July 24, 2006

The Golden House Revisited

After writing here recently about grotesque art, and its origins in the late-15th-century excavations of Nero’s Domus Aurea, I ordered a book reproducing some eighteeenth-century representations of the Golden House’s decorative frescoes: the following images are details of scans from its pages. I learned a little more about the origins and the development of the grotesque from the book’s two essays, by Gianni Guadalupi and Marie-Noëlle Pinot Villechenon.

Detail from the first, introductory plate to Brenna, Smuglewicz & Carloni's album, showing some 18th-Century gents admiring a 'grotto.'

The artist responsible for supervising the Domus Aurea’s decoration has variously been named as Fabullus, Famulus or Amulius. His work apparently exemplifies what has become known as the ‘fourth Pompeian style’ of Roman art, which, as far as I can make out, combined illusionistic and figurative elements in ‘theatrical’ settings, and incorporated an abundance of ornament. The Domus Aurea paintings are said to exhibit a ‘more mannerist use of bright colours’ than was the norm for this style.

Detail from the fifth plate in Brenna, Smuglewicz & Carloni's album, showing part of the ceiling of room 29 in the Domus Aurea complex.


Detail from the fifty-sixth plate in Brenna, Smuglewicz & Carloni's album, showing part of the ceiling of room 24 in the Domus Aurea complex.

Guadalupi writes that the first artist to employ the grotesque style after the re-discovery of the Domus Aurea was probably Filippino Lippi, in some of the decorative work in the Frescoes he painted between 1489-93 at the Carafa Chapel of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. In describing the diffusion of the grotesque style via Raphael’s circle, the Fontainebleau school, etc., Pinot Villechenon adds that the style was introduced to the Spanish court by the Portuguese-born artist Francisco d’Ollanda (or, Francisco de Holanda), who had drawn meticulous copies of the Domus Aurea frescoes during a sojourn in Rome ca. 1538.

Detail from the eighth plate in Brenna, Smuglewicz & Carloni's album, showing part of the ceiling of room 25 in the Domus Aurea complex.


Detail from the nineteenth plate in Brenna, Smuglewicz & Carloni's album, showing part of the ceiling of room 11 in the Domus Aurea complex.

The rooms of Nero’s buried palace were gradually stripped of their treasures during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it wasn’t until 1683 that a systematic excavation of the site was undertaken. One of the fruits of this archæological project was the publication, in 1706, by Pietro Sante Bartoli and Giovanni Pietro Bellori, of the first book illustrating in detail what had been found there: Le pitture antiche delle grotte di Roma… Throughout the eighteenth century, further volumes of prints thrilled successive generations of enthusiasts with illustrations of the treasures found in the continuing excavations in Rome, and at Pomepii and Herculaneum.

Detail from the fifty-fourth plate in Brenna, Smuglewicz & Carloni's album, showing part of the ceiling of room 23 in the Domus Aurea complex.


Detail from the fourteenth plate in Brenna, Smuglewicz & Carloni's album, showing the intrados and alcove of room 25 in the Domus Aurea complex.

Around 1774, a Roman patron of the arts named Ludovico Mirri began a project to illustrate the interior decor of what were then mistakenly assumed to be the ruins of the Baths of Titus, but which, in fact, formed part of the Domus Aurea complex. He employed three artists: Vincezo Brenna, an architect and draughtsman from Vicenza; the Polish-born painter Francesco Smuglewicz; and Marco Carloni, a Roman engraver and printer. An antiquary named Giuseppe Carletti provided a commentary. In addition to the standard album of large prints, Mirri published a small number (no more than thirty copies in all) of the same plates hand-tinted in watercolour, with gouache highlights.

Detail from a supplementary plate included with Brenna, Smuglewicz & Carloni's album, showing the so-called 'Aldobrandini Wedding,' a fresco excavated in Rome in 1606 (not from the Domus Aurea).

The present images belong to a unique series of the same prints now at the Louvre, which were coloured entirely in bright gouache. It is not known if they were a one-off commissioned from Mirri, or if they are a similarly singular set from a later edition of Vestigia delle Terme di Tito e Loro Interne Pitture, issued by Carletti. The strong colouration is, apparently, more a reflection of neoclassical tastes than it is an accurate representation of the original frescoes. Also, in some instances, Brenna and Smuglewicz are supposed to have invented some details in order to fill lacunæ in their originals…

Posted by misteraitch at July 24, 2006 01:52 PM

Interesting continuation of your former "excavations"...

The first image puts us in the position of staring at the eighteenth-century men in the same manner that they are staring at the fresco--a curious sense of three times and worlds nested inside one another that I like.

Posted by: marlyat2 on July 25, 2006 03:34 PM

Watch your back, Marly, there is a twenty-third century observer reading over your shoulder!

Posted by: Michelangelo on July 27, 2006 11:00 PM

Ah, well, no doubt these are nesting boxes that go on forever... (Or at least until "God burn nature with a kiss," as Yeats says.) As, I suppose, there will always be yet another interesting Michelangelo!

Posted by: marlyat2 on July 28, 2006 05:58 AM

Wonderful resource!!!! I've added this site on my blog because it is one of my favorites. Thank you!

Posted by: Patricia Buzo on September 27, 2007 11:11 PM
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