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Art Historian Delves Into the Origins of the Modern City

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Robin Thomas, assistant professor of art history

Many modern cities throughout the world can be easily identified solely by the architecture of their public buildings. Mention New York, Paris, or Sydney, and people envision the Empire State Building, the Louvre, the Sydney Opera House. Robin Thomas takes his readers back in time to the origins of the modern city. In his first book, Architecture and Statecraft: Charles of Bourbon’s Naples 1734–59 (Penn State Press, 2013), Thomas, assistant professor of art history, examines the remaking of Naples, Italy, under King Charles Bourbon of Spain, and addresses the political, social, economic, and cultural importance of the royal building program.

“The eighteenth century was a golden age of public building. Governments constructed theaters, museums, hospices, asylums, and marketplaces to forge a new type of city, one that is recognizably modern,” Thomas says. “Yet the dawn of this urban development remains obscure.” In 1737, King Charles Bourbon of Spain embarked upon the most extensive architectural and urban program of the entire century. A comprehensive study of these Neapolitan buildings does not exist, and thus Thomas’s book fills an important gap in the scholarship and connects Charles’s urban improvements to his consolidation of the monarchy. By intertwining architecture and sovereignty, Thomas provides a framework for understanding how politics created the eighteenth-century capital.

Heather Hyde Minor, assistant professor of architectural history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, describes Architecture and Statecraft as a beautifully written and carefully researched book. “Robin Thomas brings to life the rich conglomeration of the king’s buildings, from Europe’s most celebrated opera house to one of its largest poorhouses. Embezzling architects, reformist statesmen, boisterous nobles, a homely king, brilliant musicians, proud cavalrymen, and humble poor populate the book’s pages.”

Thomas teaches courses in Renaissance and Baroque architecture and urbanism. Specializing in baroque architecture in Naples, his interests include early-modern urbanism; the social function of buildings, music and space; and the intellectual formation of the architect.  His publications include translations of philosophical texts by Neapolitan Giambattista Vico, and articles on the Duca di Noja map of Naples (1775) and the architect Luigi Vanvitelli in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (December 2010).

Thomas’ research has been supported by numerous fellowships, including a Fulbright Fellowship; Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation Fellowship in the Humanities; Rudolph Wittkower Dissertation Fellowship; Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University Fellowship; Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and a summer research grant from the Penn State Institute for the Arts and Humanities.

For more information about Thomas’ book, visit