by Roderick Conway Morris

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Stephanie C. Leone, Boston College
The Church of SS. Luca and Martina by Pietro da Cortona with the Arch of
Septimus Severus, the emperor who ordered Martina's execution

The Saint and the Architect

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 27 December 1997


The artist and architect Pietro da Cortona died in 1669, leaving almost his entire, not inconsiderable, wealth to St. Martina, a Roman virgin martyr supposedly decapitated on Nov. 30, 228. The account set up for the saint is still live today, now at the Banca di Roma, yielding a modest monthly income paid to the nuns of the Conservatory of Sant'Eufemia, the convent chosen by the artist to safeguard the bequest.

The part played by Pietro da Cortona in making Rome a baroque city was second only to that of Bernini, but even with the revival of interest in this period, Cortona has received far less attention than his rival. The 400th anniversary of Pietro's birth in Cortona in Tuscany has become the occasion, however, for a reassessment of his achievements, with special shows of his paintings and related works at Palazzo Venezia and of his drawings at the Accademia di San Luca (both until Feb. 10).

Cortona was a tireless worker, with a reputation for irascibility and acts of charity, who never married, the only woman in his life it seems, as the Palazzo Venezia exhibition's curator, Anna Lo Bianco, has remarked, being St. Martina. And, appropriately, the putative remains of her skull, encased in a gilded reliquary in the form of a severed head, figure in the show.

The artist arrived in Rome at a young age, the apprentice of a now little known Florentine painter. Unlike Bernini, Cortona was no infant prodigy, and mastering his skills took some years, although this did not prevent him from eventually forging a distinctive personal style, and sometimes an impressive inventiveness and lightness of touch.

He won large-scale commissions from the papacy and aristocracy, notably to fresco town and country houses for the Sacchetti; the huge ceiling of the reception hall of Palazzo Barberini (now the National Gallery), and the long gallery at Palazzo Pamphilj in Piazza Navona (now part of the Brazilian ambassador's private residence). His portraits of some of these patrons are among the strongest oils he ever painted.

He also struck up a lifelong relationship with the church of S. Maria in Vallicella, the mother church of the Congregation of the Oratory, founded by the 16th-century saint Philip Neri, one of the more attractive characters of the Counter-Reformation, whose order's innovative use of sacred music gave birth to the 'oratorio.' The church's imposing altar-canvases are by Rubens, one of Cortona's prime inspirations, and over three decades the Tuscan frescoed the sacristy, vault, apse and dome. Dealing with the artist apparently required the patience of a saint, though, paradoxically, despite Cortona's tendency to truculence, his art is often characterized by sympathetic observation, humaneness and even a sense of fun.

In 1634 Cortona was elected principal of the Accademia di San Luca, Rome's Fine Arts Academy, which had been granted in 1588 the use of the next-door parish church of St. Martina, henceforth to be known by both saints' names. Cortona undertook to refurbish the crypt, originally the seventh-century church of St. Martina, at his own expense. During excavations into the foundations, bones came to light that were proclaimed as the lost relics of the martyr.

The news was received with excitement, the Barberini Pope Urban VIII wrote hymns in her praise, and Cortona was commissioned to build an entirely new church on the site to celebrate the find, launching him on a second career as an architect.

The resulting fine baroque edifice, striking for the dramatic contrast between the brightness and deceptive simplicity of the upper part and opulent colorfulness of the crypt (where the artist is buried), was not entirely completed until after his death, and now stands high and dry amid the excavated ancient forums. It formed part of a populous residential district, which was otherwise razed to the ground in the early 1930s when Mussolini drove through it the wide parade ground-cum-boulevard, now called the Via dei Fori Imperiali. At the same time the Accademia moved to its present premises near Trevi Fountain.

For a long time the Accademia disputed Cortona's legacy to St. Martina, initiating a series of legal battles that lasted until 1903. In the same year the Vatican declared her to be 'one of the very rare Roman martyrs that, unfortunately, it has to be admitted, cannot even be proved to have ever existed.' But the annual procession, willed by Cortona, bearing her head from the Conservatory of Sant'Eufemia to the church continued until 1970 and the demoted saint has remained through thick and thin the nominal benificiary of her deposit account.

With far more work than he could handle personally, in accordance with the practice of the times, Cortona gathered around him a bevy of pupils and collaborators, some of them markedly talented, and a sizable selection of their work is rightly included in the shows, especially since many of the master's 'own' works were completed with studio assistance.

In 1649 the painter bought a property at the foot of the Capitoline Hill and over 13 years transformed it into a palace-workshop complex, capable of undertaking almost any kind of artistic and decorative commission (there was even a foundry in the gardens). This stylish factory-residence, demolished in 1888 to make way for the hideous royal monument of Victor Emmanuel II, is the subject of a fascinating, just published study, 'La Casa di Pietro da Cortona,' by Donatella Livia Sparti, who has also contributed a summary of her researches to the Palazzo Venezia's exhibition catalogue.

Cortona wrote to one of his patrons: 'Architecture for me is really only a pastime,' but it is in this field that he made his most visible and original mark on Rome. In the facade of S. Maria in Via Lata on the Corso he created a model of monumental classical dignity; in the congested, working-class backstreets behind Piazza Navona, the wonderfully theatrical exterior of S. Maria della Pace, a delightfully playful expression of baroque-for-all, and in his late design for the dome of SS. Ambrogio e Carlo al Corso, one of the most graceful features of the Roman skyline.

The facade of S. Maria in Via Lata has recently been cleaned; the restoration of the interior of SS. Luca and Martina is nearly complete, and should be open at certain hours next year, and the dome of SS. Ambrogio e Carlo, designated one of the world's most endangered major monuments, is now receiving attention. It can only be hoped that the interest stimulated by the current exhibitions will speed the rescue of the sadly grubby and distressed-looking facade of S. Maria della Pace.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023