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Experiments with Beauty: Hydraulic Investigations in Rome and Lazio and the Genesis of Baroque Architecture (1550–1585)

Katherine Rinne, California College of the Arts, Fellow 2018–2019, Fall

I continued investigating hydraulic experiments in Rome in the late 16th century for the penultimate chapter of a book concerned with Rome’s water history between 1000 and 1600. Because water velocity, pressure, friction, and turbulence were imperfectly understood—mathematical formulas only evolved in the 17th century—I argue that building hydraulic infrastructure was always experimental and required creating full-scale fountains, aqueducts, and bridges rather than study models. Further, these experimental projects needed not only to function, but to be beautiful. Consider two bridges: the Ponte Felice and the restored Ponte Santa Maria (both Tiber River bridges) by Matteo Bartolani da Castello and Domenico Fontana. Both men were considered experts yet both bridges failed spectacularly. In addition to uncontrollable variables—including flooding—there were (1) budget cuts, (2) the client’s failure to heed the architect’s advice, (3) issues of scale, and (4) the pursuit of “beauty” itself, which derived from slavish reliance on ancient precedent (built and theoretical). But precedents couldn’t fully consider site-specific topographic and geological conditions. Unfortunately bridge failures were rarely resolved. Nonetheless, abandonment was stubbornly refused, so tinkering and patching might continue for centuries. This chapter is a study of design failures.