'The Triumph of the Baroque' exhibition is magnificent - large, sprawling, theatrical and housed in one of the most intriguing Baroque palaces in Europe. Loosely structured, it offers visitors the thrill of genuine discovery as they wander from room to room, never quite knowing what to expect next.
With some 80 architectural models from all over Europe at its core, the exhibition attempts to tell the story of Baroque architecture without ever quite defining what it is (beyond suggesting that it reflects the aesthetic spirit of the age). This means that it is extraordinarily inclusive, incorporating models of buildings generally thought to be anti-Baroque (William Kent's Palladian scheme of 1735 for Richmond Palace) and, for instance, a display of 'Fantasies in Architecture' - paintings by such artists as Codazzi, William Marlow and the Riccis. Some of these are Baroque in spirit but others could be called Picturesque, Romantic, even Neo-Classical. This overlapping and seemingly self-contradictory nature of the show is in many ways more satisfying than an attempt at clinical analysis.
Threaded through the axially-organised interior of Juvarra's Palazzina di Caccia di Stupinigi (1730s), the exhibition starts with a darkened room in which loom large new white-painted models of exemplary Baroque facades and domes - Borromini's Sant Ivo, Cortona's Santa Maria della Pace. From then on, the different rooms are generally organised around a building type - not necessarily the best approach. While it sometimes brings impressive results (the street of churches is particularly good), the material may have been better organised by date, or geographically (to show various regional and national expressions of Baroque), or by type of model.
Architectural models served many functions. They could be a means of presenting a project to a client, a design tool to test architectural ideas, a way of exploring constructional possibilities or of explaining structural solutions to tradesmen. Or they could be rather grand dolls' houses, made as an ornament after the building was completed. All categories are represented here but rarely are the intentions behind the models fully considered or explained.
But if the impact of the exhibition is no greater than the sum of its parts, some of those parts are very wonderful indeed. Particularly memorable are the models which attempt to test or display structural solutions or interior schemes. The model of the Biblioteca Marucelliana, made c. 1740 to the designs of Alessandro Dori, is a mighty hinged affair which opens to reveal a vaulted and decorated interior, while the huge model of the main staircase, vestibule and chapel of Vanvitelli's Palazzo Reale, Caserta, reveals long vistas through the building.
The British presence in the exhibition is slight, with no concerted attempt to explain the idiosyncratic and original contribution that British architects made to the international Baroque style - despite excellent catalogue notes by John Wilton-Ely on the British exhibits. Wren's City churches - the biggest and best church-building campaign undertaken in any city during the Baroque period - are hardly mentioned; St Paul's Cathedral gets just a passing remark or two, a few illustrations and a painting by Canaletto (but then the Dean and Chapter refused to lend the Great Model). Hawksmoor's London churches, the apogee of this style, are only alluded to; James Gibbs, however, is well represented with the fine contemporary models of his St Martin-in-the-Fields and St Mary-le-Strand.
This is, of course, the problem with an exhibition largely organised around contemporary models - so many major buildings don't get a mention simply because no model was made or survives. But if some things are missed, the exhibition as a whole is breathtaking. It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see some of the most extraordinary architectural models ever made.
Dan Cruickshank is an architectural historian