3 vols. Modena Italy: Franco Casimo Panini, 1994. Vol. 1: 595 pp.; 790 color ills. Vol. 2: 534 pp.; 120 b/w ills. Vols. 3: 40 loose-leaf maps. L 1,000,000
Many a scholar, impatient to see the newly restored Sistine Chapel, races through the subject of these two books, the Gallery of Geographical Maps in the Vatican Palace, and remains largely impervious to its - until now - almost impenetrable appeal. What seems an overlong, overbright corridor impeding the speedy attainment of one's goal is as crowded with gilded, framed decoration on its walls and vault as it is with dazed tourists clustered around their guides. These books have provided a great service to the history of art and, indirectly, to the future visitors to the papal residence, for they give us a reason to halt in our tracks and take note of the remarkable accomplishment sponsored by the Counter-Reformation pope Gregory XIII (1572-85), the same pontiff who promoted the current calendar named for him.
Beginning around 1578, Gregory XIII built a new story 120 meters long atop a corridor flanking the Belvedere Courtyard, which Bramante had built under Julius II (1505-13) to convert the grounds and gardens to the north of the Vatican Palace into a terraced garden-theater. The Gallery of Geographical Maps was part of a comprehensive building program within the Vatican complex that celebrated the goals of the Gregorian papacy: a papal apartment commemorating the calendar reform, the Tower of the Winds, served as the culmination of the new passageway from the ceremonial core of the Vatican Palace out to the garden courts. Just as the reform of time's measurement under the pope's leadership was presented in the Tower of the Winds as a sign of metaphysical unity that resolved earth-shattering conflicts within the Church after Protestant upheavals had cracked the bedrock of that institution, so the gallery was to provide a magnificent space that vividly illustrated, blow-by-blow, the hard-won achievement of geographical and spiritual wholeness of the Church with the pope as its unifying head.
The dazzlingly complex decoration of the new papal ambulatio resolves itself into two related parts that knit together the appearance of geographical and spiritual harmony. First, running down both walls, alternating with windows, are huge maps of all the provinces of Italy, many surveyed expressly for this commission. Regions such as the Spanish-dominated islands of Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily, as well as the former papal seat of Avignon in France, were included regardless of actual political sovereignty in order to signify the Church's greater authority. Each map's placement on the wall roughly corresponds to the geographical position of the region it represents on the peninsula; the separation of the scheme by the central passageway reflects, as an inscription indicates, the peninsula's division by the Apennine mountain range down its spine. Second, crisscrossing the vault are patterns of interlocking framed narratives containing manifold scenes from Church history, many of miraculous victories over life-threatening enemies, that took place in the regions depicted below. A welter of other subjects in the vault, from Old Testament sacrifices attesting to the antiquity and sanctity of the Christian mass that had been assailed by Protestants to the rich variety of birds native to Italy - styled here as nature's paradise - contributes to the overall program. The staggering multiplicity of images in the vault can be understood in part by the circumstances under which the gallery was constructed: the pictures visibly assert the sacred efficacy of images in a time when Protestant reformers questioned their devotional purpose. The quantity of episodes from the post-biblical history of the Church that are linked to the physical locus of their occurrence, almost as documentary proof, likewise countermands, by chronicling the Catholic version of sacred history, the shrill objections of Northern reformers to the Catholic belief in nonscriptural tradition that was reavowed by the Council of Trent (1545-63).
The impediment to grasping the significance of this remarkable space is not that scholars have not addressed themselves to this puzzling monument in the past, for a few have, most recently the late Iris Cheney.(1) It is, rather, the daunting scale of the undertaking. These authors are the first to perform the essential task of treating the whole program of the maps and the vault together and in depth. I hasten to point out the earlier date of Margret Schutte's book, for the authors of the publication edited by Lucio Gambi and Antonio Pinelli make profitable use of her observations and, if truth be told, owe her a great deal in cracking the particularities of the program. Regrettably, they do not adequately acknowledge her labors in this neglected vineyard, a subject to which I shall return. That said, it is fortunate indeed that these books can be consulted simultaneously, for they complement one another to a degree. The Gambi and Pinelli monograph is an impressive contribution from the point of view of visual documentation alone. The first of the three volumes, called the Atlas, is filled with a stupendous and costly range of illustrations that treat the monument with a respect usually accorded the Sistine ceiling: 790 color photographs of virtually every view and detail one might wish to see and, in addition, a helpful variety of diagrams to make the difficult decorative scheme comprehensible. Supplementary illustrations of high quality enrich the text volume, including preparatory drawings, related printed maps, and little-known imagery from the Gregorian papacy. As if that were not enough, a third volume contains larger loose-leaf reproductions of each map in the Atlas and, considerately, a small magnifying glass. This focus on the riches of the visual material is intentional, according to Salvatore Settis, editor of the series Mirabilia Italiae to which these volumes belong.(2) He writes in his introduction (pp. 7-8) that the point of this new series is to reverse the traditional relationship in books between text and image. The illustrations, which progress through the Atlas volumes in the "proper order," according to Settis, are not scattered as a consequence of...