Giovanni Domenico Barbieri

by Elisabeth Schinagl

Giovanni Domenico Barbieri

Baroque master builder from Graubünden – guest workers in the service of beauty

Roveredo, 14 January 1704: in this small town, which is part of the Italian-speaking part of the Grisons, Giovanni Domenico was born as the third of ten children of Bartolomeo and Eufemia Barbieri.

One more eater in the family. The father is not very successful as a merchant, he can hardly feed the family. The children have to contribute to the meagre breadwinning at an early age.

Young Domenico is hired as a cattle herder as soon as possible. Until well into October he is barefoot with the cattle in the mountains and often suffers from severe stomach aches due to the severe cold. The intelligent boy can only attend school with the Capuchin Fathers from late autumn to spring. Luckily, his grandfather can teach him a lot more.

Actually the boy would be gifted for a higher education, but the financial circumstances of the family do not allow it. The father needs his manpower. Finally he decides that his son should learn the masonry trade.

A momentous decision, because it means that the boy has to leave his home country.

For generations, many famous builders and architects have come from the poor Graubünden valley, making their fortunes abroad, in Bavaria, in Austria, and even in Poland: Men such as Giovanni Antonio Viscardi, who built the pilgrimage church Mariahilf in Freystadt, Bavaria, or Enrico Zuccalli, who completed the Munich Theatiner Church and built Nymphenburg Palace, or Gabriel de Gabrieli, who worked in Vienna, Ansbach and Eichstätt.

In groups, the Graubünden construction workers move across the San Bernardino to where their labour and skills are in demand.

Some, including Barbieri, thus arrive in the small prince-bishopric of Eichstätt. It takes ten days to walk from the Misox Valley over the San Bernadino to the town on the Altmühl, to foreign lands. The 16-year-old Barbieri does not speak a word of German when he arrives there on February 6, 1720. On his first building site he is the only one of the so-called “welsche Bauleute”. He feels lonely and desperate, often homesick, but a return to his homeland fails because of money. Whatever he can spare, he sends home to support the family as best he can.

Despite all the adverse circumstances, he does not let himself be beaten. He understands that he must learn if he wants to get ahead, and teaches himself the foreign language by copying words from books.

The young man is obviously capable and reliable. Already in his second year of apprenticeship he is entrusted with the supervision of some workers. Over the years he became the closest confidant of the famous court architect Gabriel de Gabrieli and his “right hand”.

Gabrieli’s son Wilhelm, who fell ill with dysentery, died in the arms of the young Barbieri. A few years later – on 21 March 1747 – Gabrieli himself died. Barbieri took care of his estate and the execution of his funeral monument, which can still be seen today at Eichstätter Friedhof.

Even though many of his buildings still have a strong visual impact on Eichstätt and its surroundings, Barbieri cannot compete with the fame of many of his compatriots, he certainly does not belong to the greats of architectural history.

But he has something ahead of the famous masters that makes him interesting for us: Barbieri has left a kind of diary that gives us very detailed insights into his life. Beginning with his arrival in Eichstätt, he thus lets us share in his life over four decades, from 1720 to 1763.

His records tell us how a court master mason of the 18th century lived in a small prince-bishopric like Eichstätt, what difficulties he had to deal with, what income he had, what he spent money on. They thus offer an extremely rare glimpse into the life of a simple man at a time when the nobility set the tone in society.

Barbieri’s life is marked by competition between the builders, famine, disease and the chaos of war.

Although he marries a woman from his home in Graubünden, the family is usually separated. At most during the winter months, when the construction sites are idle, he can travel home. Due to the war, he does not return home for many years, although he is tormented by the longing for his Graubünden home all his life.

Not even his final resting place is granted him at home: He died in 1764 at the age of 60 in Eichstätt and is buried there.

His tomb shows a portrait of the architecture that Barbieri served throughout his life.

Elisabeth Schinagl retells the story of this man based on Barbieri’s diary entries. You can buy it by clicking on the picture to the right!

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