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College of Architecture’s John Alexander receives Fulbright research grant

Alexander will explore Italian archives about Tridentine-period cardinal and his patronage of urban development.

By Sherrie Voss Matthews, International Media & Marketing Coordinator

An interesting story hides among the archives in Italy. John Alexander, associate professor of architectural history, plans to use his Fulbright research grant to find it.

Alexander knew he had stumbled across a fascinating story.john alexander

 In 2003, while researching his book, he found letters between Cesare Gambara, the bishop of Tortona, and the Milanese Archbishop Carlo Borromeo  in which Borromeo gave a pointed verbal smack down. In an era when everything was done in a civilized — often obsequious — manner, the tone struck Alexander.

“I came across these letters where Borromeo was giving the bishop a tongue-lashing, blunt and chastising,” he recalls. 

Borromeo lamented Gambara's frequent visits home to Brescia, visits which were often extended by a series of excuses that Borromeo clearly didn't accept.  Alexander was only able to jot down some notes and do a little digging, but he learned that Tortona had a program of urban redevelopment and architectural projects that gave the city an ideal ecclesiastical center.  He also learned that the Bishop Gambara was adamantly opposed to them.

Gambara was being forced to accept a project for a new cathedral on a new, centrally located urban space. The project was pushed forward by Gian Paolo Della Chiesa, a native of Tortona.  A legal genius, Della Chiesa became an important political figure in 16th century Milan. He later took holy orders in the Roman Catholic Church and become a cardinal and representative of Pope Pius V.

Under recently issued decrees of the Council of Trent, the bishop should have been allowed to reject the project, but in the end his authority was overruled by both Archbishop Borromeo and the Pope.

“‘This is great,’” Alexander recalls thinking. “It's a really complicated but fascinating story that adds some depth and nuance to the understanding of the era.”

With a book to finish, Alexander set the letters aside and hoped to follow up on Della Chiesa’s story someday.

In 2009, he had a chance to explore a little further.

Alexander received a UTSA TRAC research grant, which allowed him to travel to Italy and build relationships with local scholars who were working on similar lines of research:  Antonella Perin at the University of Turin, Maurizio Sangalli at the Università per stranieri di Siena, as well as Guiseppe De Carlini, archivist of the Tortona diocesan archives. 

The TRAC grant allowed Alexander to delve deeper into the social and architectural history of Tortona and work closely with his colleagues as they explored 16th century Tortona. That research made it possible for Alexander to lay the groundwork of the project and later apply for the Fulbright.

“We’re moving ahead, but what I really needed was funding for one part,” Alexander says. The Fulbright grant will allow him to spend time in the spring of 2013 searching through the Italian state archives in Como, Milan and Rome, the Vatican archives and the archives of significant religious orders in hopes of finding a treasure trove of detail about Della Chiesa’s patronage.

Della Chiesa’s cathedral was designed as the center of the town in keeping with Tridentine thought: The Church should be at the center of life.

“His projects gave the town an urban form and architectural components that proclaimed it to be a diocesan see [the city where the cathedral is located],” Alexander explains. “It is in the geographic center of town, the ideal urban space with the cathedral in the perfect spot . . . it seems to express the nature of the Church following the Council of Trent.”

Bishop Gambara, who was perfectly happy with his existing cathedral, attempted to block the project at every turn and raised concerns that the project was unfunded and expensive.

Della Chiesa, meanwhile, developed his plans and negotiated the sale of the existing cathedral to the Augustinian order. Even after his death in 1575, Chiesa had his way; the pope found funds to complete the cathedral, and Bishop Gambara was forced to move his ecclesiastical home.

“There is seething umbrage over his authority being usurped by a cardinal within his own diocese,” Alexander says. “We know bits and pieces of what [Cardinal Della Chiesa] was involved in or what he was responsible for, but there has never been a comprehensive look at his patronage.

 “With a little luck, by going and digging in the archives, hopefully I’ll come across something.”