Book Reviews -- Federico Borromeo and the Ambrosiana: Art Patronage and Reform in 17th-Century Milan by Pamela M. Jones / "Il Gran Cardinale": Alessandro Farnese, Patron of the Arts by Clare Robertson

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Federico Borromeo and the Ambrosiana: Art Patronage and Reform in 17th-Century Milan Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 386 pp.; 100 b/w. ills. $95.00


"Il Gran Cardinale": Alessandro Farnese, Patron of the Arts New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. 323 pp.; 13 color ills., 199 b/w. $45.00

Scions of princely families, beneficiaries of pontifical patronage, members of the sacred college, and kinsmen, Archbishops Alessandro Farnese and Federico Borromeo engaged in mecenatismo on a grand scale, using patronage to signify their support for the project of reform codified in the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent. Though separated by a generation, both men shared Tridentine assumptions about the nature and scope of institutional reform. Grandson of Paul III, the convener of the reform council, Alessandro entered the cardinalate soon after his grandfather became pontiff in 1534, securing shortly thereafter the position of vice-chancellor of the Roman Church, as well as a succession of episcopal offices, such as the archbishoprics of Avignon and Monreale and thirteen additional bishoprics, during his ecclesiastical career. Having served to negotiate the preliminaries to the council, Alessandro seems to have undergone an experience of religious conversion soon after its close, receiving holy orders and being consecrated as a bishop in 1564; his newfound devotion to the spiritual life, a timely response to the conciliar decrees that posited a reformed episcopate as the source of universal reform within the hierarchical church, elicited comment, for he seemed "as changed as is day from night." Cousin and ward of Carlo Borromeo, the cardinal-nephew of the Medici Pope Pius IV, Federico obtained the rank of cardinal in 1587 and eventually followed Carlo as archbishop of Milan in 1595, instituting an ambitiously comprehensive program of diocesan reform that continued, indeed expanded upon his predecessor's pastoral efforts as recorded in the Acta Ecclesiae Mediolanensis. Having received Alessandro's help in his efforts to secure a cardinalship, Federico, famed from his youth for his spiritual zeal, first assumed a prestigious post in the Roman Curia as a member of the Congregation of Rites and Ceremonies, charged with implementing scholarly reforms, such as revision of the Vulgate and publication of the acts of the ecumenical councils. After accepting the office of archbishop, he returned to Milan, where he applied the Tridentine model of institutional reform, enforcing canonical discipline and embracing Carlo's views of the episcopate as the supreme arbiter of moral and religious life.

Focusing on Alessandro and Federico as patrons of the arts, the important and complementary books by Pamela Jones and Clare Robertson allow us to discern how the reform protocols of Trent resonated in the ecclesiastical careers of these churchmen, motivating exemplary acts of religious patronage. Whereas Alessandro, who had started to collect and commission both sacred and secular art in the early 1540s, transformed his public patronage in response to the Tridentine canons and decrees, Federico, who began collecting in the 1590s, concentrated from the start almost exclusively on acquiring sacred art. Yet his notion of what constituted sacred art, as Jones has discovered, encompassed genres such as landscape and still life, as well as orthodox religious narratives and devotional subjects. Since Borromeo's earliest acquisitions, landscapes by the Flemish masters Paulus Bril and Jan Brueghel the Elder, served both to incite and thematize meditative prayer and also to exemplify the scope of God's powers as artificer, they were seen to be modes of religious imagery. This surprising point, which suggests that even secular art becomes sacred when it accommodates a religious purpose, is one of many insights furnished by Jones's fruitful research in the Ambrosiana. While Robertson's work in the Farnese archives in Naples and Parma has yielded an exhaustive survey of the kinds of art Alessandro collected in his efforts to stage himself respectively as papal relative, influential statesman, and pious prelate, Jones allows us to see how Borromeo sought to reform art in order to make it instrumental in the reform of religious life. …