgment and her powers of description, honed through her authorship of the Dublin volume of Buildings of Ireland (2005), which is a remarkably lively read for a Pevsner gazetteer. Even when tackling such well-known schemes as the ceiling of the Eating Parlour at Carton House in County Kildare (1738–1739) by Paolo Lafranchini she has significant new insights, conjectures and connoisseurship to offer over many pages. The ceiling depicts a variant of the Council of the Gods ‘with greater emphasis on loving than counselling’ (p. 245) as it incorporates pairings from Ovid as well as a scheme based on Lanfranco’s Council in the Villa Borghese. While Casey remarks that a specific engraved source for the ceiling’s focal point of Bacchus and Ariadne ‘has proved elusive’ (p. 246), she nevertheless makes an excellent link to the work of the painter Benedetto Luti (1666–1724), denoting the spread of ‘Marattesque taste’ (op. cit.) through Europe in a range of media and also the role of stucco as ‘an interface’ (op. cit.) between fine art and decoration. In the introduction to her book, Christine Casey notes how she has been bolstered by authors of recent work on craftsmanship, ornament and process such as Richard Sennett, James Trilling and Juhana Pallasmaa. However, although ‘the conceptual tide has turned’ (p. 7) to now buoy the fundamental importance of materiality, there are still few examples of scholarship that address the relationship between architecture and craftsmanship. Her Making Magnificence admirably bridges that gap, and the reader can be assured that they will be led by a sure-footed and expert guide with keen vision, great learning and a commitment to reaching new vistas of understanding. © The Author(s) . Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Design History Society. All rights reserved.
Journal of Design History – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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