Aleotti's Drawings in the Borromeo Collection

Written by  Costanza Cavicchi
An outstanding collection of architectural drawings. (With a note by Adriano Cavicchi)
The architect Giovan Battista Aleotti (Argenta 1546 - Ferrara 1636) was one of the most outstanding figures in the cultural life of Ferrara between the 16th and 17th centuries.
The importance of his patrons, who included the Estes, the Gonzagas, and the Papal State, together with the enormous body of work he produced, leave no doubt as to the ability and the stature of this eclectic and long-lived artist-scientist who was an expert in civil, ecclesiastical, military and theatrical architecture - not to mention cartography and hydraulic engineering - and also made worthy contributions to jurisprudence and letters.

The subject of much recent research, Aleotti's fame is now about to be enhanced by a fundamental discovery that will lead to a reassessment of his architectural works: a hitherto unpublished collection of architectural drawings and designs found in the archives of the Borromeo family.

In a display of refined sensibilities, the proposal to make known this wealth of material enjoys the support not only of the owners, who have agreed to let it be studied and reproduced, but also of the town council of Argenta and the Istituto per i Beni Culturali, the promoters - along with the Fondazione - of the exhibition and publication of the drawings scheduled to take place this year in Argenta.

Not all the drawings may be original but, apart from a few exceptions, the entire corpus may be considered a valuable document regarding Ferrarese architecture between the 16th and 17th centuries. The presence of numerous drawings and plans, whose attribution to Aleotti already seems clear after the first calligraphic tests, has resulted in the restoration of his status as a first class architect, a status that has perhaps been underestimated until now as a result of his eclecticism.

The themes of the collection range from civil to ecclesiastical architecture, to gardens, to designs for furniture, wooden ceilings and church decor, all of which are expressed in drawings of high quality, both in terms of their execution and of conceptual validity.

The complex task of attribution and study of the whole corpus will require a considerable time. For the time being an initial photographic survey has made it possible to undertake a preliminary attempt at studying and cataloguing the drawings. One of the most interesting identifications concerns palazzo Fiaschi in via Garibaldi, completely destroyed in the air raids of 1944 and previously, if doubtfully, attributed to Vignola.
All that remains of the building is a handsome drawing of the plan for the façade, which betrays stylemes very similar to those of palazzo Polo in via Madama. The drawing also reveals some design peculiarities inasmuch as the left hand side of the façade is delimited by rustic work while there is none on the opposite side. There is also a plan for a church façade that possesses many similarities both with the Oratorio di Santa Margherita in via de' Romei and with the church of Santa Francesca Romana and as such is very much in the style typical of Aleotti.

The bays, usually austerely finished in brickwork, are here presented in a plastered version with a fake marble treatment that ennobles and refines the façade. Another plan for the reorganization of via San Romano, with shops on the ground floor and homes on the upper floor, reveals a particular awareness of what is often dismissed as minor architecture.

Horticultural architecture is represented in this collection by large scale plans and surveys for Belfiore, Campogalliano, Montecavallo (Quirinale), and for small urban gardens, closely connected to the spaces that delimited them. Finally, a special mention ought to be accorded the decorative elements, which make up a consistent part of the Borromeo collection: the wooden ceilings, niches, doors, fireplaces and furniture amount to rare and valuable evidence of works that by their very nature are doomed to dispersion and destruction.

The history of the Borromeo Codex

The collection of Aleotti's drawings that resurfaced about twelve years ago was mentioned in Argenta in the latter decades of the last century. On an uncertain date, but probably between 1865 and 1870, the collection was purchased by the Lombardian aristocrat Gilberto VI Borromeo to add to his enormous collection of drawings and original manuscripts.

But Aleotti's drawings were presumably put together between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th and it was only at a later date, certainly after 1833, that the series of drawings were collated to form a book prefaced by a monograph on Aleotti by Giuseppe Petrucci excerpted from the well known publication Vite e Ritratti di Trenta Illustri Ferraresi, published in Bologna in 1833.

The brokers involved in the transfer of Aleotti's drawings to the Borromeo collection were probably the well known Ferrarese scholars and bibliographers Giuseppe Antonelli and Luigi Napoleone Cittadella, collectors of autographs and original manuscripts, whose personal collections are today partly conserved in the Biblioteca Ariostea in Ferrara. The close correspondence between the two Ferrarese bibliophiles and the Lombardian collector confirms this hypothesis.
The identification of this important collection of drawings has first of all involved a series of checks in a variety of state and municipal archives and libraries, whence it was presumed the works had found their way.

Adriano Cavicchi