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Raccolta Teatrale del Burcardo
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History of the Building
The fašade in Petrignani's project of restoration


Johannes Burckardt was born in Nieder-Haslach, a village near Strasbourg, between 1445 and 1450; he died in Rome in 1506. The old Latin name of his Alsatian native town was Argentoratum, from which they took his attribute of argentinensis (or argentinus).
Burckardt’s fame only derives from Liber Notarum, a journal that he kept between December 1483 and April 1506; he started writing it just before his official appointment as Master of Cerimonies of the Pope (a charge that he took on January 26th 1484). At the beginning of this diary, B. writes that he thinks "convenient" he would supply his work with documentary evidence, probably in order to avoid being criticized in the future. Five Popes alternate in St. Peter’s seat along the 23 years of B.’s charge: Sixtus IV, Innocentius VIII, Alexander VI, Pius III and Iulius II. The part of document which authenticity is certified is the one covering the period 1503-1506.


In 1467 he is proved to be in Strasbourg, working for the Saint Thomas’ canon; he was guilty of two crimes - forgery and theft - (he forged some matrimony licences and stole a sword and a guilder), but he was found out and discharged. He felt therefore compelled to a change of scene: in that very 1467 his presence is documented in Rome. His first Roman years still stay mysterious, though it is certain that Burckardt soon entered the Pope’s circle, accumulating richness, privileges and hopes of benefits. In 1472 Pope Sixtus IV (the first one whom he will serve as a liturgist) promises him a canonry at the cathedral chapter of St. Thomas in Strasbourg, the very one he had been banished from. Burckardt’s politics was very clever: after confessing his forgery, he took advantage of the Holy Year 1475 to confess the more serious crime of theft. He was absolved and - in 1477 - was even able to return to Strasbourg with full honours. The climax of his social ascent was the very purchase - at the high cost of 450 ducats - of the charge of Master of Cerimony. Still longing for ecclesiastic aknowlegdement, in 1503 he was raised to the bishopric of Orte and Civita Castellana by Pope Iulius II, the last he served in his duty.
A curious remark: Burckardt was present at the laying of St. Peter’s basilica foundation-stone, on April 18th 1506. He died less than a month later. He was buried at St. Maria del Popolo’s church, but his tombstone was never found.


In 1489 Burckardt entered the German brotherhood of St. Maria dell’Anima, becoming soon its superintendent. 10 years later, on behalf of the brotherhood, he supervised the building of a church. Many workers were expressely called from Germany; it is probable that Burckardt made some of these workers work in the building of his own private house, which is sure as regards some stonecutters. As a matter of fact, in 1491 he had taken on lease some land with a number of buildings from the monks of Farfa. These buildings - laying very close to the via papalis - were mainly demolished in order to rebuild, except for a medieval tower, a remain of a recent and boisterous past.


Burckardt’s land bordered on the dwelling of cardinal Cesarini, who owned other estates in that area. Burckardt made a mistake building on Cesarini’s estate one of the two buildings forming his mansion (probably the one housing the kitchen, the stables and the servants’ lodgings). This event caused a long and violent quarrel between the powerful cardinal and Burckardt, which only stopped by intervention of Pope Alexander VI; the archbishop of Ragusa helped the Pope sentence wisely: B.’s house was not to be demolished - as Cesarini had been asking for after the completion of the building - but was to be inherited by the noble Roman family when Burckardt would die. The Cesarini family had powerful relatives (Colonna) and enjoyed the privilege of guarding the standard (confalon) of the city of Rome. They also were the rich owners of a vast area in St. Eustace’s neighbourhood; it was actually until the end of last century that this family ruled the whole area, at least from an architectural point of view. In Burckardt’s times, the sector currently included among Campo de’ Fiori, via dei Giubbonari, via Arenula, via di Torre Argentina and Corso Vittorio Emanule II was under Cesarini’s "jurisdiction", except for a few religious buildings, like - in the very via del Sudario - the two churches of St. Julian the Flemish and the church of the Shroud, Burckardt’s next-door neighbours.


The house of Burckardt had a very peculiar fate: though the whole area was named after it, no trace was left of the name of its owner. It was only in 1908 that scholar Domenico Gnoli had an intuition about Burckardt’s name. Gnoli found out three stone coats of arms appearing under some layers of plaster. They portrayed a star-surmounted griffin rampant, which did not match the coats of arms of cardinal Francesco Argentino (who had wrongly been identified as the owner of the building); they perfectly matched, on the contrary, the known signet of bishop Burckardt. It was also known from his diary that one of his properties bordered on the Cesarini’s estate and that the adjective for Burckardt’s native town was argentinus.The tower included into this ordinary building was therefore identified as the Torre Argentina and the mansion itself as Burckardt’s residence. In doing so, Gnoli revealed a 4-century lasting toponymy mystery; all along this period, Burckardt’s name had been swept away from everything but the name of the nearby streets: in 1510 already, just a few years later Burckardt’s death, Albertini wrote about the anonymousness of the mansion, pointed at it as "domus Episc. N., apud Turrim Argentinam..."
Burckardt’s unaware "topographic nemesis" upon "usurper" Cesarini went on long after the death of both enemies: both one of most popular areas in the very centre of Rome and the 18th Century theatre belonging to the Cesarini family stayed forever bound to Burckardt’s name.


With regard to theatres, a lot of history is interwoven into the buildings of this area of the city: the mansion is actually built upon the ruins of Pompey’s Roman theatre, the first masonry one in ancient Rome. Because of this characteristic, its cavea’s shape can still been seen in the medieval buildings arching among via dei Satiri, piazza del Pallaro e piazza del Biscione; as a matter of fact, in the Middle Ages the fundaments of Pompey’s theatre were used as bases for the rising civilian dwellings, according to a widely spread habit which nowadays would be unacceptable.
A vast garden surrounded by a four-sided portico layed before Pompey’s theatre, being separeted from it by another portico, the so-called "one-hundred columned" (hecatostylum). Via del Sudario would be the remain of a street connecting the North side of the four-sided portico to the hecatostylum.
It is also worth noticing that - upon these theatrical memories of Rome’s architecture - one of the city’s most renowned theatres would be risen in 18th Century and, since 1932, the SIAE’s theatre library in B.’s house.


In the Middle Ages this area housed popular dwellings and had plenty of fortified towers. In 15th Century, following the return of the Pope to Rome, several noble families settled here, so being close to the so-called via papalis, the triumph route of the Pope to St. Peter’s basilica. The cadastral existence of the land upon which Burckardt built up his house is first certified in a 1429 document, a sale contract for the purchase of a tenement with tower, on the behalf of Monastery of St. Vincent and Anastasius. The hypothesis of the convent was strengthened during the restoration works of Theatre Argentina, as some graves’ remains were found. It is proved that in 1491 Burckardt took on lease a "collapsing" house into these boundaries from the Monastery of Farfa. He built up his mansion on this estate, presumibly rising a tenement ex-novo and including the already existing tower in it. On the top of the tower he eventually put the golden writing Argentina, which would be seen at a distance.


Gnoli’s enthusiasm in identifying the real owner of the building, made him express some wrong opinions: "it is a singular house, certainly unique in Rome and perhaps in Italy", because he thought it was built "in the purest German style". Actually, a later analysis (Tomei, 1942) proved this house to be built in the Rome’s 15th Century typical style: in an age of population increase, there is in fact a large expansion of this type of attached houses, with two walls touching the adjoining buildings. The centre of Rome shapes itself into a web of narrow lanes, since this new building way fills up the insulae left by isolated houses in the recent past.
The mansion was completed in 1503, in the year of the quarrel against Cesarini; Burckardt’s journal testifies that the tower was already finished in 1500. It would therefore be a historic inconsistency and a mistake to think to Burckardt’s house as a "German wedge in the Renaissance Rome" (Gnoli). By that time, among the great works of Middle Renaissance, the House of the Pope’s Clerk (Palazzo della Cancelleria) was the only one that had been finished, around 1489. Bramante, Peruzzi and Raffaello were just beginning the wonderful work that was to revolutionize the architecture and that was about to displace the heart of Renaissance from Florence to Rome (Palazzo Caffarelli-Vidoni, for instance, which faces the Burcardo’s house was planned by Raffaello only in 1515). At any rate, the so-called "minor architecture" - that is residential buildings for the middle class, as the Burcardo’s one - proceeded at a less innovating pace than the art works which were also the representative mansions of noble families.
For these reasons, Burckardt’s house can be considered fully contemporary of other similar, non-aristocratic buildings. It though bears signs of refinement in the narrow fašade with its four-rank arched windows (the arches were replaced during the restoration in the late 1920s: the windows used to be rectangular shaped and the loggia was rebuilt).
Some "Germanic" features may somehow be found in a few details: the star vault in the entrance, the basket corbels carved on "peperino" stone, the round arch cambered and jutting cordoned doors in the lobby, the paintings at the first floor, the wooden-beam ceiling (which is specially rich in beams, according to a very elegant and clever architectural idea; an idea that never had many followers in Rome, a city not rich in wood).
The building risen on the Cesarini’s land - that went as far as reaching via dei Barbieri - was a service building: there were the kitchens, the stables and the servants’ lodgings; in the main towered building there were Burckardt’s apartments. The street fašade of this tenement was much rearranged during the restauration in 1931, while the courtyard fašade is closer to its original appearance (it bears a three-arch loggia leaning to the tower, which cannot be seen any longer but in the small cambered windows). In 19th Century, the new owners - Cartoni family - first cut off the top of the tower, then built up a fourth floor on the courtyard side of the building, so making the medieval monument totally disappear.
The graffito decoration Gothic elements : in the courtyard fašade, two rectangular three-light windows and - at second floor - a three-arch loggia supported by small columns; in the service building, three juxaposed rectangular three-light windows, decorated by gothic small columns but with marbles and niches in a later Italian style. The two buildings are joined by a Renaissance style edifice, probably a some years posterior to Burckardt’s death; its most peculiar feature is the nice decoration, which is scratched in a fake diamond’s point graffito technique. It was a typical decoration of early 16th Century in Rome. The building might have been an open gallery that borne an upper passage.


Since 1506 to 1820s the cadastral certificate of the Papal State testyfied that the mansion and other related buildings were owned by the Cesarinis. In 1730 they started building the Teatro Argentina: a great deal of the service building was literally cut off to house the stage, while the tower and other adjacent premises were used as service rooms for the theatre and the joining building was changed into the actors’ dressrooms.
A curious remark: In 1804 a papal edict definetely changed the toponymy of the area: what used to be called "via de’ Cesarini" was officially turned into via di Torre Argentina.
In 1824, the theatre and its related buildings were given in emphyteusis (a kind of perpetual lease) to Pietro Cartoni. After some other change of property between Cartoni and Torlonia - who had bought the theatre and owned it for a while - in 1869 the Teatro Argentina was bought by the Municipality of Rome, except for the "Cartoni building" (that is, the former Burcardo’s house). In 1882 the Municipality also bought the house, perhaps with the aim of a wider use for the theatre, but in the meanwhile some events happened: the archeological and architectural discoveries that emerged during the restoration of the theatre (the Roman ruins of the Pompey’s theatre and the remains of the medieval monastery) slowed down the works, until in the early 1900s Gnoli eventually "found out" Burckardt’s home.
So stopped they another municipal project about housing some offices in the building at via del Sudario 44/46: in 1923 they tried a first restoration on the care of the Office for Antiquity and Fine Arts. During this first work, they re-opened the portico at the second floor, two three-light windows at the first floor and the original stairs were brought back into use. In 1929 B.’s mansion was given in perpetual use to SIAE, on condition that the Society would care the restoration of the building and that would house a Museum and Theatre Library in it. The restoration - under the direction of architect Petrignani - ended in 1931. Apart from the intervention on the fašades, that early 1900s restoration mainly consisted in the removal of many elements of decay that had been accumulated in the course of the centuries: among them, a heater system for the theatre housed in the 15th Century courtyard

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