by Christine Casey. Yale University Press, May 2017. 316 p. ill. ISBN 9780300225778 (h/c), $75.00.
Reviewed September 2017
Mention the word “stucco” and watch an audience recoil in horror as they imagine the popcorn-textured ceilings so popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Christine Casey’s monograph serves to defeat these visions by revealing how stucco work provided eighteenth-century Europe with interiors of stunning magnificence, via an almost alchemical combination of architectural, sculptural, and pictorial mastery.
Casey, senior lecturer in architectural history at Trinity College, Dublin, details the impressive accomplishments of several eighteenth-century “stuccatori” from the Ticino area of Switzerland, namely those of the Artari, Bagutti, Cortese, Vassalli, and Lanfranchini families. Blessed with the good fortune of stemming from a region rich in quarries of marble, gypsum, and lime, these craftsmen were further linked by linguistic, familial, marital, apprenticeship, and patronage ties. Through an exhaustive survey of their body of work in Germany, England, and Ireland, Casey demonstrates how this network of itinerant artisans, despite relatively humble and provincial origins, managed to gain lucrative commissions from influential patrons in the furthest corners of Europe, often at the expense of locally situated craftsmen.
Divided into six detail-laden chapters, the author’s vast knowledge of her topic is outweighed only by her evident passion for it. The first three chapters situate the role of stucco within the history of architecture/architectural decoration, as well as offer a biographical examination of several stucco-work dynasties originating from the Tichinese region; the last three chapters extensively detail the work of these families throughout Europe. The underlying question that pervades the entire text is the enigmatic positioning of stucco work within the realms of architecture and the decorative arts. Is stucco purely a decorative art or also architectural? The author successfully validates stucco’s importance not only in terms of its decorative function but also in that of creating, delineating, and even simulating architectural space.
Constructed of densely worded and meticulously detailed sentences, the work is neither a quick nor easy read and is best suited for the intermediate or advanced architectural history scholar. Typographical errors are not numerous but are unfortunately to be found. The author is prone to employing architectural and decorative arts terms in their original Italian and German forms, which could contribute to a more casual reader’s difficulty in quickly digesting the text. To the author’s credit, a glossary is provided at the end of the text, as is a map of the Ticino region, onto which something of a genealogical table has been superimposed. The latter serves to provide some relief from the unavoidable but occasionally abstruse barrage of artists’ names one encounters in paragraphs detailing decorative projects. Images of high quality, many in color, show off the architectural details discussed to their best advantage. Lastly, the bibliography is sound and extensive, the footnotes exhaustive.