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Laura Moure Cecchini: Baroquemania. Italian visual culture and the construction of national identity, 1898-1945, Manchester: Manchester University Press 2021, XVII + 267 S., ISBN 9781526153173, GBP 80,00
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Rezension von:
Laura Ammann
Humboldt-Universit├Ąt zu Berlin
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Kerstin Schankweiler
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Laura Ammann: Rezension von: Laura Moure Cecchini: Baroquemania. Italian visual culture and the construction of national identity, 1898-1945, Manchester: Manchester University Press 2021, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 4 [15.04.2023], URL: http://www.sehepunkte.de
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Laura Moure Cecchini: Baroquemania

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In Baroquemania, Laura Moure Cecchini investigates how, between the fin-de-siècle and the end of the Second World War, "narratives and representations of the Baroque enabled Italians to address their ambivalent relationship with modernity and tradition, and construct a national identity" (3). Two epigraphs introduce the reader to significant aspects of this revival of the Baroque in modern culture. Henri Focillon's statement - "Each generation unearths the teachers it needs and invests them with urgent relevance" (1) - speaks of historical reception, more interested in imaginatively appropriating a past period than establishing its facts. Meanwhile, Jorge Luis Borges' definition of the Baroque as "that style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its possibilities" (1) emphasizes the style's versatility, allowing for it to be selectively interpreted in diverse ways in service of opposing ends.

Cecchini is not interested in defining the Seicento; instead, she explores how modern critics, artists, architects, and historians dealt with what they considered baroque references for their practice. To write this "cultural history of the reception of the Baroque" (5) the author relies on a variety of media, analyzing texts, exhibitions, photographs, paintings, architecture, sculptures, and novels, where the afterlives of the Baroque - as opposed to the classic models - were employed to develop a modern visual culture and a shared narrative of national identity in post-unification Italy. The modern episodes discussed in the book are indissociable from the assessments about the 17th century itself, so this confluence of two historical layers is essential to Cecchini's research topic.

A first reassessment of the Baroque did not exclude negative readings that deemed the style excessive, artificial, empty. Especially in connection to the Decadentism movement, Cecchini argues, the Baroque was first recuperated precisely due to the perception that the 17th century and the fin-de-siècle shared a condition of crisis. In chapter one, Cecchini blends academic assessments by Adolfo Venturi, Enrico Nencioni, and Stanislao Fraschetti with the first indicators that the Baroque was being popularized. In 1898, the year opening the book, the celebrations of Gianlorenzo Bernini's third birth centenary praised the artist as a unifying figure, a "quintessentially Italian master" (36), implicating the reevaluation of the Baroque in a context of growing patriotism.

The "Baroque's revenge", announced in the second chapter's title, is the success of the Neo-Baroque as the preferred architectural style in the 1911 international exhibitions both in Turin - where the Neo-Baroque conveyed a sense of modern transformation and novelty - and Rome - where it represented 'Romanity', emphasizing tradition and 'Italianess', and reinforcing Rome as the birthplace of the Baroque. No longer a symbol of crisis, the Baroque began to be modernized by association with the Neo-Baroque, since the latter was applied to such a modern undertaking. But the Baroque also became modern by opposition: it "was considered a quintessentially modern style because it defied the apparently eternal rules of classicism" (65). Modernist irreverence found an equivalent in the aesthetic nonconformity of Seicento art so that the Baroque "came to be framed as the starting point of a peculiarly Italian modernity, one that looked towards the future but still acclaimed and acknowledged the past" (57). A referential movement by definition, the Neo-Baroque legitimizes the Baroque - a premise taken at face value in this chapter. Yet the Baroque cannot be defined by its Neo-Baroque correlative, a selective recovery filtered by subjective interpretation. Precisely this translation process - including what is lost and what is changed (and why) - could have been better explored. That is why Cecchini's sporadic mentions of the Neo-Baroque in other countries, although they correctly point out to an international demand, are insufficient to consider local particularities: the Neo-Baroque is not an international movement recovering the Italian Baroque but an international tendency of each country recovering its own Baroque. In the end, what governs this relationship between the two historical periods?

This question is the core of the third and fourth chapters, where Cecchini examines the art criticism advanced in the 1920s by both academics and artists (such as Roberto Longhi, Lionello Venturi, Ardengo Soffici, Umberto Boccioni, among others) on the affinity between the Baroque and Italian Futurism. Discussing magazines, exhibitions, exchange of letters, and Neo-Baroque painting, Cecchini conveys a rich picture of the heated cultural disputes between conflicting approaches toward the Baroque, something Giorgio de Chirico condemned as a 'mania for the Seicento'. Still, the common factor is the attempt to historicize modern art, to historically bind Italian avant-garde to tradition. Not an import, then, "the Baroque was considered the starting point of Italian avant-garde" (91). In defiance of art historical debates in the German-speaking world, the Baroque was articulated in Italy as an ideal of "Latinity as opposed to Germanity" (111), promoting "the cultural primacy of Italy" (113). This dynamic reinforces a permeating argument of Cecchini's book: Italy understood itself as a peripheral country and was constantly fighting this condition after unification. Given Italy's central role in shaping Western culture, this can be a surprising viewpoint to a non-European audience. To articulate this peripherality in spite of the secured place Italy holds in the art historical canon testifies to the author's deeper understanding about the parameters guiding cultural and identity debates in the country.

Chapter five is dedicated to the tension between nostalgic historicism and future-oriented Modernism. By selecting three architects - usually not included in the canon of interwar Italian architecture, shaped by the despise of critics like the Brazilian-Italian Pier Maria Bardi towards historicist architecture - Cecchini shows how the Baroque repertory was formally articulated in modern Roman architecture. Committed to both modernity and tradition, Vincenzo Fasolo, Armando Brasini, and Giuseppe Capponi each proposed a unique solution to the ratio between baroque and modern precepts, betraying not only with diverse notions of the Baroque but different views of what Modernism was and should be.

Between the 1920s and the 1940s, Cecchini argues in the last chapter, there was a shift in the perception of how Seicento art dealt with the artistic problem of matter. The author defends that this change of direction is illustrated by the reception of Adolfo Wildt's and Lucio Fontana's work, which associated the modern artists with different conceptions of Baroque. Along with the discussion of their work, Cecchini explores how the formalist German school of Alois Riegl, Heinrich Wölfflin, and Georg Simmel resonates in the Italian theory of Benedetto Croce and Eugeni D'Ors, aiming, still, to integrate these debates in the political context of fascist Italy. Not being able to spatially afford a thorough discussion on fascist cultural politics, however, the involvement of the regime in Cecchini's research subject remains in the background. The astonishing amount of objects investigated by Cecchini, aside from revealing the author's ability in carrying out such an extensive research with bold scope, can be challenging for a non-initiated audience. An inevitable choice given such a dense topic, the emphasis lies on the overall thesis, always properly demonstrated, rather than on the individual episodes.

Cecchini is aware that the reimagination of the Baroque in modernity was an international tendency. In fact, the very acknowledgment of this internationality brings the book to an end: by the 1940s, "a conversation around the Italianness of the Baroque became obsolete once [...] Italian artists and intellectuals became aware that their debate [...] was actually part of an international trend that engaged Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, and German-speaking intellectuals in this exact same period" (241). Aside from a substantial contribution to the study of Italian modern art, the striking similarities of the aesthetic, social, and political elements involved in the historicization of Modernism through the Baroque in Italy with other contexts, such as Brazil, for instance, makes Cecchini's book a great asset for comprehending the larger phenomenon that approximates the Baroque to modernity.

Laura Ammann