June 11, 2019

Three Ways to Look at Churches of Rome

        Here are a few of the wood block illustrations from Andrea Palladio’s The Antiquities of Rome.  This was one of two volumes of guides that Palladio wrote in the mid-sixteenth century about the churches and other antiquities of Rome, and was part of his efforts to popularize classical architecture - something he did sufficiently well to be hailed as one of the most influential architects in the history of Western culture.  The illustrations are credited to Gieronimo Francino, but it’s not always clear what this means in a Renaissance book.  Does it mean he drew the sketches?  That he carved the wood blocks?  Or that he was the printer/publisher?  (See this post on the Nuremberg Chronicle for an overview of Renaissance wood block printmaking.)
        Looking at these illustrations, the first thing to keep in mind is that they were probably not conceived of as being art in their own right, but rather as being illustrations equivalent to those in a text book or guide book of some sort today.  Whoever carved the blocks was not taking advantage of the unique possibilities of relief printmaking, but was simply attempting to reproduce a line drawing.  That said, I do find them pleasing.  The first image is the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.  (This tower is still standing, but it has a facade new since Palladio's time.  He probably would have liked it.)  This is a workmanlike little print with attractive details of windows and column capitals, and the charm of not-quite-right perspective.
        For the church of San Pietro Montorio, our illustration shows the Tempietto, a small tomb in the courtyard built in the early sixteenth century to enormous acclaim.  I’ve included here the illustration of it from The Antiquities, as well as an illustration of it from Palladio’s earlier more acclaimed and scholarly work of architecture.  A comparison of the two indicates how much rougher and less detailed is the one from the guide.  Clearly Palladio had spared no expense in the four books of architecture that were to secure his reputation, while his guide to the antiquities of Rome was his downmarket work for, comparatively speaking, the masses.  Personally, I tend to prefer the less careful work, because it has a little more hand-made charm, although I admit that it would be less useful for architectural analysis.
        For a final style comparison, we’ll look at the church of Santa Maria Rotunda, better known as the Pantheon.  The Pantheon is a remarkable building, completed around 126 CE, one of the best-preserved of all ancient Roman buildings, with the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, and converted into a Christian church in 609 CE.  In this case, I find Gieronimo Francino’s illustration of the Pantheon to be a pleasing enough little block print, until you recall that, while a reasonably accurate depiction of the exterior, it portrays absolutely nothing of what
makes the Pantheon special.  This illustration gives no hint about the incredible interior space, or the light that has been considered divine for nearly two thousand years.  So I give here also my own block print depicting the Pantheon, to illustrate some of the differences in how artists have come to think about relief printmaking since Palladio and Francino’s time.  First of all, mine is attempting to be aesthetic rather than didactic.  Then, where Francino’s Pantheon is placed neatly in the middle of a frame, mine is cropped into a mere slice of a view (roughly the view from the doorway), and is asymmetrical.  Finally, Francino uses only black lines on white background, just like the drawing which he was reproducing, while I use some black on white, but other areas with white on black, and still other areas where the black and white are more equal.  Francino is trying to show walls and stones, while I am trying to show light.

[Pictures: La Chiesa de Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, wood block print by Gieronimo Francino from L’Antichita Di Roma by Andrea Paladio, 1588;
The Tempietto of La Chiesa di San Pietro Montorio, wood block print by Francino, 1588;
Tempietto, wood block print from Quattro Libri dell’Architettura by Palladio, 1570;
Pantheon, Tempio di Santa Maria Rotunda, wood block print by Francino, 1588 (Images from Yale Beinecke Library);
Pantheon, Rome, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

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