Bernini: sculpting in clay

Jan 11, 2013 2505


February 3, 2013 to April 14, 2013

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who lived between 1598 and 1680, was the greatest sculptor of the 17th century—the Michelangelo of his age. He did for sculpture what Caravaggio did for painting, invigorating it with an unprecedented sense of drama and naturalism that launched the artistic age known as the Baroque. Over a career that spanned nearly 70 years, he reshaped the face of Rome with his spirited works—from marble statues of saints in chapels to dramatic fountains in civic spaces. Even today, visitors to Rome can hardly go anywhere without being dazzled by his genius, and they may wonder how he conceived such complex and monumental works. The answer can be found in the terracotta models and drawings he produced in the process of developing ideas for his large-scale sculptures.

The brilliantly expressive clay models created by Bernini in preparation for his masterful works in marble and bronze offer extraordinary insights into his creative imagination. Marked with impressions from the artist's fingers and tools, these models give the viewer a sense of looking over Bernini's shoulder as the sculptures were taking shape. Most of the terracottas are executed in a loose style that conveys great speed and dexterity, as well as the artist's concern with developing the best possible design. The models have been long admired and continue to be much sought after by major museums in Europe and the United States; the Kimbell is fortunate to own three of the very best. Nevertheless, they have never before been the subject of a comprehensive exhibition. This changes on October 2, when Bernini: Sculpting in Clay opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exhibition, co-organized by the Kimbell, travels to Fort Worth early next year.

Bernini: Sculpting in Clay seeks a deeper understanding of the sculptor through a careful analysis of 49 terracotta models. The majority of these are by Bernini—virtually all the ones known today that can be securely attributed to him. Bernini used clay for two main purposes. At the beginning of a project, he loved making rapid sketches—bozzetti—with his hands and an assortment of tools, much as a painter might make a series of quick compositional drawings before painting. (Consider a detail of one of Bernini's greatest bozzetti, for an angel in Saint Peter's Basilica, on the back cover.) Later in the process, he used clay to make more finished sculptures—modelli—either to show to a patron to win a commission or to give to an assistant to guide the realization of his ideas in marble or bronze. Faced with the impossibility of carving the massive Fountain of the Four Rivers by himself, Bernini created drawings and models in order to communicate his ideas to the sculptors hired to help him. Several of these models will be exhibited at the Kimbell, including a magnificent lion and a figure representing the Rio de la Plata, a South American river.

The exhibition will also feature a selection of models by assistants that were part of projects supervised by Bernini. A spectacular example is Antonio Raggi's Sea Deity with Dolphin, which was preparatory for a fountain at a palace in northern Italy that Bernini was asked to design; the gifted Raggi was responsible for executing the fountain, and Bernini asked him to make the model, as well. Visitors will gain a vivid sense of how Bernini fulfilled a steady stream of monumental commissions in 17th-century Rome's busiest sculpture studio.

In addition to exploring why Bernini made his models, the exhibition investigates how they were made. In preparation for the exhibition, the curators—one of whom, Anthony Sigel of the Harvard Art Museums, is also a conservator—examined each terracotta minutely for evidence of the steps involved in its making. Certain patterns emerged, and it is now possible to "read" the models as we might a painting or a drawing, searching for those tool marks or modeling gestures that are distinctive of Bernini—his modeling handwriting. Knowing how he modeled has permitted a more systematic approach to judging which models are by him and which are not. In some cases, fingerprint analysis was used to help make determinations. Because Bernini used his hands to make his models, he left numerous fingerprints in the clay. The curators photographed each of these fingerprints and submitted the photographs to a forensic expert in the United Kingdom for analysis. Among the matches he was able to confirm is one on the Rio de la Plata, which all but secures the attribution to Bernini—an attribution that had been debated.

Models are not all that visitors to Bernini: Sculpting in Clay will have the chance to enjoy. More than 20 of his drawings will be on display, including a brilliant self-portrait in colored chalk, which likely dates to about 1625, as Bernini was completing his most famous sculpture, the Apollo and Daphne in Rome's Galleria Borghese. The rest of the drawings are chosen to help demonstrate that Bernini did not limit his planning to clay. In fact, he sometimes started on paper before moving to clay or alternated between the two media. As he began work on his marble Daniel in the Lions' Den, executed about 1656 for a chapel in Rome, he turned principally to drawing, preparing a series of sheets focused on the figure's pose. Later, he used clay to explore the entire composition. At the Kimbell, the resulting model will be displayed in proximity to one of the drawings. Visitors will be invited to go between the two and contemplate the subtle ways Bernini edited himself.

Bernini: Sculpting in Clay will be full of such experiences. Visitors cannot help but leave feeling as though they have stood with Bernini as he worked to develop the fountains, sculptures, and tombs that bejewel Rome.

Bernini: Sculpting in Clay is organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Kimbell Art

Museum. It is supported by a grant from the Crystelle Waggoner Charitable Trust.

Caption: Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Model for the Lion on the Four Rivers Fountain (detail), c. 1649–50, terracotta. Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome. Photo by Zeno Colantoni

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