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Exhibitions Close Up - Bernini: Sculpting in Clay

Sheryl E. Reiss, Author

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Bernini: Sculpting in Clay

In 1673, the Swedish architect Nicodemus Tessin the Younger recorded Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s reflections on his working methods:
You need to draw using your eye, that is, imprint everything in your mind, and always make sketches and drawings of your different ideas keeping in mind the advice of great men. Put one thought after the other down on paper, judge them, consider their errors against ancient and modern works, make modelli in clay, always preserve that idea even in the most elaborately worked things, and contemplate many prints in order to see variations on the idea.1
Along with drawings in an array of graphic media, three-dimensional models in clay—roughly finished bozzetti, larger and more highly finished modelli, and large-scale modelli grandi—played a critical role in Bernini’s creative process. Bernini’s clay models (as well as those produced by members of his workshop and associates) served a number of functions including working out ideas for sculpture in marble, bronze, and stucco; instructing others to realize his inventions; demonstrating concepts to patrons; and visualizing how statuary would look in architectural settings.

The groundbreaking exhibition Bernini: Sculpting in Clay, seen first at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (October 3, 2012–January 6, 2013) and then at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (February 3–May 5, 2013 [figs. 1, 2, and 3]), brought together the lion’s share of the surviving terra-cotta models made by Bernini, along with a number of drawings and several models attributed to assistants and associates of Bernini including Antonio Raggi, Ercole Ferrata, and Giuseppe Mazzuoli. Attributions of the clay models in the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue were made jointly by two of the show’s three curators, art historian C. D. Dickerson III (Kimbell Art Museum) and conservator Anthony Sigel (Harvard Art Museums), who reached their conclusions after years of examining the objects using an array of technical means to study fingerprints (fig. 4), the use of tools, and distinct variations in how clay was modeled (fig. 5). Bernini’s work with clay, which has the appearance of rapidity and spontaneity, may have been more deliberative than it appears. The drawings segment of the exhibition and catalogue was curated by Ian Wardropper (Frick Collection) and featured works in pen and ink (with or without wash), black chalk, and red chalk. In Fort Worth the show was organized both chronologically and thematically into the following sections:  Beginnings, Working for the Barberini, Fountains, The Ponte Sant’Angelo, Saints and Chapels, Equestrian Monuments, Working for the Chigi, and The Altar of the Blessed Sacrament. The Fort Worth venue also featured a reading room (fig. 6) with a wall display illustrating technical discoveries and a film theater for showing educational videos.

Highlights of the exhibition included an early surviving clay model of Charity for the Tomb of Pope Urban VIII (1628–47) in St. Peter’s and two terra cottas for the Saint Longinus (1635–38) from the basilica’s crossing, one of which (figs. 7 and 8) was gilded at some point in its history. Numerous drawings for this figure were shown in both exhibition venues. A number of  models in the exhibition (figs. 9 and 10) are related to fountains designed by Bernini, including two in the Piazza Navona in Rome—the Four Rivers Fountain (1649–51) and the Fountain of the Moor (1653–55). Bernini designed the dynamic central figure for the latter; its model (figs. 11 and 12), in the Kimbell’s own collection, is the artist’s largest surviving modello and was presumably presented to the patrons. Also displayed in New York and Fort Worth was a model (fig. 13) in wood, terra cotta, and wax for the Four Rivers Fountain. Among the most spectacular of the modelli in the show is the large and highly finished lion (fig. 14) done in preparation for the travertine beast that adorns the fountain. Drawings related to fountain projects were also displayed, including one in black chalk from the J. Paul Getty Museum (fig. 15) for the fountain Antonio Raggi and his assistants executed after Bernini’s design in the ducal palace of Sassuoulo in northern Italy.

Bernini: Sculpting in Clay reunited all but one of the surviving terra-cotta bozzetti for the marble angels of the Ponte Sant’Angelo in Rome (beg. 1668) (fig. 16), two of which, the Angel with the Superscription and the Angel with the Crown of Thorns (both 1668–69), Bernini carved himself (these were not placed on the bridge and can be seen today in the Roman church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte). The models (figs.17, 18, and 19) explore the poses, expressions, and drapery flow for the ten statues that grace the bridge.

The exhibition also included models (figs. 20, 21, and 22) from some of Bernini’s best-known projects for chapels, among them the Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria, with its breathtaking representation of Saint Theresa in Ecstasy (1647–52) and the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni (1672–74) from the Altieri Chapel in San Francesco a Ripa in Rome. A large-scale modello by Bernini and associates from Detroit (fig. 23) for the throne of the Cathedra Petri (ca.1656-66) in St. Peter’s is documented as having been presented to its patron, the Chigi Pope Alexander VII, in April 1658. Models and drawings by Bernini and others also document his work for two statue groups in the Chigi family chapel in the Roman church of Santa Maria del Popolo: Daniel in the Lion’s Den (1655–57) and Habakkuk and the Angel (1656–61). While most of the works that were seen in the exhibition are related to Roman works, a powerfully conceived terra-cotta Head of Saint Jerome (figs. 24 and 25) was preparatory to the marble Saint Jerome (1661–63) in the Chapel of the Madonna del Voto of Siena Cathedral.

In Fort Worth, the final section of the exhibition documented Bernini’s work on the angels intended for the Altar of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Peter’s (1672–74), commissioned from the seventy-four-year-old artist by Pope Clement X. The exquisite models for this project (figs. 26, 27, 28, and 29), as well as the drawings exhibited with them, demonstrate that the aging master had lost none of his powers of expression. The clay models and drawings that were brought together in the exhibition breathe life into the above-mentioned words that Nicodemus Tessin the Younger attributed to Bernini around the time he worked on the angels from the Altar of the Blessed Sacrament.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Mellon-funded Alliance for Networking Visual Culture (ANVC: http://, undertook this pilot project using the Scalar multimedia digital platform to create a “book” that  permits readers to experience the Kimbell showing of Bernini: Sculpting in Clay virtually. The ANVC’s Scalar is a free and open-source authoring and publishing platform designed to enable authors to write and publish long-form, born-digital scholarship online. Scalar enables users to assemble media from multiple sources and to juxtapose them with their own writing in a variety of ways.

The project features a number of elements including a video walkthrough that permits visitors to the website to experience the exhibition as if moving through galleries, circulating around vitrines, and looking closely at objects; a floor plan of the exhibition; comparative illustrations of some of Bernini’s finished works; educational videos on Bernini's modeling techniques as seen in his bozzetti for the Ponte Sant'Angelo in Rome, on his Kimbell modello for the Fountain of the Moor, and on his transformation of the city of Rome; critical reviews by a scholar and an artist; an  interview with one of the exhibition’s curators; and suggestions for further reading with links to books reviewed on and to book reviews and articles on Bernini in The Art Bulletin. This pilot project will permit readers of and others who were unable to visit this important show to experience it in a number of ways enabled by the Scalar digital platform. It is our hope at the journal that the project will demonstrate the usefulness of multimedia capabilities to enhance future exhibition reviews on

Sheryl E. Reiss
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