The gloriously extravagant Triumph of the Baroque exhibition, held in the stupendous Palazzina di Caccia di Stupinigi (a colossal 1730s baroque royal hunting lodge commissioned from Filippo Juvarra by Vittorio Amadeo II) is not simply the biggest exhibition of baroque architecture imaginable, but perhaps the most impressive architectural show of the past few years anywhere, and, more than this, it’s particularly timely. For not since the brief, exotic flowering of art nouveau has modern architecture taken such an extravagant turn. Just look at new designs by Frank Gehry (Guggenheim, Bilbao), Daniel Libeskind (the Jewish Museum, Berlin), Zaha Hadid (the up-coming Museum of Contemporary Art, Rome) and the work of Rem Koolhaas, Nigel Coates and Enric Miralles.
The critic Charles Jencks has gathered the work of such diverse talents into his recently published book, Ecstatic Architecture. Ecstatic maybe, but no more and no less so than say the astounding chapel of the Holy Shroud (closed for restoration for many years to come after the fire of 1994) at Turin cathedral designed by that baroque wizard Guarino Guarini. Guarini’s dome here is as stirring, as erotic even as Bernini’s double-take sculpture, The Ecstasy of St Teresa. For ecstatic then one could read baroque.
So, we have the reverse situation of England c1715 when what were perceived as the excesses and vulgarity of the baroque were pushed from centre stage by chaste, mathematical Palladianism: after nearly 20 years of cool, crisp new modernism (during which the certainties of the Bauhaus and masters such as Mies van der Rohe have been guiding forces), architecture is taking a baroque leap into the future. Just as the baroque celebrated this summer in Juvarra’s Turin hunting lodge represented a reinvention of architecture, so does the work of Libeskind, Hadid and Gehry today.
It is surely significant that the Triumph of the Baroque, scheduled for a world tour from next year, is not coming to Britain. It’s not just a question of space or sponsorship – this is a massive show but think how well it would sit in the restrained excess of Somerset House on the banks of the Thames or perhaps in some wonderful Edwardian baroque pile (there are plenty of them) in Manchester, Liverpool or Leeds. I can’t help thinking that the mistrust of the baroque is still with us. When Evelyn Waugh imagined Brideshead, a Catholic house, he conjured a baroque country seat (which became Castle Howard in the lavishly baroque television series) when baroque was something to be talked about furtively. It was simply too, too vulgar and, y’know, foreign. And it was written about by exquisite aesthetes – the Sitwells, Harold Acton and (worst of all) Traitor Blunt. Quite frankly you just couldn’t trust the baroque set.
In the Italian imagination, however, the story of English baroque plays precious little part. Despite the fact that English architects proved it was possible to domesticate this highly theatrical style and built at least one of the finest baroque set pieces of all (Wren’s Greenwich), the curators of the Turin spectacular have treated the English contribution as little more than a provincial aside. Perhaps that’s inevitable, for Italians are surrounded every day by outstanding (and over-the-top) baroque monuments and they can always be forgiven for believing that nothing else really comes up to scratch.
Actually, this is a little unfair, because the exhibition does do justice to such important non-Italian contributions as the churches of Bavaria, the fortifications of the French military engineer Sébastien Le Pestrede Vauban and Vasili Ivanovich Bazhenov’s operatic design for the New Kremlin. And, although organised by Palazzo Grassi (the cultural arm of Fiat, the Turin engineering giant which this year celebrates its centenary), the show has been curated under the direction of Henry A Millon, dean of the Center for Advanced Study in Visual Art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington (there’s a baroque title for you).
In any case, the exhibition is a wonder. It took me two-and-half hours to get to the end and it is cleverly arranged in the two crab-like arms of the lodge: the breathing space is the palazzina itself which is a stunning essay in late-flowering Italian baroque. Significantly, this baroque triumph has been restored by Fiat: the Agnellis, who own the giant company, are princes of late-industrial Turin, the true heirs, one can’t help feeling, of King Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoy. And, of course, Fiat owns Ferrari and born-again Maserati, two makes of sports cars that might best be described as baroque – voluptuous, extravagant, noisy, inventive and, to puritanical sensibilities, superfluous.
The joy of the exhibition itself, superb setting aside, lies in the architectural models. There are more than 80 of these backed up with paintings, drawings, prints and a jewel box of other relevant objects. They were made by carpenters for architects as work-in-progress tools, for presentation to popes, princes and other grandees, and even as gifts to clients. They are fascinating things, many of them like giant dolls’ houses. A child of seven would surely like large parts of this show. Some of the models are spectacular; others come as a complete surprise, such as a giant, mid-18th-century perspective model of St Peter’s and its piazza which was used to test the effect of illuminations (flaming brands, torches). These models are set under the high vaults of the curving wings of the palazzina, theatrically lit and matched to captions that you can actually read (a novelty at exhibitions today).
There are a few surprises from Britain, notably the beautifully realised model of Richmond palace (by William Kent for George II; it never happened) and an equally fine model of Hawksmoor’s proposed scheme for the new Fellows’ building at King’s College, Cambridge (the job went to Gibbs). There is one notable absence – the greatest baroque model of all, which is Wren’s Great Model of the St Paul’s cathedral he wanted to build (as opposed to the one he did build); the model is vast and for perfectly valid reasons, the dean and chapter were unable to let it take a break in Turin. Most striking of all, though, is one last long vista of models of baroque churches which takes visitors out past the blue, white and gold fairy tale model of Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli’s design for the Smol’ny monastery, St Petersburg, and into the heat of Turin.
What does one learn? That the baroque is an emotion as well as an architecture and a way of shaping the world of the Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation. That baroque is relevant once more. That architecture exhibitions can be quite capable of competing with other forms of popular entertainment. After all, that is precisely what architecture did in Ancient Rome and again in the Rome of the Counter-Reformation. If you can find a cheap ticket to Turin do go; and after the exhibition there is the city itself, a Pandora’s box of Italian baroque and overlooked by the majority of British holidaymakers. Frightfully unBritish it may be, but the Triumph of the Baroque, for all its extravagance, inconsistencies and pretensions, is just that: a triumph.