Rome may not have been built in a day, but it seems as if the great Gian Lorenzo Bernini was responsible for much of it. The exhibition Bernini: Sculpting in Clay just closing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art tells us how. It all begins with the terracotta modello.
This completely satisfying show—simultaneously pleasurable and scholarly, substantial yet beautiful—examines the “building blocks” that the sculptor/painter/architect Bernini used to change the face of what was previously an ancient and medieval city with a light Renaissance overlay. Bernini essentially wrought the city we experience today—the grand crossroads of the world, the Baroque city of splendor and faith, the epicenter of the Counter-Reformation. He transformed the Eternal City through great public works—fountains, piazzas, palazzi and churches—and within those created chapels, decorative schemes, staircases, large-scale sculpture, tombs and the like. And it really did begin humbly with baked clay (terra cotta in Italian, fired after sculpting to preserve them) bozzetti (“sketches”), alongside more formal modelli, and of course, drawings. The present exhibition, which closes the 6th January and travels to the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth (3 February-13 April 2013), presents a very serious discussion of the much-fraught field of Bernini’s clay models used in preparation for his larger-scale works. The three curators—C.D. Dickerson, Anthony Sigel, and Ian Wardropper—go to great lengths to examine and analyze these clay models to determine how they were made, what roles they played in the development of the given project, and by whose hand these models are from. In short, they employ both connoisseurship to determine authorship (and authenticity) and rigorous scientific analysis (Sigel is Harvard Art Museums’ objects conservator, who spent years photographing and testing the clay sculptures).
The result is an immensely rewarding walk through the great Baroque monuments of Rome (and a few belonging elsewhere) that is as aesthetically pleasing—sumptuously installed in the Met’s Lehman Wing—as it is intellectually satisfying. The eye travels from terracotta work, to nearby preparatory drawing and finally to a photomural of the finished project. An excellent example of this type of comparative looking is the late Chigi Chapel project. Pope Alexander VII Chigi lavished a number of commissions on the sculptor, one of which was his family’s chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. Two marble sculptures in niches—Daniel in the Lions’ Den and Habakkuk and the Angel—decorated the chapel and two terracottas for the respective marbles are included here. The visitor can compare the drawing for the Daniel (c. 1655 from Leipzig) with the terracotta sculpture (c. 1655; Musei Vaticani, Rome) and a photograph of the marble in situ. In so doing, we are allowed to trace the development from concept to production to finished work in as complete a manner as is possible within a museum (and one not in Rome at that). The accompanying didactic material is excellent: handsomely designed, very clear and, interestingly, low-tech. No touch screens and computer monitors; traditional text panels with photographs convey a wealth of information about production and scientific analysis. Halfway through the show, a terrific map of the city—“Bernini’s Transformation of Rome”—is projected on a wall with looping images of Bernini’s projects around Rome as depicted in period engravings.
The exhibition proper opens with a contemporary map of Rome by Antonio Tempesta to set the stage, along with Bernini’s brilliant drawing of his own Self-Portrait (c. 1625; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford University). This 1593 map of the city was updated in version of 1645 exhibited here, dedicated to one of the Barberini cardinals, the family who did so much for Bernini’s early career. The drawing shows a young man with tousled hair, as sculptural as in his marble portraits with their exquisite contrasts of textures.
Even though the present exhibition gathers together for the first time “nearly all” of the clay models and drawings, there is the welcome inclusion of a marble in the Met’s installation. This is its own Bacchanal: A Faun Teased by Children, jointly made by Bernini and his father, Pietro, around 1616-17. The elegantly carved, extravagantly posed faun shows even at this early date the masterful manipulation of surface textures for which Bernini would become renown, and serves as a point of departure in the accompanying catalogue for Dickerson to question where Bernini picked up the habit of articulating his first thoughts in clay bozzetti, as well as in drawings, in the absence of just such a tradition in Rome at the time. His introductory essay is fascinating, and lacking a “smoking gun”— no clay sculptures for Bernini’s early works survive, if as he argues, they existed—it makes a brave, but believable, leap to possible sources (father Pietro and Stefano Maderno) and a proposed technical course.
Then the exhibition delves into the clay sculptures themselves. While the show itself doesn’t distinguish for the visitor the rather significant categories of the clay model, the catalogue does: the bozzetto or sketch, then the preparatory model (more finished, either for execution, presentation, or both), and then sometimes the modello grande (a “large” model to scale, for positioning or execution). Wardropper usefully sorts out the relationship of the preparatory drawings to the clay models. The absorbing essay by Andrea Bacchi provides a framework for our understanding of the role of the workshop—of assistants—within Bernini’s output, and Tomaso Montanari completes the picture with his helpful chapter on the taste for and collecting of clay sculptures and Bernini’s hand in creating that fashion. By extension, Bernini can be seen as responsible for ultimately forming the taste for “plain” terracotta sculpture as would reach its zenith in the 18th and 19th centuries with Clodion, Houdon, Canova and Carpeaux.
A thorough look at an early project—the St. Longinus, for which many studies, both drawn and in clay exist—takes up a significant portion of the first section of the exhibition. The Longinus was made for a niche in one of the great crossing piers of St. Peter’s finished in 1638 (the saint being the Roman soldier who was converted after piercing with his lance Christ’s side while on the cross). Here are displayed two terracottas and four drawings from the Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, Germany, that demonstrate the development of the finished marble sculpture from drawings which deal with the saint’s torso and drapery studies to the terracotta bozzetti. The example from the Harvard Art Museums is gilded, providing a fascinating example of a moment in the collecting of these small sculptures when the earthy terracotta itself wasn’t deemed luxurious enough for collectors’ galleries, and so as Montanari points out, were gilded, silvered, lacquered or painted in imitation of “proper” sculptures in precious metals or bronze.
It should be noted here that without the Harvard Art Museums’ Fogg Art Museum there would be no exhibition and probably no study of Bernini’s terracottas. It is the star lender to the show, for in 1937 Harvard purchased from a Mrs. Mary Brandegee in Brookline the most comprehensive group of Bernini’s small clay sculptures in existence (strange but true, she having acquired them from a Roman dealer in 1905). Even more admirably, Harvard has demonstrated an ongoing commitment to this area, continuing to add to the group, as one can see in other loans such as the bronze of Countess Matilda of Tuscany acquired in 1998, for example.
Perhaps the high point of the exhibition—out of many—comes in the elegant room dedicated to Roman fountain projects and two of the greatest Roman chapels, the Cornaro in Santa Maria della Vittoria and the Altieri in San Francesco a Ripa.
Whenever I think of Rome, I think of the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, the precise heart of the Eternal City. It is nothing short of thrilling to see a number of highly important models for the beloved fountain which in essence defines the Roman Baroque, this piazza, and perhaps, the city itself. First in view is the spectacular but fragmentary wood and terracotta model for the Quattro Fiumi from the Accademia di Belli Arti, Bologna—while Bernini and his studio fairly frequently produced large wood and clay models—this is the only one to survive. Particularly interesting were the carved wooden details—such as a palm tree and the great rocky outcroppings—in addition to the more expected attached terracotta figures. It attempted to relay in clay and wood what Bernini’s workshop would carve in travertine and marble. Even though this model is much damaged—of the Four Rivers, only the Rio de la Plata remains here—this still impressive object gives us an idea of what exactly what a Bernini presentation model looked like.
It is particularly instructive to have to the left and right of the Four Rivers model the very beautiful modelli of the personifications of the Rio de la Plata and the Nile, and the magnificent, large-scale model of the lion seen at the base of the fountain’s rockery, all of which are here given directly to Bernini himself. With the wooden model, these three terracottas form an unparalleled ensemble that allow us to better understand the Four Rivers fountain and Bernini’s working method with respect to these major public works projects. After working up a sculpture’s initial designs in drawing and clay (bozzetti), Bernini would either—depending on the project and the skill level of the available sculptors—leave those to a trusted associate such as Ercole Ferrata or Antonio Raggi to make the modello from which the large-scale figure was carved. If assistants of that caliber weren’t available, Bernini himself would translate the bozzetto to the modello stage, so that he was more directly able to guide these studio assistants through a detailed model placed right in front of their eyes.
The Model of the Lion on the Four Rivers Fountain (c. 1649-50; Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome) and the two rivers personifications (both in the collection of the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti, Ca’ d’Oro, Venice) are consummately made by Bernini, but the curators make their argument based not only on connoisseurship—or the quality and discernment of the master’s hand—but analysis of the evidence. This includes such lines as drawn on the lion’s haunches that indicate the placement of the travertine blocks with which Bernini would have been concerned or the identification of a fingerprint—probably Bernini’s—on the Rio de la Plata, the sculpture of which then by stylistic analysis is connected to the Nile. Ergo, Bernini is responsible for them both. Finally, there are the reasoned deductions drawn from the documentary evidence. For example, while the accomplished Raggi was responsible for carving the Danube, the far less talented Francesco Baratta was given the Rio de la Plata and Giacomo Antonio Fancelli the Nile. Knowing this, and witnessing the high level of execution of those latter two modelli, it is safe to infer that the master produced them in order to guide Baratta and Fancelli, while Raggi was fine on his own.
In the end, while these models played critical roles in the production of these large-scale projects, we regard them as aesthetic objects in their own right, this as Montanari argues, was a trend for which Bernini himself was responsible. We marvel at the bravura with which the lion is rendered or at the delicate veil around the head of the Nile—made by a single sheet of clay—referring to the mysterious source of that river (not discovered until the 19th century). Finally, we are astonished that these fragile clay sculptures have survived at all over almost four centuries.
Likewise, the Kimbell Art Museum’s Model for the Fountain of the Moor is attributed to Bernini himself on the basis of quality, this singular and highly refined modello stands out in Bernini’s career. It forms the basis for the fountain just south of the Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona. Not really a “Moor” (an old-fashioned reference to a person of Afro-Arabic origins) but so-called because of the swarthy features of this expressive sea god perched on a baroque conch shell. Giovanni Antonio Mari carved the figure for the fountain completed in 1655, and in the exhibition nearby is a terracotta head of the Moor (Palazzo Venezia, Rome). This is ascribed possibly to Mari, which indeed in comparison to the superbly sculpted face of the Kimbell model, is clearly by another, less accomplished hand. The fragmentary head lacks the energy of modeling—especially in the facial hair—and the dramatic contrasts of texture for which Bernini is so well known. The curators logically eliminate by comparison the carver of the Moor and then ask who else could have made the terracotta. It is useful to compare the figure of the Rio de la Plata and Kimbell Moor. Both share the textured surface imparted by brushing a metal comb across the wet clay, in a sense a sort of rustication. By implication, they mutually reinforce the other’s attribution to Bernini, the Plata river god bears a fingerprint identified as Bernini’s, the Moor bears the identical texturing technique as the river god, and they are both produced with the greatest level of mastery.
This then is the greatest achievement of the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue, that through intricate, but very clear methods of deduction and analysis—both scientific and stylistic—a lucid map is produced to aid our understanding of Bernini’s clay models (and the respective roles of bozzetti, modelli, etc.), his working methods and issues of attribution and authenticity.
The point continues to be driven home in examples associated with two of Bernini’s greatest Roman private chapels. The quality and technique of Harvard’s extraordinary terracotta relief which shows members of the Cornaro family is revealing. They are arranged in a quasi-theatre box from which they look on at the golden splendor of the ecstasy of St. Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria (finished 1652). The architectural background is described in basso relievo—the shallowest of relief—really scratched into the clay, which nevertheless creates a sense of a magnificent barrel-vaulted space. The project is also represented by a beautiful model for the face of St. Teresa of Avila (also in the collection of Palazzo Venezia, Rome). However, through an analysis of the model’s structure—using observation and x-radiographs to understand how it was produced—the curators determined that it was made by someone other than Bernini and is likely a copy after Bernini’s sculpture. This project would also have been represented in the exhibition by a large modello of the angel piercing the heart of the ecstatic St. Teresa from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. However, the Russians—due to a years-long embargo of artwork to the U.S. (due to a minor lawsuit in a Los Angeles court)—have frustrated loans to this exhibition and many, many others ranging from Islamic treasures to Matisse paintings. In this case, it has regrettably prevented key selections from the important group of Hermitage terracottas from being considered in the revisionist context of this critically important exhibition.
Two decades later Bernini treated yet another woman in ecstasy—this time the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni—as the focal point of the Altieri chapel in San Francesco a Ripa. This marvelously kinetic sculpture—the finished marble is every bit as elastic seeming as the clay model—depicts the beatified Franciscan nun whose tomb figure Bernini finished in 1674. The sense of Ludovica’s sheer rapture and blissful communion with God is conveyed by the curled big toe of her right foot in the clay model. While this detail is slightly muted in the finished marble (her foot is shod in the second model—also embargoed by the Russians from the exhibition—and in the finished marble), it is nonetheless an astonishingly earthy and sensual comment by Bernini on the nature of ecstasy, heavenly or otherwise.
Other highlights in this show of extraordinary objects are the two modelli for additional Chigi projects. The first is the highly refined model for the Cathedra Petri—or the Throne of St. Peter—and its Celestial Glory (finished 1666). As anyone who has visited the Basilica of St. Peter’s knows, it is the absolute focal point of the entire church, coming at the end of the immensely long nave, behind the altars against the back wall. The splendor of this decorative ensemble is difficult to describe, its literal glory conveyed by Bernini in gilded bursts of rays streaming from an actual stained glass window. Directly below is St. Peter’s throne, supported by the four eminent “Fathers” of the Church, whose theological teachings uphold—as they do here literally—the Church and its claim for St. Peter as Christ’s vicar on earth. Gold and bronze comprise this ensemble; the splendid throne actually acts as a reliquary—a container—for the very chair St. Peter is said to have used as the first bishop in the original church on this site—the nexus of Christianity.
The hardly less impressive model in clay—one of the treasures of the Detroit Institute of Arts—is probably that mentioned by sources as the presentation model given to Pope Alexander VII. The curators argue for its being made by Bernini in concert with assistants responsible for various elements of the chair and its decoration, although the reliefs are probably by the master, the most important on the center of throne showing Christ’s charge to Peter to feed his sheep.
Alexander VII commissioned not only the Cathedra Petri and the family chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, but also a family chapel in the cathedral of the Chigi’s hometown of Siena. There Bernini carved two full-size statues in niches, one of the Magdalene and the other of St. Jerome. The full-length marble shows the swooning St. Jerome embracing a crucifix, his face pressed against it. The study for this expressive head (c. 1661; Harvard Art Museums) is nothing short of stupendous and is amazingly—despite the fact that these head studies must have been relatively common—Bernini’s only surviving full scale model head. The toothed striations in the hair and beard attest to the master’s touch.
The exhibition closes with an exhaustive—and to tell the truth, exhausting—look at Bernini’s last projects, the Ponte Sant’Angelo (1668-72) and the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament in St. Peter’s (completed 1674). There are numerous bozzetti, modelli, assistants and associates involved in the production of these late projects. Bernini, for example, was responsible for only two of the figures on the angelic bridge, and the Blessed Sacrament chapel was in gestation for four decades. The elaborate installation at the Met attempts to recreate the feel of the Ponte Sant’Angelo, configured as it is like the bridge with the terracottas running down each side on baluster-like pedestals.
Bernini: Sculpting in Clay as an exhibition achieves both the examination of a very specific problem—here the role, method, attribution, and survival of the artist’s clay models—and the consequent illumination of the larger implications posed by these works. In the Italian Renaissance and Baroque, the concept or design of the artwork always took precedence over its actual production. This exhibition and its publication clearly reveal Bernini’s stake in that intellectual premise—the predominance of idea, concetto, invenzione—as opposed to the object’s mere manufacture (oh, but what manufacture, whether Bernini’s own skilled hand or that of his assistants from Finelli to Ferrata!). Among his sublime masterpieces—and landmarks of Western art history—such as the Cornaro Chapel, the Fountain of the Four Rivers or the immense decorative ensemble that is St. Peter’s, inside and out—the ideas were completely his, but the execution was by others. From the workshops of the early Renaissance to the large, productive and erudite circle of artists around Raphael, Bernini carried on this legacy. Regardless of what one might think of the work of a Jeff Koons or a Damien Hirst, the primacy of idea, the negation of the master’s hand, and the workshop tradition inform our very own contemporary artistic practices. Bernini: Sculpting in Clay reveals what a potent—and venerable—tradition this is.