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Landscape and identity in early modern Rome: Villa culture at frascati in the Borghese era. (Renaissance Rome and The Land).

By Tracy L. Ehrlich, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2002. [pounds sterling]70

It is a remarkable demonstration of the conservative nature of American academic life that scholars throughout that great republic should continue to trawl the archives of princes and cardinals, showing a devotion to aristocratic Europe worthy of Henry James. The study of the architecture and gardens of early modern Rome has previously been dominated by the moments of the city and the iconography of a few famous gardens. What is new about this book is that it rests on the assumption that religion and agriculture are the foundations of Rome's prosperity in this period, and that the history of Rome is a history of its countryside.

It centres on the little-studied rebuilding in 1616-20 of the Villa Mondragone at Frascati by Cardinal Scipione Borghese for his uncle, Pope Paul V. The architect, Jan van Zanten, helped transform it into a Vatican in the countryside, a vast if architecturally rather undistinguished barracks which proclaimed papal authority. The expansive rural landscape surrounding it was, by contrast, a statement of Borghese power independent of state authority. This ceremonial combination of architecture, landscape, and the rituals of villa life, forged a new identity for the Borghese family, marking their move from Siena to Rome and from ecclesiastical nobility to secular aristocracy.

The fascinating book is not the usual iconographical essay for there are no fresco cycles or narrative itineraries through the gardens to be studied. Instead, we are shown how the planting and uses of the land were charged with hierarchical social values dependent on antique and baronial models. Henry James, to be fair, had been there first, claiming perceptively of Mondragone in 1909 that it 'is as big as the Vatican which it strikingly resembles and it stands perched on a terrace as vast as the parvise of St Peter's.'
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Author:Watkin, David
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2003
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