Bernini Sculpting in Clay, at the Met, closed Jan. 6 2013; at the Kimbell, Fort Worth, February 3 – April 14, 2013
Bernini Sculpting in Clay
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
October 3, 2012 – January 6, 2013
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth
February 3 – April 14, 2013
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) dazzled his contemporaries and dominated the city of Rome. He was an artist equally brilliant at sculpture, architecture, and painting, rising from a child prodigy to become the confidant of popes and sought out by sovereigns across Europe. Bernini’s creations still astound us because of their boldness and the imaginative leaps that underpinned them: the Baldacchino in St. Peter’s sets up a dynamic relationship, not only with the surrounding architecture, but also with the spectator. As his early biographer Filippo Baldinucci observed, “What appears to the spectator is something completely new, something he had never dreamt of seeing…There is no one, no matter how judicious or expert he may be, whose spirit is sufficiently satisfied by the first sight of it to form any concept other than complete wonderment.” His marbles, like Apollo and Daphne or The Ecstasy of St. Theresa, pushed stone carving to its limits and supplanted other representations of their themes; his portraiture combined psychological penetration with an almost speaking likeness.
Unlike Michelangelo, upon whose career he self-consciously modeled his own, Bernini was not averse to letting the world into his studio to watch him at work. Indeed, he was something of a performance artist, even going so far as to carve his marble portrait of the French king Louis XIV in front of the monarch and his court. He made drawings as presents for his admirers and was a pioneer of the new art form of caricature, which he shared with his inner circle. He was more cavalier, however, with his clay models, many of which were sold off surreptitiously by studio assistants to other artists. It was only gradually that these clay sketches became sought after, much as pen and oil studies by painters began to be collected. Even so, Bernini’s finished works eclipsed these clay studies until the twentieth century. Of the thousands of such sculptures he made over the course of his long life, only some forty now survive, and most of these date from the latter part of Bernini’s career. They now form the subject of a marvelous exhibition jointly mounted by the Metropolitan Museum and the Kimbell Art Museum. With fifty-two terracottas and over forty drawings, it will be the definitive presentation of these works and the role they played in the formation of Bernini’s art.
In New York, the exhibition occupies the ground floor of the Robert Lehman Wing of the Metropolitan Museum with the objects divided into sections roughly corresponding to the four sides of gallery space. The three-dimensional models occupy center stage while corresponding drawings—which in themselves would constitute a significant exhibition—are placed on adjacent walls. The works are so well lit they evoke every inflection of the clay by the artist’s hand. The exhibition has also been enriched by the loan of fifteen models from Harvard University’s Fogg Museum; it is the first time that these, the largest collection of Bernini terracottas, have been lent since their acquisition in 1937. Together, the works chronicle a fascinating counterpoint between the sculptor’s use of drawing and modeling to articulate his ideas.
Working in clay has always been an essential skill for sculptors, akin to drawing for painters and architects. Giorgio Vasari, the chronicler of Italian Renaissance artists observed that such studies supplanted draftsmanship for many sculptors, for clay often replaced paper as a sculptor’s means of clarifying his ideas. Something of that dichotomy is evident in Bernini’s approach to design. The three-dimensional models focus on issues of pose, balance, and massing while the drawings generally concentrate on a particular issue such as drapery or the effects of light as suggested by Bernini’s ineffable pen and ink washes. The earliest of the terracottas on display—a model of Charity, the Memorial for Carlo Barberini, and two studies for the colossal St. Longinus—all derive from the sculptor’s fruitful years under Urban VIII Barberini (1623-44), an ambitious pope who saw in Bernini the Michelangelo of his reign. It was Urban who introduced Bernini to architecture and laid down the first great challenges of his career in the Baldacchino and statues for the crossing piers of St. Peter’s. Bernini supervised the execution of the four statues for the piers and chose one, St. Longinus, for himself. It was a crucial challenge for the sculptor, and a visitor to Bernini’s studio reported having seen twenty-two models of the St. Longinus in the early 1630s. The two surviving models are present in the exhibition, and they demonstrate Bernini’s constant revision of his first major religious sculpture. The Fogg’s example is gilded, either indicating its role as a presentation model for the pontiff or reflecting a later fashion among collectors for elevating humble clay models to items worthy of display in their cabinets. The treatment of drapery on the Fogg version is rather tame and was later rejected by Bernini in favor of a veritable cataract of fabric, which amplifies the saint’s ecstatic state of mind. This shift of tone is registered in the second version of the Longinus from the Museo di Roma; its history is characteristic of the fate of many similar works. It was found in pieces, in a fireplace on the site of the studio of a minor Roman sculptor of the later seventeenth century and reassembled only in the 1980s. Even in its fragmentary state the work reveals how Bernini cut the finished clay model into four pieces, in conformity with the fact that the colossal marble version would have to be pieced together from four blocks of marble. Both versions of the St. Longinus have been striated by a fine-tooth tool; in the Fogg version this conforms to the effect Bernini introduced into the finished marble so that its surface would register across the cavernous distances of St. Peter’s while in the other version the effect appears to be more decorative, almost an afterthought to make the model more attractive for viewing.
After this introduction, the models skip over a decade and into the papacy of Innocent X Pamphilj (1644-55) when Bernini’s career suffered a momentary eclipse. Bernini was brought back into favor by winning the competition for the famous Four Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona, which stands in front of a palace and church under the patronage of the Pamphilj. The fountain is an extraordinary mixture of a travertine base, simulating rocks that support four marble personifications of rivers from each of the four continents; all of these elements surround an Egyptian obelisk, glorifying the papacy of Innocent. Numerous models of this commission survive, attesting to its importance, and one of the stars of the exhibition is a forceful figure of a lion (figs. 1-4), made by Bernini to guide an assistant in the execution of the stone version for the fountain. The lion was an ancillary figure on the fountain, the companion of the Nile as a symbol of the African continent. Its model has all the vitality of the best Bernini sculptures; yet it is also a calculated study in the jigsaw puzzle of assembling the fountain from myriad pieces of travertine and marble, all of which had to merge seamlessly into an ensemble. Unlike the Model for the Fountain of the Moor (fig. 7), the lion was not a presentation piece but rather a study for design issues; Bernini lavished great care on this secondary element of the fountain, which was then composed of a number of travertine blocks rather than the more prestigious marble.
Three other models here were conceived for similar purposes: surviving models for two of the four rivers—the Rio de la Plata and the Nile on loan from the Cà d’Oro in Venice—are less fresh in execution but clearly designed as aides-mémoires for the assistants who actually executed them. They offer a different glimpse of Bernini’s workshop and probably fall in the middle of the spectrum between wholly autograph sketch models and semi-autograph expressions from the sculptor’s hand. The third, a wooden model for the Four Rivers Fountain from the Accademia di Belle Arti in Bologna, emerged in the early eighteenth century and is a rare surviving example of a wooden model with terracotta and red wax to show how the finished work would look. We know that a silver model of the fountain was made under Bernini’s direction and given to the pontiff’s sister, the powerful Donna Olimpia Maidalchini; probably a bribe to influence the competition for the fountain, it no longer survives. The model from Bologna gives an idea of what the lost silver one was like. Its predominant use of wood simulates the rocky base of the fountain since wood better mimics the effect of stone than the more malleable clay; one river, the Rio de la Plata, and a fragment of a horse still remain in place.
One of the purposes of the exhibition as a whole was to make a case for the autograph status of the model for the Fountain of the Moor, a companion fountain to the Four Rivers. The terracotta was recently attributed to Bernini and is one of three by the sculptor in the collection of the Kimbell Art Museum (fig. 7). When it first appeared on the art market in 2002, there was some skepticism about its autograph status, but the bravura of its handling and its consistency with other autograph works in New York have removed any lingering doubts. The surface is masterfully handled and conveys the impression that it was dashed off in a sitting; yet details of the hair, the surface of the fish held by the Moor and the shell on which he stands confirm that this was a highly calculated piece, intended to gain the patron’s approval. The Kimbell Moor is helpfully juxtaposed with two related works, a Head of the Moor from the Museo Nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia in Rome and a Sea Deity with a Dolphin from a private collection in Milan. Both have been associated with Bernini, but visual and technical analysis demonstrates that they are not autograph. Instead, they appear to be by members of Bernini’s circle of assistants and associates. In particular, a comparison of the Head of the Moor with the Kimbell model reveals its blander expression and more schematic modeling in general. As for the Sea Deity, it has been built up in a manner unlike the Kimbell model or any of the other works in the exhibition considered as autograph.
A substantial number of clay models survive from the reign of Alexander VII Chigi (1655-67), who was second only to Urban VIII as a major patron of Bernini. He turned the sculptor more towards great architectural projects such as the Piazza in front of St. Peter’s, three churches, and the completion of his family’s chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. From this last commission of 1655, are two studies for the statues of the Old Testament prophets, Habbakuk and the Angel and Daniel in the Lion’s Den (fig. 8), both in the Musei Vaticani of Vatican City but formerly in the collection of the pope’s nephew Cardinal Flavio Chigi. Interestingly, confirmation of their autograph status was proved not only by fingerprint analysis, which has matched a print on the back of the Daniel with four others on unquestionably autograph models, but also by its status as a preparatory model. Bernini was particularly exercised by the relationship of Daniel’s torso to the arms and face, and the exhibition is fortunate in having two drawings from the Museum für Bildenden Künste, Leipzig (fig. 9), which document the trajectory of the composition from a pose based upon classical sculpture towards something more fluid and expressionistic.
Here mention should be made of the contribution to this exhibition by one of its co-curators, Anthony Sigel, Conservator of Objects at the Straus Center of the Harvard Art Museums, who has made the study of Bernini’s clay models the subject of more than a decade of research. Sigel probably understands more about Bernini’s technique than anyone alive today, and his forensic analysis extends to x-ray studies as well as pouring over each work, looking for the smallest modulations in the clay as reflections of the sculptor’s artistic personality. Sigel’s observations are matched by his photography, which capture details of the works, confirming his conclusions about the varying degrees of autography among the many models attributed to Bernini.
Sigel’s comparative study is brought to bear on the most vexing of Bernini’s later works, the models for the Angels of the Ponte Sant’Angelo. The twelve models exhibited here date from 1667-68 and were conceived for a grand project of Pope Clement IX Rospigliosi to embellish the ancient Roman bridge linking the Vatican with Rome with ten, over-life-size statues of angels bearing instruments of Christ’s Passion. Bernini was approaching the age of seventy, which meant that most of the work would be delegated to younger sculptors; yet he maintained control over the design scheme through a succession of drawings and clay models that attest to his incessant activity. One of the best preserved is the Angel with the Superscription from the Museo del Palazzo di Venezia in Rome (figs. 5-6).
The torso was made from a tightly wedged column of clay with the limbs, drapery, and wings added separately. These latter elements were modeled with a toothed tool to create striations in the drapery and clouds while an oval tool was employed to model the face to extraordinary effect, more so than in any other of the angels. Included in this group are two works by an assistant, Ercole Ferrata, and an unknown copyist, both on loan from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Both have been handled in a completely different manner from Bernini’s, his intensity and spontaneity being dissolved into a refined gracefulness. Ferrata’s model is more finished than the surviving ones by Bernini, but it was probably based upon a drawing and perhaps a sketch model for guidance. The second model from St. Petersburg is more problematic to explain although it seems likely that it was a study after a Bernini model of the kind aspiring sculptors were set during their years of apprenticeship.
Bernini Sculpting in Clay offers a feast of models testifying to the sculptor’s phenomenal skill as well as his enormous capacity of working on several projects at once without losing focus. The catalogue, co-authored by the three curators, C.D. Dickerson, Ian Wardropper, and Anthony Sigel, will find a place on the shelves of anyone interested in a seminal chapter in Baroque art. There will also be a second opportunity to see these objects set against the travertine walls of the Kimbell Museum, Louis Kahn’s architectural masterpiece in Fort Worth in 2013.
Latest posts by Bruce Boucher (see all)
- Houghton Revisited: The Walpole Masterpieces from Catherine the Great’s Hermitage, at Houghton Hall, Kings Lynn, Norfolk, 17 May to 24 November 2013 - October 15, 2013
- Bernini Sculpting in Clay, at the Met, closed Jan. 6 2013; at the Kimbell, Fort Worth, February 3 – April 14, 2013 - December 27, 2012
- Lorenzo Lotto, Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome, March 2 – June 12, 2011 - April 17, 2011