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

By McGinness, Frederick J. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 1998 | Go to article overview

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


McGinness, Frederick J., The Catholic Historical Review


Federico Borromeo and the Ambrosiana: Art Patronage and Reform tn Seventeenth-Century Milan. By Pamela M. Jones. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 1993. Pp. xiv, 386, 100 plates. $95.00).

Pamela Jones has written a splendid scholarly study of Federico Borromeo (1564-1631), cardinal-archbishop of Milan and younger cousin of Saint Carlo Borromeo, who during his archiepiscopate (1595-1631) established the Ambrosiana, an art museum, library, and art studio for aspiring artists of the diocese of Milan. Borromeo's institution was unique in bringing together under one roof artists and art work for reforming religious scholarship and the figurative arts in response to the decrees of the Council of Trent" (p. 2).

Jones's purpose is to analyze and interpret Federico's program for the arts so as to enhance our understanding of post-Tridentine attitudes toward the style, subject matter, and functions of sacred art in Italy circa 1590 to 1630" (p. 19). She focuses on Borromeo's activities and ideas in a way that embraces both his historical and his art-historical interests. Her investigations look at "the way art and religious thought come together in Borromeo's Ambrosiana"; or,"What did Borromeo want out of sacred art, that is, what was his conception of its efficacy?" (p. 2).

Jones's subject is a significant one, for Borromeo is the first prelate in Christian tradition to conceive of creating an entire institution-not just specific works of art-to "reform art" and make it serve a specific objective. Her method, too, allows us to follow Borromeo in implementing his vision. Jones's work falls into two parts: Part I deals comprehensively with Borromeo's life and background, writings, and the foundation of the Ambrosian Library, Academy, and Museum; the next three chapters offer an enlightening interpretation of this material focusing on the tripartite spiritual role-"devotional, didactic, and documentary (p. 11)-that art was to play. In Borromeo's spiritual conception, each aspect related closely to the others in its appeal to the full human personality.

Part II is a richly detailed catalogue with appendices to supplement Part I. Important here is the chronology of Borromeo's acquisitions for the Ambrosian Museum. Catalogue I lists the entirety of the pieces of art in the original Ambrosian Museum, and Catalogue II includes Borromeo's collection of portraits of famous persons.The work also includes two appendices that include the official codicils of 1607 and 1611 to Borromeo's will, listing the works of art donated to the Ambrosiana; Appendix III gives the 1618 donation.

Readers will appreciate Jones's approach,which goes beyond the traditional judgment that the artistic production of the post-Tridentine era is "essentially restrictive" and did little more than merely respond to ecclesiastical directives for clarity and simplicity. Jones recognizes that much more was in play: reformers, and their artists as well, pursued "richer, less monolithic, and more threedimensional (p. 7) goals than earlier generations of critics have acknowledged. She goes beyond the monolithic model of the Catholic reformer directing the artist's representation of each iconographic detail (much like the traditional view of biblical inspiration).

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