The cake’s icing?
William Laffan welcomes new research into the stuccodores of mid-18th-century Ireland
William Laffan, Sunday, 1st July 2012
Decorative Plasterwork in Ireland and Europe: Ornament and the Early Modern Interior Christine
Casey and Conor Lucey (eds.)
Four Courts Press,
ISBN 9781846823213 For about two decades from the late 1730s, Ireland, thanks to its stuccoed interiors, held an unaccustomed position at the centre of European artistic debate. Many of the most significant stuccodores working in Ireland were migrant craftsmen from Italy – or more accurately, from the Italian-speaking cantons of modern-day Switzerland; most notable among them were the brothers Paolo and Filippo Lafranchini. Also active in mid-18th-century Dublin, and producing designs described as the ‘very epitome of the rococo style’, was the Walloon Bartholomew Cramillion. While much current scholarship on Irish material culture locates it firmly within the context of the British North Atlantic, here, in this fine volume of essays, it is the Continental connections that are explored, with great nuance and understanding.
Given that stuccodores were among the most mobile of craftsmen – the Ticinese Lafranchini brothers, for example, had worked in England and Germany before arriving in Ireland – and the fact that the literature on plasterwork is to a large extent regionally based (and often comparatively inaccessible), it is a great strength of the volume that its contributors are distinguished scholars from several countries. Although there is a distinct focus on Ireland, also included are surveys of the stucco of Bohemia and Moravia, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands which invite us to explore a ‘shared design history…that links Como with Dublin, Munich with Amsterdam.’
Such geographical spread is complem-ented by the different methodological approaches the authors bring to bear: icono- graphic and stylistic analysis is balanced by discussions of the economics of the building trade and technical insights drawn from the recent conservation of several important schemes. An introduction by co-editor Conor Lucey sets the 12 subsequent essays within the existing historiography of the subject and lays out some of their recurring themes, from the social function of ornament to the role of the pleasure principle within the decorative arts. Wider issues are also addressed: the social construction of architectural space and how interior decoration could serve at once as a signifier of cultural identity and the embodiment of social capital. Stucco is portrayed as a medium through which ‘interior spaces were activated and identities were constructed’.
In several of the papers confectionery crops up as a leitmotif, both literally and metaphorically. When demand for their work slowed, Italian stuccodores in early 19th-century Copenhagen opened a pastry shop; a relative of Cramillion designed a gingerbread mould carved with an image of St Nicholas of Myra. This sugary connection prompts Alistair Laing to ponder, mischie-vously, whether stucco is ‘just the icing on the cake’. Answering firmly in the negative, he highlights the relationship between ornament and tectonic structure, one of the key themes of the book. The relegation of stuccowork to the status of craft and the modernist distaste for architectural decoration per se has led to an artificial and unnecessary distinction in much of the literature between architectural space and its decoration, an unfortunate fissure which this volume does much to redress. Laing shows how in Bavarian rococo churches plasterwork functions to ‘harmonise the pictorial with the structural’ and argues that this can have spiritual as much as architectural significance, with the stucco ‘forming the irrational boundary between the actual terrestrial world and the depicted celestial one’.
A slightly different emphasis is offered by Martin Krummholz, writing on Central Europe. He notes how there too, high baroque architecture and plasterwork come together to create unified, harmonious spaces. However, it is a combination that can conjure up ‘illusive disquiet’ rather than spiritual rapture. Context is, of course, crucial – for example, style and iconography derived from the Counter-Reformation sit most uneasily within the resolutely Protestant chapel, dec- orated by Cramillion, of the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin (Fig. 2). Wijnand Freling notes a similar desire to integrate architectural form and applied decoration in the plasterwork of Dutch 18th-century townhouses, even though these avowedly secular designs could not be more different from the soaring ecclesiastical baroque of Bavaria. An architect himself, Freling wonders if the lack of a ‘controlling hand in the form of an architect or designer’ may explain what he perceives as the unsuccessful integration of form and ornament in some of the Lanfrancinis’ Irish schemes. Other contributors, however, put greater emphasis on the agency of stuccodores as capable designers in their own right.
A quibble, but perhaps an important one: while a fresh approach to the study of the iconography of Irish stuccowork – one more sophisticated than the mechanical identifi-cation of engraved sources which has been hitherto prevalent – is certainly overdue, the specific circumstances of Ireland must always be acknowledged. Whatever the legitimacy of associating particular iconographic motifs, or styles of architecture and ornament, with political factions in a ‘British’ context, it is generally unhelpful in discussions of 18th-century Ireland where the fault lines of political allegiance were notoriously fluid and self-interested. In what is otherwise one of the most entertaining and erudite contributions to the volume, Andrea Spiriti invokes Dean Swift and Bishop Berkeley to help explain the iconographic context of the Lafranchinis’ decoration of Riverstown House, County Cork, with figures drawn from early Roman history. Spiriti views this as ‘Tory propaganda’, but I’m not so sure – party divisions in Ireland did not mirror the English Whig and Tory duality and it is certainly problematic to suggest that the ‘Irish stucco decoration cycles by the artists of the Lakes’ can be read as the ‘coherent expression’ of a political faction. Notable clients of the Lafranchinis, such as the Conollys of Castletown, could not con- ceivably be included in any Tory power block.
Similarly, Arthur Jones-Nevill, Surveyor General of Ireland from 1743–52, is charac-terised as a ‘typical victim of the Whig pol- itical crisis being close to the Tory aristocracy’, and the decorative scheme he commissioned for Tracton House, 40 St Stephen’s Green, is tentatively re-attributed to ‘an artist of the Lakes’ rather than the (admittedly putative) ‘St Peter’s stuccodore’. If this attribution is correct, it again undermines the idea of the Lafranchinis coherently expressing in plaster a defined political ideology, since the son of their most important Irish client, the Earl of Kildare, was a bitter political enemy of Jones- Nevill who militated for his removal from office; the political life and decorative arts of 18th-century Ireland are not, in general, amenable to broad generalisations.
Other authors bring a tighter focus to bear, with arguably greater success. A pair of sparkling essays by Christine Casey explore, first, the ‘earning power of Ticinese stuccatori’ – recounting a somewhat sorry tale of deceit and greed among émigré Italians in London – and, second, the previously unrecognised role of Carlo Maria Pozzi in the decoration of Court Chapel at Würzburg. A delightful contribution by Alistair Rowan tells how he was presented with a magnificent collection of designs for quadratura and plasterwork associated with the Bernasconi family. James Coghill then proceeds to offer a thoughtful analysis of these drawings, linking many of them to the Bolognese barocchetto tradition.
Handsomely designed and illustrated, this book is edited with an elegant deftness of touch. Rarely does scholarship across borders and disciplines work quite so well, with essays bouncing off each other to illuminate more than their specific field. To take but one example: the unlikely similarities that the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (‘whose realm, his religion’) produced in Catholic-dominated Bohemia and Protestant-ruled Ireland, as new aristocracies defined themselves through building and stuccowork, are excitingly hinted at, if never made explicit. Most appropriately, the volume is dedicated to that champion of the Irish decorative arts, and great internationalist, Desmond Fitz-Gerald, Knight of Glin who died last year.
William Laffan is an art historian.
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