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Quirinale. House of Inspiration

Renata Cristina Mazzantini and Francesco Colalucci

The Quirinal Palace is a stratification of art, history, and ecclesiastical, royal and civil power. Where does this role of excellence, which it has maintained from ancient times to the present day, come from?

On the highest of Rome’s hills, like an ancient acropolis, both visible and invisible to those who approach it, the architectural complex of the Quirinal Palace exudes that sacredness attributed to heights, creating a sense of expectation and progressive conquest. The Quirinal’s role of excellence stems from the hilly massif on which it stands, the natural locus that has determined its development as a primary element in the city since the earliest anthropisation, with an important dispositional and propulsive value for its urban and political development. The sacredness of the hill dates back to Roman times, when the hill housed the temple of the god Quirinus, after whom it is named, and the believed temple of Serapis, to which the fabulous sculptural group of the Dioscuri is linked. Since then, the palace has established itself as the ideal place where earth and sky meet, where divine and mortal meet. The natural and salubrious character of the site, which led Gregory XIII Boncompagni to build the “beautiful palace” that became the papal residence, does not, however, exhaust the historical interpretation. As an “urban fact”, the vast architectural complex, which encloses 4 hectares of gardens, has a specific quality and identity that depends on the significance of the site. It is the point of contact between the form of the environment and the process of human perception. History contributes to reinforcing the degree of perceptibility. In this perspective, the permanence of the centre of power as the seat of the highest magistracy of the Papal State, then of the Kingdom and now of the Italian Republic, has consolidated the urban significance of the palace, through the rituals impressed in the collective memory and the architecture, which has shaped its image according to an aesthetic conception. Over the centuries, this tireless planning has made the Quirinal Palace an extraordinary landscape of stone and given it the role of excellence that it still maintains today. [RCM]

From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, architects and artists of the calibre of Carlo Maderno and Guido Reni, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Pietro da Cortona, Carlo Maratta and Pier Francesco Mola worked here. In the early nineteenth-century Neoclassical and Napoleonic periods, Felice Giani, Jean Dominique Ingres and Bertel Thorvaldsen. What is the relationship between enlightened patrons and artists of absolute genius?

“Institutions are the hose of inspiration,” observes Paolo Portoghesi. The architect “chooses and creates in order to translate man’s institutions into environments and spatial relationships. It is art if it responds to the desire and beauty of the institution.” The intention to represent the institution in aesthetic terms characterises the relationship between the artists and the more or less enlightened patrons who came to the Quirinal Palace from the 17th to the 19th century. The 30 pontiffs who lived here chose architects who were responsible for exemplary works: in addition to the above-mentioned protagonists of the Baroque and Neoclassical periods, we should also mention architects Ferdinando Fuga and Alessandro Specchi, and the contemporary painters Giovanni Paolo Pannini, Jan Frans van Bloemen and Pompeo Batoni. After Gregory XIII, the most active patrons in the development of the palace were: Sixtus V Peretti, who chose it as a papal residence; Paul V Borghese, who loved to “oppose a severe splendour to the Calvinist idea of splendour as a sin”; Urban VIII Barberini, who “surrounded the garden with high and strong walls”; Alexander VII Chigi, who “with expressions of tender affection” called Bernini “to great things”; and Benedict XIV Lambertini, “a natural genius as a builder”, whose Coffee-House became “a museum because of the scholars he gathered there”. Among them there was the virtual yet significant presence of Napoleon Bonaparte who, without ever inhabiting them, commissioned Raffaele Stern to coordinate the secularisation of the papal flats. Ironically, on the return of Pius VII Chiaramonti it was Stern himself who concealed the signs of the same imperial ambitions. From 1871, the monarchs endeavoured to indulge the frivolities of the court in a fashionable palace, creating exuberant ballrooms, sumptuous guest rooms and endless kitchens. The artists favoured by the House of Savoy, such as Antonio Cipolla, architect of the Scuderie Sabaude, Ignazio Perricci and Cesare Maccari, who frescoed important vaults after the capture of Rome, or Ernesto Ballarini and Alessandro Palombi, who painted other reception rooms in the early twentieth century, should not be forgotten. These are, therefore, individual relationships, forged between various personalities in different periods, united only by the idea of making the Quirinal Palace an immense work of art. [RCM]

For over four centuries, the Quirinal Palace has been a treasure trove of art and culture that has been renewed as history has evolved. Between preservation and promotion, how do the numerous collections housed in this place of enormous historical and political value deal with the 21st century?

One after the other, and often one on top of the other, the Quirinal’s rooms have grown in a process of continuous renovation involving the best talents of the last 400 years. This dynamic of architecture, whereby each generation adds contemporary works worthy of becoming ancient to the existing ones, had been suspended since the Second World War. In order to stimulate innovation and rekindle the relationship with art, President Sergio Mattarella has presented “Quirinale Contemporaneo”, a project in the making that launches a new phase in the history of the palace: going beyond the idea of a museum, it aims to give the seat of the Presidency of the Republic an image closer to that of the House of Italians. The project envisages the acquisition, free of charge, of contemporary works of art and design, created by the protagonists of the cultural scene of the Republican period. The 2019 and 2020 editions have selected 75 works of art, including works by De Chirico, Fontana, Burri, Manzoni, Afro, Vedova, Pomodoro, Ceroli, Pistoletto and Isgrò; as well as 66 objects signed by the masters of design made in Italy. The selection will continue in 2021, to involve all the rooms of the palace. With no ephemeral installations and with the respect that the history of the place requires, contemporary creativity has been harmoniously inserted into the palace, seeking to establish a narrative, conceptual and formal continuity with the context. The works of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have expanded the perceptual dimension of the Quirinal, revitalising it through an extremely Italian play on tradition. The contemporary integration of the heritage of the presidential endowment, freely accessible to all citizens, has become part of the place, enriching its meaning with new energy. In this way, the palace, mediator between past and present and ‘house of inspirations’ for the country continues, ‘to generate its own myths’, quoting Henri Focillon.

In 1870, with the annexation of Rome to the Kingdom of Italy, the Quirinal Palace became the residence of the royal family. During this period, furniture, paintings, and tapestries arrived from palaces all over Italy. What are the most significant works in the art collections that mark this crucial moment in the history of this prestigious residence?

After 1870, the palace had to be completely refurbished. The Savoy family could draw not only from their Piedmontese residences but also from the palaces of the pre-unification states. The result was not a collection as we traditionally understand it – the result of consistent commissions or purchases by a prince or a dynasty – but rather a varied collection that in fact represents a rich and articulated panorama of Italian artistic culture from the 16th century onwards.
Much of the choice of objects to be imported to the palace had a functional purpose and followed a line of taste – attributable to the princess, later queen, Margaret – that was decidedly rococo. Thus, the first thing that was brought to Rome was a great deal of French furniture and furnishings from the eighteenth century, many of which came from the palaces of the Duchy of Parma.
Naturally, the Savoy family also brought furniture to Rome from their Piedmontese residences. The most spectacular examples are the furniture by Pietro Piffetti: the bookcase, which came from the Villa della Regina in Turin, and a series of pieces of furniture that arrived in 1888 for the flat that was set up that year to accommodate Kaiser Wilhelm II. The importation of these works to Rome reveals an attempt at dynastic exaltation on the part of the sovereigns, who wanted works in Rome that would demonstrate the high artistic level achieved by the artists working for the Savoy court in the past.
In 1919, twelve extraordinary highchairs, carved by Andrea Brustolon in the early 18th century with the signs of the zodiac, arrived from Monza.
Not to be forgotten is the conspicuous collection of carriages, some of which are the work of the leading artists of the Savoy court in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
In terms of quantity and number, the Quirinal’s porcelain collection is one of the world’s largest. What manufactures does it contain and how has it been built up over time?
It was again the Savoy family who supplied the palace with the porcelain needed for the table services used both in daily life and, above all, for ceremonial activities. To house thousands of pieces of porcelain service needed for court life, some large rooms on the ground floor of the palace were converted to “Vasella” and are still furnished with the furniture made at the end of the 19th century to collect and display the porcelain.
The set of three eighteenth-century services by the Royal Manufactory of Sèvres is noteworthy. The extreme refinement of their forms and the paintings that embellish them reveal the sumptuousness of the tables of Louis XV’s court for which they were made. The nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century acquisitions should also not be overlooked, including the extraordinary dessert service known as “Umberto I’s”, in which a breath of modernity frees the fruit decorations from traditional layouts and arranges them freely on plates and cups.

Equally, the tapestry collection is unique in quality and variety, having come into being in very exceptional circumstances at the end of the 19th century. Would it be possible to have more details on the selection criteria?

There is no doubt that the Quirinal’s tapestry collection is one of the largest and most important in the world. Not only for the number of pieces – two hundred and sixty-one – but also and above all for the quality and variety of the manufactures represented. It is no coincidence that the presidential complex houses a tapestry restoration workshop, created in synergy with the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence. The tapestries are worked on alongside the other laboratories in the palace, where high-level technicians who still preserve the knowledge of great Italian craftsmanship are responsible for the maintenance of wooden artefacts and clocks.
The most important series of tapestries is undoubtedly the Medicean series woven in the 16th century and dedicated to the stories of Joseph, based on preparatory cartoons by Bronzino, Pontormo and Salviati. This group of tapestries is currently the subject of an important rotating exhibition in the Sala dei Duecento in Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, the result of an agreement with the Ministry of Culture and the City of Florence.

From the Duchy of Modena came six tapestries from the New Indies series, woven in the Gobelins workshop in the second half of the eighteenth century. Since the nineteenth century, they have sumptuously decorated the Zodiac Room, with its lively array of animals and exotic vegetation. Naturally, the criterion for the selection of tapestries, given their monumental size, was to furnish the great halls of the palace after 1870. The effect of these arrangements is undoubtedly spectacular thanks to the quality of the tapestries chosen, as in the case of two splendid series on mythological themes woven in Beauvais in the mid-18th century from cartoons by the great François Boucher.
Many rooms were embellished with tapestries dedicated to the Stories of Don Quixote, of which we have seven examples from the Gobelins manufactory and a large number of cloths from the later edition woven in Naples.