The Papacy and the Art of Reform in Sixteenth-Century Rome: Gregory XIII's Tower of the Winds in the Vatican.

Author:Marder, Tod A.
Position:Landscape and Identity in Early Modern Rome: Villa Culture at Frascati in the Borghese Era - Book review


The Papacy and the Art of Reform in Sixteenth-Century Rome: Gregory XIII's Tower of the Winds in the Vatican

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 312 pp.; 10 color ills., 214 b/w. $90.00


Landscape and Identity in Early Modern Rome: Villa Culture at Frascati in the Borghese Era

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 422 pp.; 12 color ills., 160 b/w. $100.00

The two books under review had long and thoughtful gestations, beginning as doctoral dissertations, continued with the support of extensive study abroad, and finished with a deliberate concern for endowing the original topics with full cultural contexts. As a result, both are mature in outlook and rich in information, almost entirely superseding their scholastic origins. Of the two, Courtright's book on the Tower of the Winds is more profoundly monument-based and Ehrlich's more broadly cultural in its implications. Both volumes demonstrate the power of hard-nosed research in the archives to develop the fresh scholarship that overlays more traditional approaches to famous buildings and their designers.

The Tower of the Winds was built midway along the west flank of Donato Bramante's Cortile del Belvedere on the uppermost floors of the long wings connecting the core of the papal palace to the Villa Belvedere. Construction and decoration of the tower took place mainly between 1581 and 1582 during the pontificate of Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1572-85), a reign that has recently become a hotbed of art historical research. (1) It was Gregory who anticipated moving the Vatican obelisk, projected a new aqueduct to serve the hills of the city, thrust broad streets through the center of Rome and beyond it, and worked hard to complete the fabric and decoration of St. Peter's and the Vatican Palace. Fate favored his successor, Sixtus V (r. 1585-90), whose talent for realizing these and other dreams of the Church were complemented by the ambitions of his chief architect, Domenico Fontana, and a host of artists whose productivity often outstripped their talents. By contrast, Gregory XIII had decent architects with lesser ambitions and better artists with fewer opportunities. In part as a result, his works became buried over time, both literally and figuratively, and to measure his real accomplishments becomes an act of re-creation and rediscovery.

In fact, were it not for the infamous library wing of Sixtus V, which bisected and ruined the spatial unity of Bramante's Cortile del Belvedere, the Tower of the Winds would have been seen from anywhere within that huge courtyard. As it is, the library and the nineteenth-century Braccio Nuovo of the museum block a view of all but the tallest features of the Tower of the Winds, even from privileged vantage points. To see the Tower of the Winds, one has to be taken there, and that requires special permission. These circumstances help to explain the relative neglect of the building and the importance of Courtright's new book. The book is divided into three large parts: a discussion of the pope, the period, and the other protagonists of the story; the history, style, and interpretation of the monument; and a catalog of its imagery. The author's goal is to rediscover the intentions for the Tower of the Winds, as envisioned by its creators, their advisers, and the papal patron.

Gregory XIII is most famously remembered for his revision of the Julian calendar, resulting in the Gregorian calendar that is still in use. His other achievements include completing the first major decorative ensemble in the new St. Peter's (the Cappella Gregoriana), perfecting the decoration of the main audience halls of the papal palace (the present-day Sala Regia and Sala Ducale), and finishing the decoration of the Pauline Chapel where Michelangelo had painted his last frescoes. But it was the calendar, more than any other accomplishment, that established Gregory's attempt to master the synaptic relations among temporal and spiritual concerns, scientific and natural worlds. The calendar reform took place between 1577 and 1582. The problems with Julius Caesar's calendar were several--the year was too long by eleven minutes, and there was an obvious lack of correspondence between the lunar and solar cycles and the date of Easter, on which all other feast days were based. Even with leap days, the Julian calendar did not allow the celebration of Easter, as the Council of Nicaea (325 CE) specified, on the fourteenth day in the lunar month following the spring equinox. An important corrective of the new calendar was to offer all Christians a single day on which to celebrate Christ's resurrection, a goal intended to fortify Gregory's claim to unify the warring factions of Christian faiths.

If, in the end, this goal did not succeed, the effort to harmonize the spiritual, natural, and scientific worlds remained, and the Tower of the Winds embodies this spirit. Modeled on the idea of the ancient Tower of the Winds built in the Agora in Athens by Andronicus in about 40 BCE, Gregory's building incorporated a cleverly fashioned sixteenth-century anemometer and a meridian line etched on a floor of the tower and marked by a ray of the sun to track the hours of the day. Thus, Christian Rome was fashioned as superseding the Greeks in astronomical knowledge. Courtright makes a plausible case that the inventor of the anemometer and the Meridian Room, Egnazio Danti, who hailed from Perugia and then the pope's native Bologna, was responsible also for the tower's program.

The Tower of the Winds became one of several papal apartments within Bramante's Cortile that were staked out by various popes to provide seclusion within the larger matrix of the palace. Under Gregory XIII, building began with the addition of a fourth story along the western wing, which became the Gallery of Geographical Maps (Galleria delle Carte Geografiche). At the end of it and near the middle of the extensive wing rose the tower. Its commanding motif was the arcuated lintel, or fastigium (a Serlian or Palladian arch), on the tower's uppermost loggia. Courtright does an excellent job of tracing this motif in its ancient forms (Diocletian's palace at Spalato, the imperial box over a circus on an ivory diptych) and more modern incarnations (Bramante's window for the Sala Regia, Raphael's depiction of the Vatican Palace). And she convincingly links it to an "iconography of rule."

The principal space in the Tower of the...

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