Rome: The Galleria Borghese: Pictorial Space and Bernini, Pictorial Space and Architecture

Continuing the theme: the dominance of the planimetric in the way we appreciate art and thus the world around us. Why are we not happiest, keenest to seek out the fully three dimensional?

I know from years of teaching art history students that understanding painting and forms in two dimensions comes relatively naturally, but three dimensions, architecture especially, is always a struggle; it is a foreign language.

This is even more noticeable when watching gallery goers. For example, looking at Bernini’s ‘Apollo and Daphne’, in the Galleria Borghese,

Bernini: 'Apollo and Daphne', 1625. Galleria Borghese, Rome

a triumphant example of sculpture fully in the round, a sculpture that demonstrates a different, developing section of the narrative from every angle. What really struck me was the way viewers positioned themselves; at the 4 points of the compass. That is, they saw it through 4 static picture planes, rather than walking around it observing the metamorphosis of Daphne from one stage to the next. The picture plane is that institutionalised.

Given the influence of film and, for example the tracking shot, this is surprising. Apparently one of the first films to use the tracking shot was Italian: The Cabiria, in 1914.

Artists since Alberti have championed architecture (‘De Re Aedificatoria’, 1452). If Gropius through the Bauhaus curriculum could revolutionize the British Art School and, tangentially perhaps, was therefore responsible for the birth of British Rock, Pop, Punk and the British Fashion industry. Why was he not also responsible for the main aim of that institution, to place all the arts at the service of architecture? A building is after all equally a narrative.

For instance, the church I am sitting in now to write this, It is about 4.30pm, whilst waiting for the best paneficio in Rome to open

(Forno Campo de’ Fiori

I have walked down Via Giulia and ended up at San Salvatore in Lauro. It is not a particularly special Roman church, but like any building, the way it is put together, the use of decoration, the architectural language, tells a story. That narrative is usually fairly straightforward .

The façade, the introductory paragraph, shows a huge, high naved building. That facade is pure nave, no volutes, no evidence of side aisles, it introduces the internal spaces that you will encounter, and introduces them with great clarity. Inside, narrow chapels and a very high, hemispherical, barrel vaulted ceiling. Short transepts, perfect hemispherical dome above the crossing. At a guess I would say that the nave is two cubes long, the transepts and the apse ½ a cube and the crossing a whole cube. The nave has paired, attached Corinthian columns in travertine, supporting a very large and accurate Roman entablature. Above is a narrow clerestory.

The apse is only slightly curved, the attached columns of the apse are in green marble. The apsidal pediment is both broken and curved. There is gold everywhere and above the altar a huge sunburst lit by natural light from the dome and clerestory.

Extraordinarily, on each side of the altar framed by the attached columns are theatre boxes, overlooking the action; royal boxes actually on the stage. And, they are the clue to the whole story. This is a late Baroque church, that characteristic theatricality is functional, all about getting in the faithful.

This is a post Council of Trent church: the Catholic meeting that set up the USPs of Roman Catholicism in opposition to growing Protestantism and in horrified reaction to the Sack of Rome in 1527.

The narrow side aisles and barrel vaulting, like Il Gesu not far away, concentrate the congregation on the Mass, the words of the priest and on the music (barrel vaulting was supposed to be good for acoustics).

The broken pediment is reminiscent of Borromini, an intense visual excitement, the sunburst of gold and the theatre boxes of the Colonna altar by Bernini, the cubic volumes takes us back to Bramante and Brunelleschi, the perfect hemispherical dome and the entablature to classical Rome.

This is a building that displays its knowledge of sacred architecture with great confidence, expecting us to do the same. All this glorifies us by sitting in a vision of heaven,  the architect, perhaps, the patron certainly (4 golden, jewel encrusted busts of popes sit on the altar) and above all, it glorifies God.

My main point being that it is a narrative about 3 dimensional form that self-consciously goes back to the first basilica churches in Rome. Like any building it establishes the context from the first glimpse and continues that discourse with every combination of forms that you can experience, surely this is a discourse that it is relatively easy to understand and enter into?

Perhaps to prove what I am talking about, a woman has come in to the church armed with a camera and photographed all the rather dreary paintings in the chapels, mostly by da Cortona and Turchi. The photographer did not look up or around her, and then she left. Mind you she didn’t look at the paintings either, just photographed them, presumably to prove her brief presence at this spot.

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