Admin note: I had the pleasure of reviewing this book  as an assignment for a course on Bernini that I recently took at University of St Andrews. A couple of months later, I attended a research seminar, held by C.D. Dickerson III,on the same topic, which I am happy to say, was one of the best talks that I experienced in a long time. Further details about the exhibition can be found here, and the catalogue can be purchased from here or here.

 

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Bernini: Sculpting in Clay Exhibition Catalogue
Image copyright: The Kimbell Art Museum

“Dazzled by the artist’s energy and creativity, modern visitors to Italy may wonder how Bernini conceived such complex and spirited works. The answers can be found in the terracotta models and drawings produced in the process of developing ideas for his large-scale works in marble and bronze […] the small clay models intimately reveal Bernini’s own skill and personality.” (cited from Director’s Foreword, p. vi)

 

Small fragments from Director Thomas P. Campbell’s foreword, these three phrases crystallize the main intention behind the exhibition recently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bernini is a prolific artist, whose interests ranged from architecture to sculpture, painting, stage designing and even play-writing; although his terracotta models have long been relished among connoisseurs, and a considerable amount of academic work has been published about them, but never before did they receive such extensive attention. This exhibition, as C.D. Dickerson III states in his introduction,[1] tries to facilitate an intimate view of these models for both specialists and the wide public.  The pivotal aim of this monumental book is to translate this in writing, while engaging in theoretical debates over some important aspects in Bernini’s working method. Therefore, the vast catalogue (formed of 256 pages summing up 52 richly illustrated entries) is preceded by a collection of five essays that create a unified body of scholarly research, a visual glossary, and succeeded by a substantial index and an extensive bibliography.

 In the Introduction, Dickerson assumes the role of mediator between the researchers behind the exhibition, the initiated and the public, in a clear, straightforward manner. Moreover, the reader receives details about specific items, present or absent from the exhibition and, notably, information about specific terms used throughout the book: for instance, the use of attributed to raises questions in terms of authorship, as Dickerson honestly admits the problematic situation with some of the works.

 The essays are comprehensive in nature, giving an overview that ranges from biographical information to historiography. Dickerson, the author of the fist essay, places Bernini in the broader artistic context of the XVII century Italian art. Focusing exclusively on sculpture, the author explains how Bernini became to be a genuine virtuoso of the marble, arguing that modelling in clay was a very important stage in the artistic creation. Looking at the practice of sculpting as a family tradition, the author acknowledges the close professional relationship between Gian Lorenzo and his father, Pietro, as fundamental to the former’s artistic development; he also dismisses former views that labelled Pietro as unimaginative. Unfortunately, the argument looses in clarity due to the presence of numerous unnecessary biographical details and background information[2] – a more efficient method would have been perhaps selecting the facts that are strictly necessary for the argument and dividing it into more sections. Dickerson also emphasizes on the important part Maderno played in Bernini’s modelling in clay, rooting their professional dialogue into a close friendship. In the second part of his essay, his attention shifts to exploring and suggesting ways in which widely famous sculptures such as Pluto and Proserpina, Apollo and Daphne, David and a number of head studies have been conceived. He prepares the ground by pointing to the need of preliminary clay models and paper drawings that assisted the sculptor throughout the creative process. Unfortunately, Wardropper – the author of the next essay, whose aim is to demonstrate the important part that drawing played in the creation of Bernini’s finished pieces – takes his role a bit too seriously, engaging in a line of reasoning that demands a high degree of connoisseurship from the part of the reader. The scanty employment of the imagery, the occasional detours and the dryness of the discourse prevent an argument that is good in its essence to hold a high degree of attraction.

 Progressing with the reading, the viewer will soon find himself in an unpleasant position regarding technicalities such as the system of notation. Footnotes would have syncopated the text in a way that would visually disrupt, but placing endnotes at the back of the book seems as an equally ill choice, because it implies going back and forth through 416 large pages every time. However, an aspect that counterbalances is the outstanding quality of the visual imagery in general, and its relationship to text: from the very beginning, one cannot fail to notice the significant contribution the images bring to a profound understanding of the content. Furthermore, some arguments profit greatly from visual support, especially when Bernini is compared to other sculptors.[3]

 The next two essays are closely interconnected, Montanari’s historic approach being in many ways a continuation of Bacchi’s views on concepts. The latter wishes to prove that the quality of Bernini’s concept is the most important basis for determining a sculpture’s value, and not the execution per se. This manifested in the creation of modelli, and underwent an ulterior translation in marble. This logical argumentation leads to the necessity of dividing the modelli in two categories, using an excellent selection of visual examples: modelli piccoli (the small bozzetto and the intermediate modello) and modelli grandi (large-scale models), whose role in Bernini’s workshop illuminates the artist’s creative process. Clearly, the author inclines to give priority to the bozzetti, oeuvres exclusively shaped by Bernini’s own hand, naming them three-dimensional translations of his ideas. Although there are numerous deviations from the main point, they do not constitute an annoyance since Bacchi takes great pains to integrate them in his text. Montanari, on the other hand, adopts a more critical point of view in suggesting that appreciation for clay models began manifesting from 1660s onwards in the circles of art collectors, due to an increasing general interest in figurative sculpture. He also launches several suppositions regarding this aspect,[4] offering a large palette of examples in order to enhance the credibility of his theories. The extensive use of citations, reproduction of fragments and archival details stand as evidence for Montanari’s thorough research and gives the reader a pertinent insight to XVII century reception of clay artworks.

 Finally, the last essay is a response to the main interests that Bernini’s “clay sketches”, as Ostrow calls them, aroused in the academic world. Limited to the beginning of the XX century onwards, the works discussed range in subject from concept to apparent immediacy, aesthetic appeal, but also authenticity or integration of clay sculptures into Bernini’s large oeuvre (in which case they become visual documents). There is a documentary-like feeling to Ostrow’s intention to demonstrate an established tradition of intellectual attention for more than 100 years, which gives the essay a certain allure. However, despite the accompanying review for each of the work cited, the paper is ultimately addressed to Bernini’s researchers and not to the general public.

 The five essays continue with a Visual Glossary, a rather unusual but welcome choice of place. Usually placed at the end of a book, the glossary risks falling into oblivion, as few readers take the trouble of consulting it; here, it is placed in a strategic position, after the essays and before the catalogue entries, a choice from which both parties benefit. Rather than a glossary of art terms, this glossary is a separation in thematic divisions of practices, parts, phenomena or stages in Bernini’s artistic creation.[5] However, the glossary’s introduction seems bizarrely personal and inconsistent with the general discourse of the book; reading it feels more like reading a journal entry, while the only reference to the actual glossary is made in the last sentence.

 The catalogue is by far the most prominent part of the book. It comprises seven sections[6] that are grouped thematically, respecting the chronological order. Each section opens with an image of an iconic work related to the following section, followed by a page of synthesis, outlining the historical, religious and artistic background, and placing Bernini in the context. Unquestionably, the authors propose a systematic uncovering of the exhibition’s items, accessible even remotely, whilst covering as many aspects as possible.

 Among the first elements the reader might remark, are the outstanding quality of the well-employed visual imagery: the dialogue between text and images is impeccable. Moreover, the visual illustration of details, the insertion of drawings, X-radiographs, the presence of microscopic images, arrows that indicate specific details, instructions that draw attention of specific aspects,[7] reconstructions, or comparisons with the originals are proofs of the thoroughness of the research conducted. Furthermore, this preferred method of representation gives the reader an intimate insight to Bernini’s oeuvre, facilitating a full understanding of materiality and working methods, while each object is treated individually. Sometimes the radiographs give additional information towards this modus operandi.[8] On the right hand-side of each entry, opposing the object’s image, one can find technical features about the object: Inscriptions marks and stamps (if appropriate), provenance (a brief history of ownership), Literature, Exhibitions (if appropriate), Conditions (a few remarks on the state of conservation and completeness of the object); this is a very good starting point for an in-depth research. The actual text is descriptive, sometimes engaging in artistic or historic debates, sometimes more technical, engaging in discussions over restoration. Additional notes on the entries can be found at the back, which is, as suggested in the beginning of this essay, an ill decision.

 Attempting to resolve older issues related to Bernini’s clay models (such as attribution) and, at the same time, casting light upon new aspects, the book Bernini: Sculpting in Clay is an important contribution to the research on the artist’s terracotta works that demands significant consideration and transforms


[1] “If we are to understand Bernini fully, we cannot focus exclusively on his finished sculptures. We must […] watch Bernini as he worked.” (Introduction, p. xiv)

[2] For example, numerous dates and facts about Pietro’s life presented in page 6 are unnecessary.

[3] such as Stefano Maderno on page 10, Pietro da Barga or Giambologna.

[4] Such as the one in which he attributes the scarcity of surviving terracotta models to a general disregard for clay sculpture in the XVII century, on one hand, and Bernini’s lack of interest in making small-scale sculpture for private consumption, on the other.

[5] The Subdivisions are listed as follows: Assemble, Bases, Buttresses, Clay and terracotta, Damage and restoration, Examination techniques, Fingerprint analysis, Hollowing, Measuring, pointing and Layout marks, Signature modelling techniques, Stages of work, Surface decoration, Surface textures, Tools and tool marks, X-radiographic evidence.

[6]  The seven sections are: I. Working for the Barberini, II. Fountains, III. Chapels and Saints, IV. Equestrian Monuments, V. Working for the Chigi, VI. The Ponte Sant’Angelo, VII. Altar of the Blessed Sacrament

[7]note separation of hair and neck with a stroke from an oval tip-tool” – cat. 1, p. 115; “note remnant of attached whiskers” – cat. 11, p. 165

[8] A good example is the model for Saint Teresa in Ecstasy, cat. 17, p.198, where the X-ray suggests the head was removed and repositioned for several times during the modelling and this most probably influences the ulterior marble piece