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Italian Frescoes:   The Baroque Era, 1600-1800
By Steffi Roettgen
Illustrated. 484 pp.
Abbeville Press. US$135.00
ISBN-10: 0789209365 / ISBN-13: 978-0789209368
Click here to order from Abbeville Press. This link is here at the request of the publisher.

It may be a disservice to call Italian Frescoes: The Baroque Era, 1600-1800 a “book.” It might better be described as a lavish art portfolio of Italian frescoes, captured in more than 400 full-color images on single- and double-page spreads. Art scholars, Italophiles and lovers of the Baroque can explore the breathtaking beauty of 22 fresco cycles, each representing a notable achievement in the history of Western art. When opened, Italian Frescoes measures more than 22 inches wide. And weighing in at eight pounds, it will hold any coffee table solidly in place.

Supplementing the lavish color plates – many newly created for this volume – are 71 black-and-white diagrams showing the architectural layouts of the churches and palazzos where these frescoes can be found. And for the traveler, there’s a map of Italy showing the locale of every one of these frescoes.

After the Baroque era, the change in artistic tastes led neoclassical artists, critics, art patrons, and the public to disapprove of – and often sneer at – what they regarded as the painterly excesses of the preceding four centuries. It was not until very late in the 20th century that art historians began to revisit the Baroque period and to view its treasures anew. A leader in this reappraisal is Steffi Roettgen. She is a professor of art history at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, an associate at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence, and a corresponding member of Florence’s Accademia del Disegno. She is the author of two other acclaimed volumes in this series, Italian Frescoes: The Early Renaissance and Italian Frescoes: The Flowering of the Renaissance.

When you enter the Baroque through the portals of this volume, you’ll feel as if you’re on a grand tour of Rome, Florence, Naples, Genoa, Bologna, Turin, Venice and more. You’ll visit Palazzo del Quirinale, San Andrea della Valle, Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, Palazzo Pitti, Palazzo Medici Riccardi and the Biblioteca Riccardiana – in short, all the sacred and secular temples of the period. Along the way, you’ll appreciate, with the help of Roettgen’s authoritative text, how Baroque artists such as Domenichino, Sabastiano Ricci, Guercino, Tiepolo and many others developed their monumental style and suffused their work with pictorial and narrative skill, playful imagination, lush detail based on mythology, religious motifs, events in contemporary society and politics, and enthusiastic theatricality. These magnificent paintings were, in effect, part of the popular entertainment of the era, the equivalent of today’s Broadway and Hollywood.

Upon a cursory turning of the pages, you will encounter a fleshly riot of colorful, overpopulated paintings. It seems confusing at first – one does not know where to look. This is where Roettgen’s comprehensive scholarship (and Stockman’s graceful translation) emerges as the treasure within the treasure of this volume. Roettgen decodes the rich visual language of the frescoes and points out, to provide just one example, how Andrea Sacchi reconciles the then-new and controversial heliocentric worldview of Galileo with the dominant theology of the 17th century. Thus, the ceiling fresco known as the “Triumph of Divina Sapienta” in the north wing of Rome’s Palazzo Barberini becomes a meaningful pictorial narrative about the religious, scientific and philosophical crosscurrents of the day. It tells the story, and Steffi Roettgen helps you read it.

Thus, she guides you on a stroll through each of the 22 fresco cycles. She is aided in this journey by the excellent photography. Upon visiting Italy to view these frescoes, one can be at a disadvantage: it can be difficult to see details at the top of a 30-foot-high wall fresco or inside a dome 50 or more feet overhead. And often the lighting in some venues is poor. (This reviewer remembers well craning his neck in one church or palazzo after another, wishing he had brought his opera glasses to see better.) The photographers solve this problem through the magic of proper illumination, telephoto lenses, and the use of ladders and scaffolds whenever possible. They reveal the frescoes whole and in many cases provide close-ups to reveal exquisite details that many travelers miss.

Italian Frescoes: The Baroque Era, 1600-1800, is the fifth and final volume in the magnificent, comprehensive survey series in modern times of surviving frescoes from the age of Giotto through the Baroque period. Other titles in the series are The Age of Giotto; The Early Renaissance; The Flowering of the Renaissance; and The High Renaissance and Mannerism. With this final volume in the series, you’ll discover new insights about one of the most astonishing and productive periods in Western art. Midwest Book Review says it’s “an impressive, important, and very strongly recommended addition to personal, academic, and community library art history reference collections.”

Dan Breau, for Notable Book Reviews
Notable Book Reviews received one or more copies of this book in exchange for this review.
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