Life and Arts in the Baroque Palaces of Rome

The palazzi of Rome is a huge subject and the study of it is still in its infancy, but this book, which includes the catalogue of the exhibition held this year in New York at the Bard Graduate Center, concentrates on small-scale transportable decorative arts. All 97 objects from the show are illustrated and much can be learned from their variety: carriages, armour, dress, musical instruments and devotional objects, gilded and carved furniture and pietre dure, everything from schemes for great rooms to designs for folded napkins.

In the Baroque age, Rome was a city of publicdisplay. Its citizens and dignitaries used visual means to represent their roles in the public sphere. As the catalogue essays describe, the palazzi had an important part to play in the public spaces of a city which was then still dramatically scenic and only partly built-up.

All that is left today are the fountains and the piazze, but the lavish processions and firework displays that marked the presence of heads of state and their representatives were carefully recorded. Forthe English, a door into this complex world was opened in 1686-87 with the embassy of the Earl of Castlemaine on behalf of James II.

His processional carriages were decorated with tritons symbolising England’s rule of the seas, and the banquet he gave for 86 cardinals and prelates at Palazzo Pamphilj in Piazza Navona was engraved by Arnold van Westerhout and published in 1688. The table was set up two days in advance to allow visitors to admire the settings and the sugar trionfi, which were then sent as presents to Rome’s greatest ladies.

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