Imagined Baroques offers a new account of Italian post-unification visual culture through its entanglement in the Baroque. The book argues that, by reinventing Baroque forms in their artistic and architectural practices, modern Italians confronted their fears about their nation’s past and imagined future. Although ignored by most scholarship, the Baroque was repeatedly evoked in modern Italian visual culture and intellectual history. This is so because, between the fin de siècle and the end of the Second World War, the reception, influence, and disavowal of the Baroque enabled Italians to probe the fraught experience of national unification, addressing their ambivalent relationship with modernity and tradition. The Baroque afterlives in modern Italy, and its temporal and conceptual destabilisation, allowed Italians to work through a crisis of modernity and develop a visual culture that was both distinctly Italian and modern. Imagined Baroques interrogates a diverse range of media: not only paintings, sculptures, and buildings, but also magazine illustrations, postcards, commercial posters, pageants, photographs, films, and exhibitions. The Baroque functioned in post-unification Italy as a legacy of potential annihilation but also of potential consolidation, and as a critique of modernity and a celebration of an intrinsically Italian road to modernity. Unearthing the protean and contradictory legacy of the Baroque in modern Italy shows that its revivals and appropriations were not repositories of exact facts about the seventeenth century but rather clues to how visions of modernity and tradition merged to form a distinct Italian identity.
The introduction explores the Italians’ love–hate relationship with the idea of the Baroque, which evoked both a shameful past in which the peninsula was divided and occupied, and a style hailed as a precursor of modernism. Although many studies have analysed the Baroque revival in the German- and Spanish-speaking contexts, the introduction argues that it is urgent to do for Italy as well, as Italian theoretical and visual reinterpretations of this style were in conversation with canonical authors on this topic. The introduction also outlines some key moments in the Baroque reception: from its dismissal in the eighteenth century to its rediscovery in nineteenth-century France and Germany.
The emergence of the Baroque in the Italian fin de siècle
Laura Moure Cecchini
Chapter 1 studies how Italian novelists, critics, and art historians of the fin de siècle crucially shifted the assessment of the Baroque, especially that of its most iconic sculptor, Gianlorenzo Bernini. The chapter first examines how in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s circle (especially in the work of the literary critic Enrico Nencioni) the Baroque was celebrated as the period most attuned to fin de siècle mentality. Then, the chapter addresses the staging of lavish celebrations to commemorate the third centenary of Gianlorenzo Bernini’s birth in 1898, which hailed him as the paradigm of a multi-regional artist (with links to Naples, Rome, and Florence) expressing the essence of Italian artistic genius. In the aftermath of these celebrations, Italian photographers finally began intensive campaigns to record Baroque art and architecture, and a new generation of scholars began studying this period. An example of such a rediscovery was the publication of the first academic monograph on Bernini, written by the young art historian Stanislao Fraschetti in 1900 and richly illustrated by photographs of the sculptor’s most important works. The chapter examines this reassessment’s intellectual stakes by investigating how Italian art historians struggled to do justice to the Baroque’s formal innovations while still condemning the period as decadent.
The 1911 jubilee exhibitions and the search for an Italian style
Laura Moure Cecchini
Following Chapter 1’s discussion of professional art historians and their reconsideration of the Baroque, Chapter 2 studies its popularisation, analysing the neo-Baroque pavilions of the 1911 international exhibitions organised to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Italian unification or Cinquantenario. These pavilions were designed as tributes to local seventeenth-century architecture: in Turin with reference to Filippo Juvarra, in Rome to Bernini. The Baroque was regarded by the fair’s organising committee and by many observers as the first properly national, rather than regional, style to have appeared on the peninsula. Therefore, it was the most appropriate to display the young nation’s cultural assets and political importance. Whilst neo-Baroque architecture was also prominent in other European nations, especially in Germany, Austria, Britain, and France, in Italy it was deployed as proof of a genuine Italian identity that anticipated the country’s political unification. The style worked as a metaphor for the tensions between modern Italy’s nationalism and regionalism and its colonial aspirations. Before the fairs closed, Italy declared war to the Ottoman Empire and occupied Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Thus, the fairs employed the Baroque to rehearse the role that Italy aspired to fulfil on the international arena.
Roberto Longhi, seventeenthcentury art, and the Italian avantgarde
Laura Moure Cecchini
Chapter 3 examines the Baroque’s rediscovery among a new generation of Italian art historians, focusing on a young academic and his relationship to the avant-garde: Roberto Longhi. One of the most important twentieth-century connoisseurs of Baroque art, in his youth Longhi was quite sympathetic to the Futurists. On the eve of the First World War, he described Futurism’s superiority to Cubism by comparing the former to the Baroque and the latter to the Renaissance - using the formal schema developed by Heinrich Wölfflin in Renaissance and Baroque (1888). Such a comparison between the avant-garde and the historical Baroque led Longhi to argue that the Baroque was quintessentially Italian and was also the origin of modernism, putting into question both French-centred narratives of the birth of modern art and German-centred interpretations of that style. Like other art historians of his time, Longhi analysed the Baroque and Futurism through the tropes of ‘Latinity’ versus ‘Germanity’. Although he avoided chauvinistic and racist proclamations, Longhi’s work engaged in conversations about national identity, the place of Italian art in the history of the avant-garde, and Italy’s geopolitical aspirations on the eve of the First World War.
The Baroque was a style that German-speaking art historians had for decades interpreted as quintessentially Nordic. In the aftermath of the First World War, however, Italians deployed it as an anti-Germanic strategy. Chapter 4 studies one of these episodes, the 1922 organisation of a massive exhibition of Italian Baroque painting at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. This exhibition marked one of the first times at which these paintings were described as ‘Italian’ rather than as Venetian, Florentine, or Roman. Vienna’s Baroque Museum would open a year later, in 1923. The Pitti show used the Baroque to attack Austrian culture, and its claims to the style, and to bolster Italy’s victory in the First World War in the artistic sphere. The Pitti show and other exhibitions and editorial initiatives of the 1920s popularised the Baroque, no longer seen as an aberration in the history of Italian art but instead as part of an uninterrupted homegrown tradition of Italian ‘classical’ painting that spanned from Giotto to the present. Conceptualising the Baroque as a form of classicism encouraged proponents of the return-to-order to promote the imitation of Seicento masters among young artists such as Baccio Maria Baccio, Carlo Socrate, and Armando Spadini, marshalling the Baroque against the alleged excesses and internationalism of the avant-garde.
The show at the Pitti Palace triggered a wave of discussions in the Italian press over the Baroque afterlife. Some commentators, such as Giorgio de Chirico, decried the public’s interest in a period of art that they perceived as decadent and corrupt; others saw positive similarities between the authoritarian politics of the Counter-Reformation and the ascent to power of the Fascist regime. Chapter 5 investigates a little-known episode of Fascist architectural culture: Baroque features in a considerable number of public and private buildings built during the interwar period. Allusions to the work of Borromini, Bernini, and Maderno, schools, ministries, convents, and apartment buildings require an understanding of Fascist architecture beyond the framework in which it is usually written - beyond the opposition of classicism and rationalism, nostalgia, and modernism. Rather, the chapter shows that during the Fascist ventennio the Baroque was considered a suitable style to display the Italian nation’s imperialistic ambitions, much as it had been in 1911.
The reimagination of Baroque sculpture during Fascism
Laura Moure Cecchini
Chapter 6 compares the 1930s reception of Adolfo Wildt and Lucio Fontana’s sculptural work as examples of Baroqueness, studying how they reveal important shifts in Baroque sculpture’s reimagination in the interwar period. Wildt’s work – inspired by Michelangelo and Bernini, but also by German symbolism – was seen as Baroque in so far as seventeenth-century art was perceived as addressing the disciplining of matter through technical prowess. By contrast, in the reception of Fontana’s amorphous ceramic and maiolica sculptures of the interwar period the Baroque signified a clear-eyed engagement with materials and social reality, and a critique of Fascist-endorsed forms of art, although not of the Fascist regime itself. This chapter reveals how this shift is linked to new theories of the Baroque: young Italian philosophers challenged Benedetto Croce’s well-known disdain for the Baroque by adopting the more benign outlook on the style of the Catalan Fascist ideologue Eugeni d’Ors.
The book closes by reflecting on two questions: why was the Baroque so prominent in Italian Fascist high culture and intellectual discourse, and yet all but absent in the propaganda generated by the regime? Why could other pasts be mobilised to construct an Italian and Fascist identity, while the Baroque appeared to resist its circulation through mass technologies? Several answers are proposed: that the Baroque, despite all the reimaginations addressed so far in the book, was still too easily conflated with Catholicism; that it was too slippery and protean a concept to be easily marshalled in a propaganda system that required unequivocal signifiers; and that its discussion was very much a middle- or even high-brow topic and therefore not appropriate for a demagogic tool such as mass propaganda. The book concludes by suggesting that after the cataclysmic fall of Fascism, it was the common legacy of the Resistance against Nazi-Fascism – rather than any invented tradition linked to the distant past – that founded Italian identity.