Spectacle as Drama

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It was through reading more than thirty years ago Sacheverell Sitwell’s perpetually engaging book Southern Baroque Art (first published in 1924) that I first discovered the work of the Bibienas. From the mid-17th century onwards, four generations of this Tuscan family worked throughout Europe as artists and architects, but above all as theatre designers. In some instances they were responsible for the design of buildings in which theatrical and musical performances were held. (The best-known being in Mantua, and now called the Teatro Bibiena: by Antonio Bibiena it dates from the 1760s.) But they are now better remembered for their work on the stage side of the proscenium arch.
The family’s origins in this field lay with Giovanni Maria Galli da Bibiena, born outside Florence in 1625. A painter who studied with, and then worked as assistant to, Francesco Albani, he was based in Bologna at the time of his early death aged forty. His daughter Maria Oriana who remained in that city also became a painter, specializing in portraits and history pictures. Meanwhile her two brothers led more peripatetic lives, with Francesco designing theatres as far afield as Verona and Vienna. The latter city proved particularly important for the Bibienas since it was here that Maria and Francesco’s sibling Ferdinando and then his son Giuseppe became the most celebrated stage designers of the age.

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Born in Bologna in 1656, Ferdinando Galli Bibiena spent some thirty years based in Piacenza working for the Duke of Parma. But in 1708 he travelled to Barcelona to organise the wedding festivities of the Habsburg Archduke Charles. When the latter became Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor in 1711 Fredinando Galli Bibiena moved to Vienna where he designed elaborate theatre scenery and also oversaw court festivities. He returned to Bologna in 1716 but his second son Giuseppe remained in Vienna and in effect inherited his father’s position as the Emperor’s chief designer, remaining such until Charles VI’s death in 1740. Of the Emperor, Sitwell wrote ‘Music, like everything else, required a setting which would reflect honour on this Caesar, and so he retained in his service a whole race of Italians, to whom he entrusted the decorations of a theatre, a procession or a masque with the subsequent banquet. In this way a building which seemed to have the permanence of a Versailles could be put up in a few days, and by the next morning it had disappeared from the ground, as if by enchantment. The Bibiena family of Bologna were in command of the nocturnal army…It is as though the Italians, having matured their plans so far in earlier times, now that their imagination was unfettered and had the skill to play how it liked, found themselves without the money to realize their schemes, and so were forced to take opportunities abroad and produce in plaster and canvas that which they had planned in brick and marble.’

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The Bibienas were renowned for the ingenious use of perspective in their stage designs, the ability to suggest infinite horizons within a severely limited space. In his work Ferdinando was the first to replace a central, vertical, axis with a diagonal, thereby increasing the impression of distance. He and his son created fantastically grand architecture intended to be dismantled within days of its construction. An examination of Giuseppe’s extant designs indicates that he developed his father’s initiatives in this field to produce complex interiors in which colonnaded passages seem to run in every direction and seemingly without ever coming to a close. Vaulted ceilings tower over the figures beneath, while the walls are smothered with ornament including niches, brackets and curvilinear frames. Against this painted backdrop figures would act out complex emotional dramas, often to texts written by another Italian, Metastasio who in 1729 was appointed Court Poet in Vienna: in the mid-18th century there was scarcely an opera composer in Europe not dependent on a Metastasio libretto (as late as 1791 Mozart used one for La Clemenza di Tito). Surely his lofty language and noble sentiments influenced Bibiena’s designs, and vice versa? The most celebrated castrato of the age Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli, made his debut at the age of fifteen singing music composed by his teacher Nicola Porpora set to a text by Metastasio. When Farinelli (of whom it was said, ‘One God, one Farinelli’) sang in Vienna in 1731 – once more to music by Porpora and words by Metastasio – the Emperor advised he should cease trying to astonish listeners with his vocal prowess and instead engage their emotions through the purity of his tone; ‘you are too lavish of the gifts with which nature has endowed you; if you wish to reach the heart, you must take a more plain and simple road.’ Perhaps Charles VI felt there was already enough virtuosity on stage thanks to the designs of Giuseppe Galli Bibiena.

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These notes on the Bibiena family are inspired by the room seen here today, the double height entrance hall at Gloster, County Offaly. The most perfect baroque interior in Ireland, it was almost certainly designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce in the early 1720s; he was a first cousin of the property’s then-owner Trevor Lloyd. Whether Pearce actually oversaw the execution of his work is more open to question as some of the detailing is not quite as refined as might otherwise have been the case. Even so, Gloster’s entrance hall is something of a coup de theatre, clearly intended to make an impact on anyone stepping into the space. The view from the front door is of walls heavily covered in plasterwork panelling, with a focus on the pedimented doorcase directly ahead; on either side of this are niches with fanlights above that match those of the facing doors. Obviously the hall’s height adds additional drama, and the feature is emphasised by a band of elaborate scrolling plasterwork positioned at what would be cornice level; the effect is to divide the vertical into two sections. Continuing up, the eye is next caught by a series of round-headed niches on either side wall which contain busts on plinths. These are matched on the entrance wall by three windows which ensure the hall is exceptionally bright: they are arched on the inside although rectangular on the exterior in order to match those on the rest of the thirteen-bay facade. Facing the windows are three arched balconies, part of a first floor gallery accessed via an inner hall that has flanking staircases to its rear. The gallery is a superlative piece of work. Entered through a screen of Doric columns and rising to a coffered, barrel-vaulted ceiling, it features a pair of monumental pedimented chimneypieces with glass in the upper sections so that one reflects the other. To one side of these run long corridors, barrel-vaulted like the landing, which lead to the main bedrooms and provide the ensemble with an additional sense of drama. Indeed it the combination of these passages and the balconies overlooking the entrance hall that particularly bring to mind the designs of Ferdinando and Giuseppe Bibiena. As a piece of design it evokes the grandeur and solemnity of Metastasio’s texts, combined with the virtuosity of Farinell’s singing in a fashion rarely seen in Ireland. It is easy to imagine baroque opera being played out in such a setting (what might the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle have filmed in the house). These spaces have recently been redecorated by Gloster’s dedicated owners, who deserve accolades for all that they have already achieved here. The results are breathtakingly exciting and highlight the outstandingly theatrical quality of the architecture.

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More about the glories of Gloster on another occasion…

Carve the Year with Pride

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A detail of the carved oak chimneypiece in the entrance hall of Salterbridge, County Waterford. Although the core of the present house was built around the middle of the 18th century, it was subject to several alterations and aggrandisements thereafter. Some of these are sufficiently documented but the date of other interventions remains unclear. In the case of the entrance hall carving, even though the craftsman responsible for the work is nameless we can be sure when he undertook this task since the panelling to the left of the chimneypiece carries the year 1884.

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Taking the Cure

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A corner cabinet in Bedroom No.15 at Birr Castle, County Offaly. This is also known as the Conroy Room since it contains memorabilia associated with Sir John Conroy, quondam Comptroller to Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent: in the same year Victoria came to the throne, Conroy’s son Edward eloped with Lady Alicia Parsons, daughter of the second Earl of Rosse. On a table beneath the cabinet is a box holding a 19th century travelling pharmacy, including such supposed cures as Tincture of Rhubarb and Paregoric Elixir. The latter was an opiate first developed in the early 18th century as a cure for asthma.

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A Swagger of Garlands

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The central panel of the Portland stone chimney piece in the entrance hall at Kilshannig, County Cork. On either side of a mask flow garlands of flowers and fruit carved with such precision and depth that they look as though ready to drop to the floor (were they not secured by hooks at either end of the panel). Evidently whoever was responsible for this exquisitely assured work liaised with stuccadore Filippo Lafranchini, since the chimney piece decoration echoes the latter’s ceilings throughout the house’s main rooms. (For more on Kilshannig’s plasterwork, see Exuberance, May 18th 2015).

A Man of Taste and Influence

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Despite the many advances made in Irish architectural history over recent decades, some areas remain in need of further investigation. Among the most obvious of these is the question of attribution. There are significant houses across the country yet to be assigned to any architect, and others which need to have their accreditations reassessed. In the latter category are those properties given accreditations by the late Knight of Glin in the early 1960s when he was engaged on his uncompleted thesis on the subject of Irish Palladianism. At the time there was far less information available on or interest in architectural history than is now the case, and therefore the Knight was to a large extent dependent on instinct when allocating various houses to different architects, about whom little or nothing was known. Often he had to rely on his eye rather than on documentation, and as he admitted towards the end of his life, mistakes were made. To date insufficient effort has been made to correct these and as a result attributions made half a century ago still stand. An obvious opportunity for correction occurred with the appearance of the relevant volume in the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland series published earlier this year, but the editors failed to avail of this opportunity. A reassessment of the Knight’s attributions still awaits requiring someone able to combine scholarship with connoisseurship. Until such time, in particular the output of gentlemen architects like Francis Bindon (whose name has appeared here on more than one occasion) will remain unclear. On the other hand, thanks to another book published in 2015 we are now in a much better position to assess the oeuvre of another talented 18th century amateur, Nathaniel Clements.

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In 1754 John Carteret Pilkington published the third and final volume of his late mother Letitia’s celebrated memoirs in which he described Nathaniel Clements as being ‘a certain great man in Ireland, whose place of abode is not remote from Phoenix Park…whose acquirements have justly raised him from obscurity to opulence [and] whose extensive plans in building have excited an universal admiration of his taste in architecture.’ As Clements’ new biographer Anthony Malcomson noted, it was perhaps something of an exaggeration to claim he had raised himself from ‘obscurity’ but as a fifth son he would have been expected to make his own way in the world, especially since his father died when he was only seventeen. That father, Robert Clements had inherited an estate in County Cavan but in 1707 had secured the important, and lucrative, post of Teller to the Irish Exchequer. This job passed to his eldest son Theophilus who badly bungled his own financial affairs as was discovered when he died in 1728. Nevertheless, both the family and Nathaniel Clements were by this time sufficiently well connected for the Tellership of the Exchequer to pass to him, a job he held for the next twenty-seven years during which time, as Pilkington commented, he made himself exceedingly rich. His substantial income was boosted by money received from non-residents in receipt of an Irish pension for whom he acted as agent for decades (Malcolmson estimates that by the mid-1740s his annual income from this job alone was £1,500). He also held numerous other offices, all of which brought in additional funds. Much of this was used to acquire land, the most reliable form of investment in a period when banks failed regularly (as did that established by Clements and a couple of partners in 1759). By the end of his life he had bought up some 85,000 acres spread across three counties and producing an income of around £6,000 each year.

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Another area of investment in which Clements engaged was housing, beginning with his participation in the development of Dublin’s Henrietta Street. The man behind this project, and others on the northern banks of the Liffey, was Luke Gardiner to whom Clements was related by marriage. Named after Henrietta, Duchess of Bolton, an old friend of Gardiner, whose husband acted as Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant in 1717-20, the street was from the start intended to be the capital’s premier address, its two sides lined with houses of princely splendor. As so often the case throughout 18th century Dublin, the exterior of the buildings, mostly standard red-brick and occupying sites of varying proportions, gave – and continue to give – insufficient notice of what lay behind the facades. Clements was responsible for constructing a number of houses on the street, beginning with Number 8 which was finished around 1733 and let to Colonel (later General) Richard St George. Three or four others then followed before he moved to Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, the initial development of which was likewise overseen by Gardiner. Here Clements built several more properties including a family residence that came to be known as Leitrim House. But having become ranger of the Phoenix Park in 1750 (having previously acted as deputy-ranger) he embarked on building himself a smart and substantial new villa. The Ranger’s Lodge was a five-bay, two-storey over full-height basement house on either side of which quadrants connected to L-shaped single-storey wings. Clements and his socially-ambitious wife hosted opulent parties on the premises intended to impress their contemporaries and to cement the couple’s place in Ireland’s hierarchy. In June 1760 for example, it was reported that the Clementses ‘gave an elegant entertainment to several of the nobility and gentry at his lodge in the Phoenix Park, which was illuminated in the most brilliant manner.’ Five years after Nathaniel Clements’ death in 1777, his son Robert sold the lodge to the government which then converted – and subsequently – enlarged the building for use as a Viceregal residence. Today the same property is known as Áras an Uachtaráin and occupied by the President of Ireland.

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Nathaniel Clements’ engagement in speculative building, together with his reputation as an arbiter of taste, led to several buildings being attributed to him by the Knight of Glin. These included Brookelawn and Colganstown, County Dublin; Williamstown and Newberry Hall, County Kildare; and Beauparc and Belview, County Meath. All can be dated to c.1750-65, and all share certain stylistic similarities, not least reliance on Palladianism which by that date was fast falling from fashion. While respecting the Knight’s notion of Clements as an architect, and one responsible for the houses listed above, Maurice Craig in Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size (1976) proposes that he was ‘eclectic’ not least because ‘he picked and chose his elements from pattern-books and combined them so that they compose well enough together: but they do not interact on one another.’ However, given his many other professional and financial interests, it must now be accepted that Clements was not an architect as we would understand the term. Rather he was an influence, or as Malcomson proposes, ‘a role model’, someone to turn to for advice. Furthermore, the design of his Ranger’s Lodge provided the prototype for a new generation of villa-farms that were not grand country houses but residences at the centre of working estates. All this is applicable to a house which has long been ascribed to Nathaniel Clements because it was built for his eldest son and heir Robert who in 1795 was created first Earl of Leitrim. Killadoon, County Kildare, shown in the pictures here today, surely ought to have been designed by Nathaniel Clements but even Mark Bence-Jones in his 1978 Guide to Irish Country Houses argued that ‘apart from having the “pattern-book” tripartite doorway with a fanlight, a baseless pediment and engaged columns which he seems to have favoured, it lacks the characteristics of the houses known to be by him or convincingly attributed to him.’ In fact, as Malcomson shows, Nathaniel and Robert Clements had a troubled relationship and he proposes that the older man’s input into the house’s design ‘must have been limited.’ The need for a thorough re-examination of 18th century architectural attribution remains.

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Nathaniel Clements, 1705-77: Politics, Fashion and Architecture in mid-Eighteenth-Century Ireland by Anthony Malcomson is published by Four Courts Press.

Form and Functionality

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In the stable yard of Ballinlough Castle, County Westmeath, a two-storey worker’s house at the west gable end of the south range. Built c.1775, it possesses an advanced pedimented breakfront with ashlar detailing and round-headed niche to the centre of the ground floor flanked to either side by a square-headed window openings with a single square-headed opening to the centre of first floor.