Bibiena Family Drawings

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Diane Kelder, who earlier had arranged exhibitions which struck amazing theatrical notes on the painting of Monsù Desiderio, as well as a view of representative Baroque diversions, Scenes and Spectacles, has surpassed herself in the present installation of drawings by the Bibiena family, from European and American collections, now at the Philadelphia Museum and to move to the Finch College Museum.

The Bibiena were remarkable. Headed by two brothers, Ferdinando Galli Bibiena and Francesco Bibiena, whose careers spanned the late 17th and early 18th centuries, their sure architectural hands and imaginative resources were transmitted to a succeeding generation of sons, four by Ferdinando and one by Francesco. In turn the family gift was transferred to a still later batch of offspring. The generation of grandchildren saw the immensely profitable family genius vitiated by thinner cousinly ties and a new set of tastes unleashed by nascent Neoclassicism.

The deep perspective which is the heart and ossature of Bibiena design was of course formulated in Florence during the fifteenth century. This “scientific” method for depicting space was accepted by Raphael, and, codified by Serlio and Palladio in the 16th century, became the soil on which the Bibiena elevated their improvisational theatrical edifices, some of them pure fantasy—palatial complexes, towered, colonnaded and escutcheoned—some real, some built to last, some of staff and papier mâché and erected for the brief duration of a funeral pomp.

The frontality of single point perspective eventually gave way to a more Baroque exploitation of the scena per angolo, that is to say an architectural evocation of a more picturesque character, which laterally flees the page to the sides. Dotted about with shadowy dells and crumbling tempietti and obelisks, this type suggests a less static, self-constrained theatrical performance and a less rigidly frontal proscenium exploitation. It would be valuable to collate the development of a more natural theater with the adoption of drop, flat and stage machine conventions predicated on the use of scena per angolo.

But the differences between a fundamentally one-point or two-point perspective hardly accounts for the distinctions between the earlier and later members of the family. Two marked attitudes dominate these delightful drawings. There are those made tightly and pedantically, probably as finished presentation drawings. Others, generally smaller, are primi pensieri—rapid and witty architectural permutations tossed off the hand with virtuoso prodigality and informality. Whole family volumes were pasted together of this kind of extravagant doodle.

The temptation would be, of course, to assign the drier pieces to a single hand. Dr. Kelder herself seems to feel that the drawings “which are usually given to Fernando seem logical in construction and are drawn methodically and correctly,” although she quickly adds that “the accomplished and highly profitable family style was based on the principle of anonymity and interchangeability.” Evidence argues against the individualization of hand. The Bibiena saw themselves as broadly based professionals with a ranging manual dexterity quite different from the specializations of the current set designer.

Eventually their florid inventions finally evaporated in the archaeologically correct historicism of the later-18th century and the Claudian reverie of such landscape painters as Hubert Robert. Something of their improvisational skill would be taken up in the veduti of the Guardi and is certainly subsumed into the overwhelming Prisons of Piranesi. There are inadvertent echoes too in the Rape of the Lock drawings by Beardsley. As one wag was said to have wired to Dr. Kelder at the time of the Philadelphia opening: “I Bibiena sono buoni.”

Robert Pincus-Witten