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Federico Borromeo and the Ambrosiana: Art Patronage and Reform in Seventeenth-Century Milan.

He had an "original" and "absolutely one of a kind" vision of art (153), according to Jones in her description of Federico Borromeo (1564-1631) and his Ambrosiana (founded 1609) in Milan. On the one hand, the study functions as a biography of Cardinal Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan; on the other, it operates as a history of the institution of the Ambrosiana. In both capacities the book serves as a case study of the period from 1590 to 1630. Jones identifies this as a period of post-Tridentine reform, although to some readers it may seem a bit late for such a characterization; after all, the Council of Trent closed in 1564 (the very year of Borromeo's birth), and much of the reform literature concerning art, such as the publications authored by Gilio da Fabriano and Gabriele Paleotti, appeared well before 1600. This instance of problematic synchrony is only one of a number that lie at the heart of Professor Jones's study. She argues convincingly that the establishment of the Ambrosiana - in its three-part mission as library, art academy, and museum - was a critical aspect of Borromeo's pastoral program for the Diocese of Milan, the motive of which was to provoke reform of contemporary religions painting in Milan in the post-Tridentine mode. But the Ambrosian Accademia del Disegno was only opened in 1620 and was all but defunct by the beginning of 1623. In short, this reformer would seem a man out of step with his time (or at the very least with the artists of his time), and while Jones advocates acknowledgment of Federico Borromeo's contributions to the reform movement and to the history of sacred art in the first half of the seventeenth century, she never addresses the perplexing historical problem of synchrony.

The contributions of Jones's work, of which there are many, lie in more tangible areas: the provision of a succinct biography of Borromeo, a review of his writings critical to his thinking about art, and a tireless study of his conception of what Jones calls throughout the "efficacy of sacred art." She draws on archival materials, analysis of original texts, statistical profiles of the collection, and research into the intellectual and spiritual context of Borromeo's worlds, first in Rome and later in Milan. In addition, she provides two catalogues of works of art collected and installed in the Ambrosiana by Borromeo, and in the appendices she publishes for the first time two codicils to Borromeo's will (from 1607 and 1611) concerning his donations of works of art to his pet institution and reprints the official act of donation of the Ambrosian Collection (1618).

The body of the book addresses issues of the operation and efficacy of works of sacred art as understood by Borromeo, who believed in their devotional role, didactic role, and documentary role. Each role is the theme of a lengthy chapter. Jones's analysis is both broad and detailed, offering fascinating excursus into important and previously neglected topics. For example, in the discussion of the devotional role of art Jones explores the relationship of Borromeo's thinking, as revealed principally in his De pictura sacra (1624) and Musaeum Bibliothecae Ambrosianae (1625), to that of Ignatius of Loyola in Spiritual Exercises (composed 1528-48). She also discusses Borromeo's appreciation of landscape and still-life paintings as religious works of art and his generative role, in concert with the Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder, in the establishment of the new, hybrid genre representing the Madonna and Child in a garland of flowers. The breadth of Borromeo's definition of religious imagery is also perceived as evidence of his own participation in the movement of Christian optimism, and based on this, Jones argues for a reassessment of the entire period, too often characterized (by scholars whose work depends on Delameau's) as pervasively pessimistic. As this summary of just one chapter reveals, Jones's discussion is broad-ranging and expansive within the context of her focus on Borromeo and his reform mission.

In exploring Borromeo's understanding of the didactic role of art, Jones probes a number of issues salient to early Baroque painting in Italy in general. She tackles the messy problem of relationships of style and subject matter not as a matter of decorum, but as an explanation for the attraction to naturalism; she explores the Ambrosian series of portraits of famous persons that was probably installed in the library and hence was directed as much to scholars as to artists in training; and she compares Borromeo as a collector and his collection to other prominent collectors and their collections, notably to those of Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani and Francesco Cardinal del Monte, both located in Rome. This last exercise does not concern the issue of taste in art as much as the issue of the function - not of the art collected, but of the collection as a whole. In the examination of the documentary role of art, Jones investigates Borromeo's long- standing commitment to the paleochristian movement to reclaim sacred history, and she argues that Borromeo was exceptional for his forward thinking; she feels his ideas anticipate the intellectual programs established in Rome by two later and better-studied principals, Cassiano dal Pozzo and Nicolas Poussin.

In the end Jones advocates a more aggressive study of the artists and works of art that were produced in Milan in the seventeenth century, which she anticipates will reveal the impact of Federico Borromeo's pastoral program as manifest in his establishment of the Ambrosiana. The appearance of this book is timely in a number of ways. The Ambrosiana has recently reopened; the publication of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century volumes of La pittura in Italia (Milan, 1988 and 1989) offers art historians a glimpse of examples of Lombard and Milanese painting previously beyond our range; and a new edition of Borromeo's De pictura sacra (ed. B. Agosti, Pisa, 1994) has just appeared. Even if the wait for additional studies documenting the history and development of Lombard and Milanese art is long, and further proof of Jones's broader hypothesis on Borromeo's influence delayed, the contributions of her work are ready now and available to scholars of all levels.

DOROTHY METZGER HABEL University of Tennessee, Knoxville
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Author:Habel, Dorothy Metzger
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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