The Galli Bibiena family in Parma

Architettura dipinta : Le decorazioni parmensi dei Galli Bibiena. Collecchio (Parma), Centro Culturale Villa Soragna and Villa Santucci Fontanelli, from 13 October to 2 December 2007.

1. Villa Santucci
Main Gallery
Decoration by
Francesco Galli Bibiena (and collaborators)
and Ferdinando Galli Bibiena
Frescoes, c. 1687

The Galli Bibiena family are probably the best known Italian stage designers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their inventions of fantastical and grand architectural settings graced the stages of Parma, Bologna, Milan, Vienna and other cities. Only Filippo Juvarra, if anyone, might be said to match their fame and their range of activities. But whereas for Juvarra his stage designs were matched by the theatricality and scenographic quality of his real architecture, the Bibiena (though they too saw themselves as architects) rather extended their work to the painting of architectural illusions on the walls and vaults of palaces and churches. Both this quadratura painting and their inventions for the stage were “painted architecture”, as the exhibition title implies. The last decade or so has seen a notable increase in scholarship on the whole range of the work of the various generations of the Bibiena family, and the small exhibition in Collecchio is the latest addition to this development.

The main problem for any curator trying to organise an exhibition on the Bibiena’s work is of course that their oeuvre lends itself with difficulty for a traditional exhibition : their stage works are lost and can be only partly recaptured in the prints that were produced of them, whereas their frescoed decorations can only be seen in situ. The actual focus of the event, then, is not the exhibition in Villa Soragna (the town’s cultural centre), but the ground floor of Villa Santucci Fontanelli (or Villa Prati, as it was known at the time), which was partly decorated by Francesco Galli Bibiena and collaborators in 1687-88 and continued by Ferdinando Galli Bibiena between 1700 and 1703. The villa is privately owned and inhabited, so the opportunity to see these decorations, which on the whole are exceptionally well preserved, is an occasion for which one can only be grateful. A guide leads visitors around the main gallery (ill. 1) and four further rooms on the ground floor of the villa.

2. After Ferdinando Bibiena (1657-1743)

The subsidiary exhibition at Villa Soragna tries to overcome the problem with a selection of letters and other documents regarding the Bibiena, prints (ill. 2) and drawings, and photographic reproductions of frescoes. Unfortunately, the latter was also true for drawings from Rome and Munich and a painting from a Bolognese public collection which for whatever reason could apparently not be lent, because they were present only as photographs. On the other hand, there were also some previously unknown pieces, such as the rediscovered small manuscript Regole per l’estrazione delle radici e principi di geometria pratica of the 15-year old Francesco Galli Bibiena (cat. 3) and a previously unknown drawing by the same artist found at the Archivio di Stato of Parma (ill. 3 ; cat. 35). Also, Giuseppe Cirillo recognised a drawing ascribed to Pietro Ferrari (cat. 52), as being in reality a study for a group of figures in an architectural fantasy by Ilario Spolverini (cat. 53 which is the painting from Bologna mentioned above).

3. Ferdinando Bibiena (1657-1743)
Stage of Theatre With Palace Courtyard, 1696
Pen and wash - 19,8 x 21,7 cm
Parma, Archivio di Stato
Photo : Mauro Davoli

Interesting as these may be however, for such a small exhibition, the theme of “the Galli Bibiena’s work in the province of Parma” was too wide. Though Cirillo’s essay in the exhibition catalogue provides a welcome summary and update of the work they executed in this area, none of them was being investigated more than cursorily in the exhibition itself. It might have been better to really focus on Villa Santucci Fontanelli. For example, a more in-depth exploration of the intriguing iconographic programme of the two consecutive decoration projects at the Villa would have been welcome. The room “of Francesco Farnese” (i.e. in which the duke of Parma had spent the night) (cat. 42) with two scenes from the life of Diogenes, an unidentified scene of a woman dressing for battle, and the emblem of a fire with the motto Nec prope nec procul on the chimney calls for an explanation. The same is true of some of the other rooms, for example the fact that, as the catalogue does point out, the scene of Christ in the Garden of Olives (cat. 41) in one of the other rooms was copied from an painting by Veronese. On the whole, however, this is a sympathetic exhibition. In the catalogue, all items in the exhibition, including the frescoes and the manuscript documents, are reproduced in full colour, and at the modest price of 20 euro, it is well worth the money.

Giuseppe Cirillo, Architettura dipinta : Le decorazioni parmensi dei Galli Bibiena, Parma, Grafiche Step Editrice, € 20 (paperback), ISBN : 88 7898 022 6.

Visitor information : Collecchio, Villa Santucci-Fontanelli, via Interna Privata Paveri, 1 - Villa Soragna, Parco Nevicat,via Valli,3.

Huub van der Linden, samedi 17 novembre 2007

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