- Power and Religion in Baroque Rome: Barberini Cultural Policies
Peter Rietbergen's book is a multilayered study that investigates the rise of the Barberini family to the pinnacle of power and authority in Baroque Rome. The leading figures in this story are Maffeo, subsequently elected Pope Urban VIII (r. 1623-44), whose twenty-one year reign was the longest pontifical reign of the seventeenth century, and his nephew, Cardinal Francesco, who shepherded the Barberini legacy for another thirty-five years until his own demise in 1679. Their story, in turn, is set against the backdrop of a post-Tridentine, and an emergent Baroque, Rome: a time, a place, and, above all, a culture that was distinguished by [End Page 1189] an aggressive campaign to reclaim the fundamental place of the Roman See in the life of Christian Europe. In this regard, Rietbergen's thesis derives its key features from his reading of two contemporary sources: Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti's well-known treatise on painting as a vehicle of religious instruction, published in Bologna in 1582, and a similarly oriented treatise composed in Rome in 1639 by Agostino Mascardi, Urban VIII's "own public orator and professor of rhetoric," that examined "the many ways that people's feeling could be moved" (17). Under the impulse of these ideas, Baroque Rome "was, perhaps, the first epitome of a European 'theatre state,' of a court society that used all forms of culture including, inevitably, the rules that governed individual behaviour, as instruments to establish and enhance power" (378).
In the chapters that make up the bulk of the text, Rietbergen has brought together ten case studies, or "cultural cameos," six of which represent articles and essays published in earlier versions between 1984 and 1992. The four other chapters are of a more recent, but uncertain, date. These latter comprise the prologue and chapters 2, 3, and 8, which seem to this reviewer to possess a greater coherency of argument, as the character, behavior, and activities of Pope Urban and Cardinal Francesco are more directly central to these chapters. The prologue presents an analysis of the Diario of the Roman chronicler Giacinto Gigli for the years of Urban's reign, in order to lay out the thematics of power that underlie Rietbergen's analysis. Indeed, all the chapters, whether old or new, now have subtitles that remind the reader of this culture's obsession with power and its manifestations in a wide variety of forms: poetry and painting, advice books on manners and behavior, diplomatic receptions and banquets, books, libraries, scholarship, and publishing, and magic and music.
The array of material to be found in this volume deserves scholarly attention. Readers will be fascinated by many of the dramatic episodes, such as Giacinto Centini's conspiracy in the 1630s against Urban (chapter 8), painstakingly reconstructed by Rietbergen from long-neglected sources in the archives and libraries of the Vatican and of Rome. Likewise, readers will be engaged by the less dramatic, but no less interesting, multicultural scholarly projects of Lucas Holste (chapter 6) and the Lebanese-born Ibrahim-al-Hakilani (chapter 7), carried out under the patronage of Cardinal Francesco and designed to restore Rome to cultural and spiritual primacy in the face of challenges from Protestant churches, national monarchies, the rise of science and secular learning, and Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean.
Unfortunately, frustration and confusion will also be a common experience for many readers. The chapters do not come together in the most logical fashion, and the "cross-references," introduced as an aid and meant to express Rietbergen's "own surprised discovery of the connections between the various topics and even between the various protagonists" (xiii), sound like so many redundancies, and are an unsatisfactory substitute for a clear narrative structure. This weakness is compounded by too-frequent digressions and ironic asides, and by a host of [End Page 1190] typographical and syntactical errors that will test the patience of even the most interested reader...