Last edited 23 Jan 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Making Magnificence: architects, stuccatori and the eighteenth-century interior

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Making Magnificence: architects, stuccatori and the eighteenth-century interior, Christine Casey, Yale University Press, 2017, 316 pages, 252 colour and black and white illustrations, hardback.

The greatest tragedy of the fire that devastated Clandon Park in Surrey was the partial destruction of the sumptuous plasterwork that formed the focus of the decoration in the Marble Hall. A superlative demonstration of the skill and imagination of Giovanni Battista Bagutti and Giuseppe Arturi, it epitomised the marked contrast between exuberant interior decoration and the restraint of neo-Palladian architecture in Georgian England.

The National Trust has committed itself to its complete restoration and the publication of this scholarly book cannot have been more timely in helping it to rise to that challenge. Although the importance of foreign stuccotori (ornamental plasterers) on Georgian taste has long been recognised, this is the first comprehensive account to place them within a pan-European tradition and to explore their training, their economic and social status, and the cultural and stylistic influences that shaped their skills. It is based on meticulous research in the primary and secondary sources, and an enviable command of the recent literature in German, French and Italian, as well as the pioneering study by Geoffrey Beard of Decorative Plasterwork in Great Britain first published in 1975.

The central theme is the lives and works of the members of the workshops that had the greatest impact on the plasterwork decoration of England and Ireland in the first half of the 18th century. In addition to Arturi and Bagutti, these included Francesco Vassalli, Giuseppe Cortese and the three Lanfranchini brothers. They all came from a stone-quarrying region around Lake Lugano in the foothills of the Alps, which was well-supplied with lime and gypsum, the essential ingredients of stucco.

The first chapter, looking at the broader production of stucco in Europe, makes the fundamental observation that it was attractive to patrons as a decorative medium because of its low cost in comparison to painted or sculpted decoration, and for the speed with which it could be executed. It examines the creative relationship between architects and skilled craftsmen, and explores the sources that inspired the detailed designs and how they developed across the continent.

A fascinating chapter then describes the powerful allegiance of the Luganese craftsmen to their homeland in Italians-peaking Switzerland, and presents a vivid picture of their education and training, and their close family and professional networks. Each spring the craftsmen would migrate to their workplaces in Italy or north of the Alps, leaving behind their womenfolk and a few uneducated peasants to maintain the agriculture that was the basis of the local economy. They would return in November at the end of the building season and marriages generally took place early in the new year, with birth rates rising dramatically in the autumn. The perilous nature of their annual journey through the St Gotthard pass is captured in an awesome painting by JMW Turner (which is so evocative that it is reproduced twice in the book).

The organisation of the workshops and the various skills that were involved are described in an important chapter which places them in an artistic hierarchy below sculptors, architects and painters but well above the native master craftsmen in the countries where they worked. Initially this was largely in the baroque churches and houses of Austria, Germany and the Netherlands, where their output is examined in great detail.

By the end of the first decade of the 18th century they had arrived in England and for the next 50 years they dominated stucco production in the British Isles. The impetus was provided by the country house building boom which began around 1714, and was stimulated by aristocrats returning from their Grand Tours in Europe and the patronage of architects such as James Gibbs, the expatriate Giacomo Leoni and Francis Smith. Their magnificent results can be enjoyed in the decoration of countless houses, public buildings and churches throughout England. It is critically evaluated by Casey, who pays due regard to the native craftsmen who worked in partnership with the foreign masters.

A separate chapter covers the extraordinary plasterwork of Ireland, both in the countryside and in Dublin, where the patronage of the Palladian architect Richard Castle was an important influence and the Lanfranchini brothers reigned supreme. The concluding chapter explores the reasons for the decline of the Luganese influence in the latter part of the century.

This is a magnificent book which fully justifies its title. It brings together all the various strands in a convincing narrative and is generously illustrated in both black and white and full colour. It is not an easy read, and in places the analysis of the minute details of each decorative element in an enormous number of examples across the continent and the British Isles interrupts the flow. Undoubtedly, Casey’s critical evaluation of such an impressive corpus of projects will be invaluable to the specialist art historian, but for the general reader it is the chapters that describe the lives and close connections of this distinct group of itinerant artists which are most illuminating. The scholarship and the enthusiasm of the author are ultimately highly rewarding.

When the glory of the plasterwork in the Marble Hall at Clandon finally emerges from the restoration, this book will provide the essential background for a full understanding of its significance and the skill that went into its creation.

This articles originally appeared as ‘The craft of the Luganese’ in IHBC’s Context 154, published in May 2018. It was written by Malcolm Airs, Kellogg College, Oxford.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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