Cover image for “When All of Rome Was Under Construction”: The Building Process in Baroque Rome By Dorothy Metzger Habel

“When All of Rome Was Under Construction”

The Building Process in Baroque Rome

Dorothy Metzger Habel


$129.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05573-2

248 pages
9" × 10"
118 b&w illustrations/1 map

“When All of Rome Was Under Construction”

The Building Process in Baroque Rome

Dorothy Metzger Habel

‘When All of Rome Was Under Construction’ will take its place among the most important and substantial contributions to architectural scholarship and Roman Baroque urban history in a very long time. It traces and vitalizes our understanding of individual and institutional interests in Roman architecture in a way that has been hardly, if ever, equaled. Dorothy Habel’s research makes the study of Roman Baroque urbanism more engaging and pertinent than ever before. This is benchmark scholarship.”


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Publication of this book has been aided by a grant from the Millard Meiss Publication Fund of the College Art Association

In “When All of Rome Was Under Construction,” architectural historian Dorothy Metzger Habel considers the politics and processes involved in building the city of Rome during the baroque period. Like many historians of the period, Habel previously focused on the grand schemes of patronage; now, however, she reconstructs the role of the “public voice” in the creation of the city. She presents the case that Rome’s built environment did not merely reflect the vision of patrons and architects who simply imposed buildings and spaces upon the city’s populace. Rather, through careful examination of a tremendous range of archival material—from depositions and budgets to memoranda and the minutes of confraternity meetings—Habel foregrounds what she describes as “the incubation of architecture” in the context of such building projects as additions to the Palazzo Doria-Pamphili and S. Carlo ai Catinari as well as the construction of the Piazza Colonna. She considers the financing of building and the availability of building materials and labor, and she offers a fresh investigation of the writings of Lorenzo Pizzatti, who called attention to “the social implications” of building in the city. Taken as a whole, Habel’s examination of these voices and buildings offers the reader a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the shape and the will of the public in mid-seventeenth-century Rome.
‘When All of Rome Was Under Construction’ will take its place among the most important and substantial contributions to architectural scholarship and Roman Baroque urban history in a very long time. It traces and vitalizes our understanding of individual and institutional interests in Roman architecture in a way that has been hardly, if ever, equaled. Dorothy Habel’s research makes the study of Roman Baroque urbanism more engaging and pertinent than ever before. This is benchmark scholarship.”
“Habel lays out for us the key decade in the modern development of the piazza, along with revealing glimpses behind the scenes of various other projects, in this richly documented and closely argued book.”
“Any reader who loves Rome, studies the early modern period in art history, and holds dear the history of architecture will find much to admire in Dorothy Metzger Habel’s study of construction and urban planning in seventeenth-century Rome. ‘When All of Rome Was Under Construction’: The Building Process in Baroque Rome digs deep into archival records to tell compelling stories about how the building trades functioned and who got to boss whom around, along with what were the obstacles, snags, and goals faced by those who helped to shape baroque Rome.”

Dorothy Metzger Habel is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities and Professor of Art History at the University of Tennessee.


List of Illustrations



Units of Measure and Monetary Values


1 The Urban Redevelopment of Piazza Colonna I: “Senza Spesa Ne Aggravare Alcuno”

2 The Urban Redevelopment of Piazza Colonna II: “Il Negotio Restava Aggiustato”

3 The Repercussions of Building Piazza S. Pietro “in Tempo Che Tutta Roma Era in Fabrica”

4 Lorenzo Pizzatti and His “Roza Riforma”: A Pavonazzo Speaks Up “Tutto per il Ben Publico”






Work on this book began when I chanced upon a number of documents, preserved in different archives, that share certain characteristics: Each is more narrative than most; none evidences a standard template for its preparation that would reveal a legal or transactional nature; each focuses on a different architectural project; and each makes mention of other architecture that either has recently been completed or is under construction at the time. At first, my objective was to prepare an “essay book” in which each chapter or essay would focus on one of these documents, examining a moment in architectural history. At the time, the goal seemed to be as much about archival research and questions of method as it was about the history of architecture. A title and a method sprang to mind: Hearing Voices. Since this time, and through the work to research these documents—exploring their authors, their authors’ vested interests, the circumstances that provoked their creation, and the nature and content of their statements—the objective has morphed into something more synthetic, more historical, and more focused on the process of building in seventeenth-century Rome (fig. 1). Now the goal is not just to hear these voices but also to listen.

In the context of these archival materials the process of building refers not to construction in terms of statics and engineering but rather to the incubation of architecture. Because they emerge from moments of reflection about building in Rome between about 1645 and 1670, these voices offer insight into equally fundamental questions, ranging from how to finance building and how to speed the work of building to how to account for costs and how to accommodate displaced constituents. The shared insights of these voices concern financing construction, concepts of urban ownership, and the corollary emergence of a public in seventeenth-century Rome.

As will become apparent, the research led me into a variety of disciplines as I began operating on the margins of architectural history. For many reasons, some fundamental and some anecdotal, I found myself looking back to various masters of archival method; the work of historians Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis both proved useful in coming to grips with voices whose number is small and whose motives are uncertain. Likewise, the scholarship of Renata Ago helped shape my understanding of social history as practiced on seventeenth-century Rome. The work of economic historians also proved critical when I faced the challenge of understanding the operation of the Roman economy in general and the bond market in particular, as well as more practical issues of labor and salaries and of supply and demand for materials. Fausto Piola Caselli’s research on papal debt and the operation of the market in Rome for monti clarified much, as did the research of Manuel Vaquero Piñeiro on salaries and real estate. Cultural anthropologists furnished important models, and among these I cite Peter Burke’s work on Italy as especially insightful for art and architectural historians.

We find ourselves in the midst of a remarkable field of energy where the boundaries of disciplines appear more porous than previously. For historians of art this has opened up a culture beyond the monograph, as evidenced by Pamela Jones’s recent work on the viewership of seventeenth-century Roman altarpieces and Patrizia Cavazzini’s study of painting as a business in seventeenth-century Rome, to name but two. For architectural historians this has yielded the exciting research of Maria Grazia D’Amelio and Nicoletta Marconi on the construction industry in Rome during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and of Jesús Escobar on the urban development of Madrid in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, just three of many from our time period. But there are also studies of more recent times that coincide with the interests here in the process of building, most notably Jeff Byles’s study of the life cycle of buildings, which attends to the history of demolition (including the twentieth-century phenomenon of “bash and build”), and John Harris’s work on the growing profession of brokers and dealers of salvaged materials in nineteenth-century London. At moments in the work on this book it seemed that its topics cropped up here, there, and everywhere, and what might have seemed old as history seemed current as soon as the focus became the process of building (fig. 2).

Given the period of time when these voices were first heard—the earliest probably around 1646–47 and the latest in 1665—I found myself stepping on some of the same stones as in my previous work on Rome during the reign of Pope Alexander VII Chigi (1655–67). This time the path has led in different directions, since the focus here is not on the pope, although both Innocent X Pamphili (1644–55) and Alexander VII figure prominently. They appear, like everyone else, as stakeholders who conditioned building in Rome. A bias here is toward building that involved the infrastructure of the city—streets and squares, the stuff of public space—and the architecture that shaped and characterized this, from the modest little church of S. Paolo alla Colonna to the grand Piazza S. Pietro.

During the seventeenth century the population of Rome grew from about 100,000 in the first years to just over 135,000 by the end of the century. This growth was steady for the most part, although with the advent of the plague in May 1656 the total dipped temporarily to just under 100,000. As Laurie Nussdorfer has demonstrated, the governance of the city and its relationship to the papacy were well established by this time, and while the relationship between city and Church was certainly unique and not without its challenges, the system of governance worked to some advantage for both bodies. The mechanics of building in the city

were controlled by the office of the Presidenza delle Strade, administered by a papal appointee who oversaw the work of two city-elected officials, the maestri delle strade, or superintendents of the streets. This governing body was responsible for the protection and care of public space, and because nearly every building site bordered public space, this agency licensed just about every building project in the city. The key piece of legislation that supported the urban development of the city was the bull issued by Pope Gregory XIII in 1574 titled De Aedificiis, et Jure congrui. This law not only allowed but also encouraged the expropriation of adjacent properties for new building guaranteed to embellish the city and thereby improve the quality of urban life. The office of the Presidenza delle Strade monitored these actions closely. As governors of the interstices of the city, the maestri delle strade also issued public announcements, called bandi, concerning the maintenance of public space, the regulation of building that might impinge on this space, and the collection of taxes levied to support their operations. Printed notices, the bandi were posted in the streets for all to see (fig. 3).

The construction industry was the largest single source of employment in Rome during the seventeenth century. The details and complexity of the operation of this industry, which employed approximately 30 percent of the city’s workforce, have been the focus of recent research. Between 1550 and 1650, some 150 palaces were either built ex novo or substantially rebuilt and expanded, as were about 300 churches (fig. 4). The records awarding licenses for building confirm that there was also a substantial market for smaller building projects of all sorts. We know now that the Congregazione della Reverenda Fabbrica di S. Pietro was a controlling force, offering rentals of large construction equipment for building sites all over the city as well as sales from the store of materials accumulated initially to support the construction of St. Peter’s. In fact, the symbiotic relationship between the Fabbrica and the city’s corps of architects and masons in some ways seemed to mimic the relationship in governance between the Church and the city.

The financing of building was equally complex, especially as sources of revenue became tighter beginning in the 1640s. Although many indicators of the economy had stabilized by then (most notably, salaries), the flow of available cash slowed toward midcentury, and while this did not always curb spending on building, the trend did call for more creative ways of financing construction. Public funding took the form of tax revenue, often generated by the imposition of a tassa del gettito, an assessment on property owners to support architectural improvements to public space announced in a bando. Papal financing and private financing each seem to have operated in the same way: Funds were allocated at the discretion of the individual patron—pope or prince, cardinal or marquis. But these expenditures also called for infusion of capital and consequently management of debt. The selling of debt through the marketing of bonds was a major strategy to finance building. The blend of these various revenue streams is an important characteristic in the urban development of Rome in the seventeenth century.

Study of this collection of documents is organized chronologically. The first two chapters concern Piazza Colonna, the redevelopment of which had been in the works for some time before actual construction began. Chapter 1 focuses on a proposal for financing this that was presented in consistory to Pope Innocent X sometime between spring 1646 and fall 1647. Sponsored by the Spanish cardinal Egidio Albornoz, this proposal also received endorsement from the Pamphili pope, although in the end it was rejected. Investigation of the proposal, of the circumstances for its presentation, and of responses to it leads to a comparison with the contemporaneous redevelopment of Piazza Navona, where the work of opening the public space was financed in a more traditional fashion. Piazza Colonna as it was actually opened and redeveloped is the subject of chapter 2. The history of this project has been well studied by earlier scholars, but the treatment here highlights the process as documented by a variety of texts generated by a number of principals, including Neri Corsini, the pope’s newly appointed presidente delle strade; Virgilio Spada, advisor to Alexander VII and uncle of Orazio Spada, who owned property on the piazza; and Gabrielle Fanti, padre vicar of the Barnabite religious community housed at S. Paola alla Colonna.

In surprising ways, chapter 3 continues the saga of Piazza Colonna, but its grounding lies in the voices of builders—the architect Antonio del Grande and his workmen, who were building the new wing of Palazzo Pamphili on Piazza del Collegio Romano, and Giovanni Tommaso Ripoli, the capomastro muratore of the new Barnabite college building at S. Carlo ai Catinari. These men speak in unison to the difficulty of trying to build anywhere in Rome other than Piazza S. Pietro when the latter is under construction. They tell about the paucity of materials and labor in the construction industry and about financial strategies to guarantee the continuation of building throughout the city. The final chapter examines the voice of an altogether different sort. Lorenzo Pizzatti’s is, it seems, a unique voice, and his saggio, or essay, on the condition of urban life in Rome between 1656 and 1659 provides a startling context for the knowledge conveyed in the previous three chapters. Pizzatti takes on the themes that emerge at Piazza Colonna, at the Barnabite construction site, and at Piazza S. Pietro indirectly. Most remarkably, his admonitions and entreaties seem to have been heeded. Indeed, each party, each voice, examined here secured a listener.

The Abstract Expressionist Ad Reinhardt’s famous declaration that “looking isn’t as easy as it looks” captures, for the historian of art and architecture, the action that defines the discipline. This study calls for an additional sensory commitment replicating an action in the past: listening.