A Filippo Juvarra waiting to be discovered: a corpus of drawings of great value published for the first time

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By John

Although he was called the “architect of capitals” and considered by his contemporaries the best around in the world, Filippo Juvarra (Messina, 1678 – Madrid, 1736) was not satisfied with the professional recognition he received because he brought with him a series of significant disappointments: above all those that he, a priest and then abbot, had to suffer from the Vatican (today it would be called «friendly fire »).

The last one, the one for which he decided never to set foot in Rome again, was linked to the Vatican Sacristy: in 1732 it really seemed that Clement XII was inclined to entrust him with the project (of which there is a magnificent model). However, this was not the case, the Pontiff did not even proceed with his creation of the funeral monument of Benedict XIII, because as Pope-King he had entered into bad relations with the House of Savoy, of which Juvarra was the first court architect in Turin. Among the previous disappointments, already in 1711, when as a young man he was employed in Rome as a set designer for Cardinal Ottoboni’s theatre, he had established contact with Emperor Joseph I of Austria, who however died soon after; then he also had an unsuccessful approach with the French Louis XV. But above all it was yet another no from the Vatican, despite the fact that in 1724 he had obtained the honorific but highly prestigious position of architect of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, which made him look for another prominent foreign client.
As if he needed a reward, probably more moral than material. The testimony of an episode of this research in the European courts comes to us from the new book by Cristina Ruggero, a qualified scholar of the architect from Messina: «Drawings of Ideal Perspective (1732). A tribute by Filippo Juvarra to Augustus the Strong and the relationships between the courts of Rome, Turin, Dresden”, published by arthistoricum.net. It is the first time that the entire corpus of 41 drawings, preserved at the National Cabinet of Drawings and Prints in Dresden, has been published, used by the architect as a sort of self-presentation – a true marketing operation – addressed to the Great Elector of Saxony, who had also become king of Poland. Even more than other occasions, these drawings confirm the artistic qualities of Juvarra’s line, also because they are not the famous sketches or “thoughts” in which the hand flowed almost as fast as the idea, but meditated works.
Ruggero writes very clearly: «A series of imposing architectural fantasies enriched by magnificent quotations of sculptures inspired by the Ancient, the Renaissance, the Baroque. The drawings offer an almost unique synthesis of what was the concept of late-Baroque and eighteenth-century spatiality applied above all to the design of large Italian, French and German cities in the eighteenth century. The historical dimension is added to the conception of space, where the strong interest in classical cultures (Egyptian, Greek, Roman), but also in those closer in time, allows a rereading of the subjects in a modern key, since the works of antiquities are combined with contemporary masterpieces that Juvarra, as a skilled set designer, manages to coordinate with each other, almost with pictorial qualities, inserting them into a new, seductive dimension, full of references and associations for anyone preparing to consult the volume. These drawings therefore not only describe the apparently frivolous genre of architectural whim, but are true sources of inspiration for real architecture and above all have a value as autonomous works of art.”

The reproduction in the book of all the drawings in the corpus (and also of many others more or less known, including the views of Messina) gives comfort and depth to the phrase “autonomous works of art” and claims the right of the Messina to be studied in depth also as a figurative artist, capable of an admirable sense of perspective, something which did not happen despite the international fame of his drawings. I also think of certain sketches with a particular trait, which have always made me think of a sort of pre-impressionism of visionary value.
Augustus the Strong was passionate about classical art and inclined towards elegant urbanization linked to the territory, the one that was right in Juvarra’s heart. He would have been the ideal client, but, as had happened with Joseph I, he died six months after receiving the gift. Juvarra wasn’t lucky (and maybe he didn’t even bring luck) and that was yet another broken dream of his. But the artist’s quality remains evident: «All the drawings – writes Ruggero – are made in pen with sepia ink and shading and then watercolored with warm brown tones»: if this is not a painter! Moreover, Francesco Susinno in «The lives of the painters of Messina» (1724) had defined the abbot as «painter, architect and chiseller» (as we know, he came from a family of silversmiths).

Two notes still knowing the sapid spirit of Juvarra, handed down as a man capable of witty jokes, one might think that the accentuated recourse to Roman ruins, often placed in the foreground, is in not too veiled controversy with the carelessness with which the government papal kept some remains of ancient value, abandoned to themselves. A kind of revenge. Then, the drawing on sheet 44 presents on the left a statue of Neptune with his arm stretched out towards the water. Of course, a common figuration, but how could you not think of Montorsoli’s sculpture which the young future architect had certainly admired in his Messina?