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