The ic­ing on the cake

John Martin Robin­son ap­plauds a history of the lead­ing Ital­ian crafts­men whose plas­ter­work rev­o­lu­tionised the English in­te­rior

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

Ar­chi­tec­ture Mak­ing Mag­nif­i­cence Chris­tine Casey (Yale, £50)

Mag­nif­i­cence in­deed: this is one of the most sump­tu­ous books of ar­chi­tec­tural history in re­cent years. It tells the story of the Ital­ian crafts­men who worked as dec­o­ra­tive plas­ter work­ers (stuc­ca­tori) in north­ern europe in the first half of the 18th cen­tury. their names—ar­tari, Bagutti, Vas­salli, Cortese and lafran­chini—are well known to af­fi­ciona­dos of the Bri­tish coun­try house, but not their fam­ily ram­i­fi­ca­tions, where they came from and how they got here, nor their splen­did work on the Con­ti­nent.

the strength of this book is that it places the english ge­or­gian in­te­rior in the mid­dle of con­tem­po­rary eu­ro­pean cul­ture—no pro­vin­cial back­wa­ter, but a pro­gres­sive all’an­tica ver­sion of the main­stream. Mere­worth, Ditch­ley, houghton and Moor Park are dis­cussed in the same breath as Vi­enna, salzburg, turin, Florence and liège. how many who ad­mire the ar­taris’ work at Ra­gley, Clan­don or the Rad­cliffe Cam­era know the fam­ily’s con­tem­po­rary won­ders of late-baroque dec­o­ra­tion at schloss Brühl and Fulda Cathe­dral or in aachen?

Chris­tine Casey’s achieve­ment is to have vis­ited and re­searched the eu­ro­pean, as well as the Bri­tish, di­men­sion of her sub­ject. the as­so­ci­ate Pro­fes­sor of ar­chi­tec­tural history at trin­ity Col­lege, Dublin, she is not just a scholar, but also writes beau­ti­fully. ev­ery page sparkles with sen­tences that de­light as well as in­form and match the ‘sump­tu­ous plas­tic­ity and pow­er­ful per­for­ma­tive ef­fect’ of her sub­ject. the su­perb il­lus­tra­tions are com­pre­hen­sive and there are also in­for­ma­tive maps. this is a model of good pub­lish­ing as it used to be.

the syn­the­sis of Con­ti­nen­tal sources with english and Ir­ish doc­u­ments and sec­ondary lit­er­a­ture ex­pands what was pre­vi­ously known about the stuc­ca­tori. It ad­vances be­yond ge­of­frey Beard’s sem­i­nal Dec­o­ra­tive Plas­ter­work in Great Bri­tain (1975) as a pa­neu­ro­pean nar­ra­tive, treat­ing stucco as part of ar­chi­tec­ture, es­pe­cially suited to the for­mal and rhetor­i­cal mag­nif­i­cence of 18th-cen­tury in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tion.

Chap­ters are de­voted to the prac­ti­cal craft of plas­ter­work, the sources for dec­o­ra­tion and the ex­tent to which the stuc­ca­tori were, or were not, con­trolled by ar­chi­tects. Clients could be swayed by the charm and vir­tu­os­ity of Ital­ian crafts­man­ship, as seen in the sa­loon at Ditch­ley, which forms a flab­ber­gast­ing con­trast to the se­vere Ro­man con­trol of the hall de­signed by gibbs and Kent.

the piv­otal fig­ure in the mi­gra­tion of the stuc­ca­tori to ger­many and eng­land was the pro­lific Francesco an­to­nio Vas­salli, who spent 40 years in eng­land be­fore re­turn­ing to his na­tive Riva san Vi­tali to die. he was a prod­uct of long-es­tab­lished en­tre­pre­neur­ial com­mu­ni­ties of crafts­men with well-ed­u­cated boys who reg­u­larly trav­elled in search of their for­tune. Many went to Rome to work for the Fon­tanas and Carlo Maderno. gibbs’s en­thu­si­asm for Ital­ian stucco can be traced to his time in Rome study­ing un­der Maderno.

the more di­rect bridge to eng­land, how­ever, was the ar­tari fam­ily’s link to gi­a­como leoni, the ar­chi­tect who hailed orig­i­nally from Venice, worked in ger­many and then came to eng­land.

the tim­ing of this book is per­fect. Its front cover de­picts the hall at Clan­don in sur­rey, the house with ar­tari’s most im­por­tant english work that was re­cently de­stroyed by fire while in the own­er­ship of the na­tional trust. It is hoped that the cul­tural in­for­ma­tion mar­shalled herein will help to over­come some of the my­opic and aes­thet­i­cally il­lit­er­ate equiv­o­ca­tion em­a­nat­ing from the trust’s bu­reau­cracy and en­cour­age a schol­arly re­con­struc­tion of the ge­or­gian in­te­ri­ors as the ger­mans did at Brühl and würzburg af­ter the sec­ond world war.

Atari’s plas­ter­work in Gibbs’s great hall at Ra­gley, War­wick­shire

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