Anne-Lise Desmas. Le ciseau et la tiare: Les sculpteurs dans la Rome des papes, 1724-1758. Rome: École française de Rome, 2012. Illustrations. ix + 471 pp. $129.00 (paper), ISBN 978-2-7283-0940-5.
Reviewed by Anne Betty Weinshenker (Montclair State University)
Published on H-Italy (February, 2016)
Commissioned by Matt Vester (West Virginia University)
New Light on Eighteenth-Century Sculpture in Rome
During the past several decades, the study of art history has been broadened, and even at times supplanted, by the emergent study of visual culture with its emphasis on the role of technology in historical as well as contemporary production of artifacts. In a related development, the traditional foci of art-historical investigation—connoisseurship, stylistic analysis, and iconography—have often been supplanted by critical theory and a host of other approaches to the objects of study. In considering painting, semioticians have concentrated on interpreting the significance of marks on canvas or another surface. Perhaps in response to their approach, in recent decades discussion of sculpture has turned away from its former concerns to emphasize instead the materials and processes involved in the creation of sculpture and the conditions under which it was made. Among publications concerned with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sculpture, which have devoted attention to these important but previously neglected topics, are Jennifer Montagu’s Roman Baroque Sculpture: The Industry of Art (1989) and Malcolm Baker’s Figured in Marble: The Making and Viewing of Eighteenth-Century Sculpture (2000). The volume by Anne-Lise Desmas makes a notable contribution in this direction.
It is an inescapable fact that sculpture has always been more dependent on its physical substance and required more manual effort to produce than has painting. During the Renaissance, this aspect of the difference between the two was emphasized in the form of the paragone, the debate over their relative nobility. The arguments often contrasted sculptural production with the primarily intellectual abilities required for the creation of painting, which consequently also possessed a greater potential for communication of spiritual values. Several circumstances observable during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Rome (and elsewhere) indicate painting’s triumph in a prolongation of this contest. Among the markers are the relative population counts of practitioners of these two arts, their roles within professional organizations, and the numbers of texts discussing them. The thread repeatedly appears in Desmas’s study, where we learn that fewer sculptors than painters or architects were members or were elected to the directorship of the major artists’ organization, the Accademia di San Luca; that dignitaries’ tombs designed by sculptors were sometimes wrongly credited to architects or painters; that painters were on occasion better paid than sculptors; and that inventories of many private art collections display few sculptural holdings. Often these records and accounts of ephemeral decorations created for numerous ceremonial occasions list the names of the painters but not those of the sculptors.
Adapted from the author’s doctoral dissertation, Le ciseau et la tiare deals with the experiences of sculptors during a restricted time span, the years 1724 to 1758, which corresponds to the pontificates of Benedict XIII, Clement XII, and Benedict XIV. While the era supported a considerable number of large sculptural enterprises, it did not witness the creation of new forms or major innovation. As Desmas states, the towering personalities of the first half of the seventeenth century—Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Alessandro Algardi, and François Duquesnoy—had no match during the time span with which she is concerned. Much of the work from the early eighteenth century derives in one fashion or another from that of those illustrious predecessors. It is no surprise, then, that it has not received a great deal of scholarly attention. Yet for that very reason, it offers the opportunity to investigate the circumstances, activities, status, and sculptural output of a range of practitioners during the period. If there are no “great masters” admired here or historical tracing of developments among their followers, comparative value judgments are replaced by a much more objective presentation of the everyday nitty-gritty of sculptors’ lives.
Based on extensive archival investigation and careful culling from primary and secondary sources, the volume’s text and eight appendices offer an extraordinarily full account that includes detailed information about sculptors’ homes and studios, the expenses involved in their work, their training and memberships in professional societies, and their involvement in major papal construction projects and ephemeral celebratory decorations. The volume also provides information about the careers of several practitioners either Roman-born or attracted by the opportunities available there.
Since much of her research was carried out while she was affiliated with the French Academy in Rome, publisher of this volume, the author appropriately devotes considerable attention to the activities of its pupils during this period. Italian art, including sculpture, had been in the vanguard during the early and mid-seventeenth centuries, but soon after came to be rivaled by the nascent ascendancy of French creativity fostered by the government of Louis XIV. The students at the French institution in the years covered by this study imbibed the heady atmosphere provided by their historic surroundings but also joined Italian contemporaries in developing a style exhibiting less bravura and more restraint than that of their predecessors, a set of forms that ultimately would morph into neoclassicism; Desmas observes that the work of this era is “more reserved, less rhetorical and grandiloquent than that of the preceding century” (p. 265, translation by reviewer).
On the whole, this volume is both highly valuable and overwhelming in the fullness and density of its detail. Its illustrations provide views of many works not reproduced elsewhere; minor flaws are a few mismatches between them and the numbers referring to them in the body of the text; for example, page 204 erroneously states that plate 87a displays the double tomb of the archbishops of Vienne by Michel-Ange Slodtz. Another small inaccuracy refers to the Rhode Island School of Design in Massachusetts (p. 278n63); its actual location is Providence, Rhode Island. These small quibbles aside, Desmas makes a fine contribution toward rectifying the longstanding slighting of sculpture in art-historical publication.
. Also see Geneviève Bresc-Bautier and Hélène du Mesnil, “Le marbre du roi: L’approvisionnement en marbre des bâtiments du roi, 1660–1715,” Eighteenth Century Life 17 (1993): 36–54.
. For a discussion of the analogous situation in France, see Anne Betty Weinshenker, A God or a Bench: Sculpture as a Problematic Art during the Ancien Régime (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2008).
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