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Bernini: Sculpting in Clay at the Kimbell


a letter from a marble sculptor about the process — and links to Bernini info online are below the story.

Story by J R Compton
with photographs by J R Compton and Anna Palmer

 Bernini - St Longinus - Photograph Copyright 2013 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini   St. Longinus   1634   terracotta   19.13 inches high
 

This extensively damaged bozzetto, which is what Bernini called his early-in-a-project, little models — missing its head, much of its back and torso, both extended arms, most of his legs and and all but the lowest portion of his right foot, is twisted and sheered at what is probably a join in the clay, thus the junction of two massive marble blocks in the finished piece.

What makes this violently twisted model not re-discovered until 1982 so appealing is its utter abstraction. Nearly four centuries later, this twisted model of the patron saint of meanings, definition and origins is remarkable for its contemporary values, most of which are entirely accidental as it was more and more extensively damaged. And for its history.
 

"Bernini was the most important sculptor of the Seventeenth Century, the Michelangelo of his age. He did for sculpture what Caravaggio did for painting, invigorating it with an unprecedented sense of theatricality coupled with realism — a fantastic tension that launched the artistic age known as the Baroque." Here, Kimbell Director Eric M. Lee's voice trails off in my recording as I circled the discontinuous galleries to get a better view of the gallery full of art press listeners. 

Unlike in the chapters of the catalog, which were arranged to explore specific historic and academic themes in Bernini's work, the bozzetti (Italian for sketches) on this page are arranged chronologically from a young to a much older Bernini, who was born December 7, 1598 and died November 28, 1680.
 

Bernini - The Lion

Gian Lorenzo Bernini   Model for the Lion on the Four Rivers Fountain   1649-50   23.25 inches long
Image Courtesy The Kimbell Museum
 

This exquisite lion, one of the most dynamic bozzetti in the show or catalog, was created well before humans learned that it is the female of the species Panthera leo, not the ringlet-maned male, who is the fierce aggressor and food-provider of the family. The life-sized, finished work this cloth-smoothed model begat was created from Bernini's original three-dimensional sketch by Giovanni Maria Fracchi, at a time when Bernini was busy with multiple projects around Rome..

The resulting work appears to have been crammed, bulging out of a lower crevice of the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Rome's Piazza Navona with only his head, unsheathed claws and massive shoulders directly visible, with its hind quarters and broken tail seen only from the other end, hiding the lean, mean and muscular between portions in this exquisite terracotta (Italian for "cooked earth" — clay that has been fired).


"Bernini's clay models have been admired and continue to be sought after by major museums in Europe and the U.S., but amazingly, this is the first time they have been the subject of a comprehensive exhibition," Kimbell Museum Director Eric M. Lee said in his introductory remarks.

The exhibition's curators spent "years examining all the terracottas in Europe and the U.S. that had been associated at one time or another with Bernini. Tony Segal made a special point of learning the particular methods that Bernini used to make his models. His research enabled a more precise understanding of the tool marks and modeling gestures that are distinctive of Bernini — what you could call his sculptural handwriting."
 

Model for the Four Rivers - copyright 2013 by Anna Palmer. All Rights Reserved.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini   Model for The Nile   1649-50   terracotta   38.75 inches diameter   photograph by Anna Palmer
 

Anna's favorite and the only Bernini wood model to survive, this rough-hewn, abstract almost beyond its time, fountain structure was to be the home for the lion above, a horse and nude human male figures representing the four major rivers of the then known world, including The Nile below.

According to Rome Info, "The Fountain of the Four Rivers depicts Gods of the four great rivers in the four continents … . The Ganges carries a long oar, representing the river's navigability. The Nile's head is draped with a loose piece of cloth … The Danube touches the Papal coat of arms, since it is the largest river closest to Rome. And the Río de la Plata is sitting on a pile of coins, a symbol of the riches America might offer to Europe. Each River God is semi-prostrate, in awe of the central tower, epitomized by the slender Egyptian obelisk (built for the Roman Serapeum in AD 81)… .

"The Fountain of the Four rivers is a theater in the round, whose leading actor is the movement and sound of water splashing over and cascading down a mountain of travertine marble. The masterpiece was finally unveiled to the world on June 12, 1651, to joyous celebration and the inevitable criticisms of the day. Then as today the Fountain of the Four Rivers continues to amaze and entertain visitors to Rome."


We got to the Kimbell early enough to get a slot in the inner downstairs lot, then photographed our ways through the galleries in our usual, hit-and-run style, seeing everything but only stopping long enough to photograph the objects that grabbed our immediate attentions, the best of which are presented down this page in the order Gian Lorenzo Bernini created them.


Bernini - Model for the Nile - Photograph Copyright 2013 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini   Model for The Nile   1649-50   terracotta   15.38 inches high
 

A big WOW! from this 21st Century art appreciator. Wikipedia explains, "The Nile's head is draped with a loose piece of cloth, meaning that no one at that time knew exactly where the Nile's source was," which visual notion seems pretty lame for such a muscle-rippling strongman, even if the final, over-lifesize sculpture was carved by Bernini's Assistant Giacamo Antonio Fancelli. This bozzetto looks much grander than its actual 15 inches.


After our personal photographic tour and an exquisite Press brunch, we attended Exhibition Curators: C. D. Dickerson III, who was trained as an Art Historian, and trained Object Conservator Anthony Sigel's tag-team gallery talk through the exhibition, explaining how they become convinced these tiny bozzetti were made by the hands of Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the Early and Middle Seventeenth Century. Or not.

Head of Saint Teresa of Avila - Photograph Copyright 2013 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.  

Associate of Gian Lorenzo Bernini or later copyist   Head of Saint Teresa of Avila   1647-52 or later  
 

I'm startled I didn't photograph the little bozzetto that led Bernini's visual path to his amazing Saint Teresa in Ecstasy that the catalog calls "a landmark in the history of art" and "as spellbinding a sculpture as ever issued from his chisel." Bernini's superbly theatrical tableau of Teresa of Avila's transubstantiation from earthly nun to the sanctified divine entity almost floating in the Cornaro Chapel shows his masterful sense of theatricality while subtly contrasting his suspension of disbelief with utter human credibility.

I love Bernini's Estasi di Santa Teresa more for the seemingly supple yet impossibly real folds in her theatrically-illuminated gown that we keep having to remember is made of marble, as she rises from the rough-hewn rocks under the golden rays of the divine.


The exhibition of Bernini's clay models is touted as showing the master architect, sculptor and currier of papal and private favors' genius, which may be true for these quickly-created and now carefully collected models. But I was not convinced his true genius was in the models until I read my marble-sculpting friend T J Mabrey's letter [below] explaining how those sculptures were made in the Seventeenth Century and many still are now.

I thought because clay is so malleable a medium, and marble less so, it was only when his bozzetti grew into major marble sculptures that the artist's true genius shone, and that little of that glory was reflected in those preliminary maquettes, thrilling as it might be to be that close to Bernini's early ideas about work that made him one of the greatest sculptors of all time.

Now I understand, however, that it was more likely that Bernini was out selling more projects and not back in the workroom slaving and chiseling away on all those bigger-than-life marbles. That while he had established himself as a competent sculptor when he was as young as 13 years old, and was taking on live portrait commissions by his early 20s, it was his small army of assistants who did what the models told them to during his more prolific periods.

So his precious bozzetti were the sparks of flames that still burn. Those little models were where his genius was best applied, and what a treasure it is to still have some of them now, these many centuries later.
 

Sea Deity with Dolphin - Photograph Copyright 2013 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Attributed to Antonio Raggi   Sea Deity with Dolphin   (detail)   1652-53   terracotta   29.5 inches high
 

Muscles tensed and bulging in his mighty struggle against the sea creature, this model immediately attracted my attention. Unfortunately, as the catalog's authors painstakingly point out, neither the model nor the finished piece, is by Bernini, who took its design from a drawing by his assistant Antonio Raggi, who carved the final piece.
 

I wonder if any of the critics who have, over the centuries, likened Bernini's luscious, rippling marbles to having been sculpted in butter have ever seen or smelled real butter sculptures like those featured in the The State Fair of Texas' Creative Arts Pavilion every year.

Another noteworthy fact in this exhibition's flurry of those, is that one of the major distinguishing factors of Bernini's sculpture over previous masters is that his work reach out. Their arms, wings, legs and other parts outstretch into the surrounding space no previous sculptor would have dared. It may also be why so many of those extensions in the bozzetti have been hacked, crunched and broken off over all those years.
 

Habakkuk

Gian Lorenzo Bernini   Habakkuk and the Angel   1661   terracotta  
  

Michelangelo's and later Bernini's world was probably plastered with angels. Visual fill, if you will. Something an artist could always throw in to accomplish tasks no human would or could. Now, in our much more secular world, they seem silly, extraneous.

The angel at Habakkuk's shoulder is remarkably similar in pose and placement to the angel Bernini stationed over Saint Teresa during her ecstatic infusion with the divine nearly a decade previous. Then, ten years after Habakkuk but sans the angel, a slightly less-ecstatic Santa Teresa doubled into The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, posed remarkably similarly, mirrored and tilted slightly back.
 

I remember rushing from piece to piece in our earlier self-directed tour, hoping to eventually feast my eyes and mind on one major chunk of Bernini-sculpted marble. The lush catalog shows his great sculptures in the buildings and fountains of Rome in adjacent context with their bozzetti, but the show has none of his luscious, sensual marbles, and I was sorely disappointed not to have even one, small example of a flesh-yielding or rippling draped finished piece.

In sharp contrast with the real objects in Rome and the beautiful, full tonal range images in the catalog, the graphics of Bernini's large-scale work on the walls of the Kimbell are low contrast, almost vague in their presentation, a hazy shadow of the reality that made Bernini famous — although they do improve with distance or when miniaturized in photographs. All the more reason I so missed seeing any example of the master's marble work in that rarely supple medium.
 

The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni terracotta - Photo copyright 2014 by Anna Palmer

Gian Lorenzo Bernini   The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni   ca 1672   terracotta   18 inches long   photograph by Anna Palmer
 

Both saintly women are captured amid inner burstings. Saint Teresa in the enraptured union with God she claimed in her autobiography — although Bernini's subtle re-aim of the angel's arrow may point to other paroxysmal possibilities — and Ludovica in death. Unfortunately, parts of Ludovica's death face have fallen in the centuries since this piece was fashioned, but we still have the big marble.

Sister Theresa of Jesus described "a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire" her dream angel "plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated my entrails." And "When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God." … "The pain was so great that I screamed aloud but at the same time I felt such infinite sweetness that I wished the pain to last forever. It was not physical but psychic pain, although it affected the body as well to some degree. It was the sweetest caressing of the soul by God."

If the purpose of Baroque art was to inspire emotional response, did Bernini purposely tip Teresa's angel's arrow, not at her heart, where she claims she was pierced, but somewhat lower, giving rise to centuries of controversy about just what sort of ecstasy she was enjoying? Might we have known if the Saint Teresa bozzetto had survived with the angel's right arm and arrow?
 

The richly illustrated, four-pound-plus, 416-page, full-color (what there is of it), slick, but not shiny catalog printed in Italy has no table of contents for the works cataloged, but tells long, technical tales of the searches; CSI-like details about the curators' findings, creation techniques and which of these miniatures were actually crafted by Bernini's fingers (There are fingerprints.) and hands (He used certain techniques.); and which were probably made after the full-size sculptures were created and/or by assistants.

This catalog includes dense back-stories and investigation into most of their 52 models, although only 40 are in the this exhibition. According to the Kimbell, "The authors of the catalogue made every effort to make the book as complete as possible knowing that some works would not be able to travel due to various reasons, including conservation issues, the embargo of Russian loans, etc."
 

Gian Loreanzo Bernini Self Portrait - photo copyright 2013 by Anna Palmer.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini   self-portrait   1625-30   black and red and white chalks   10.88 x 8.5 inches
photograph by Anna Palmer
 

There are also 30 drawings, which we all but ignored. I will probably never read the entire catalog, but I've studied its pages and repeatedly read much of its text to keep my facts here accurate; find identifying information for these captions; and to decide which of these to include in this review that stumbles between public relations and past-tense historical opinion — when I knew all along, I should be writing about art from Around Here Lately, instead of some internationally famous sculptor from the 17th Century, as impressive and fascinating as he was.
 

Anna Palmer Photo - Glimpse of the gallery - Photograph Copyright 2013 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Kimbell Museum Gallery View of a Small Part of the Large Exhibition of the Little Bozzetti  photograph by Anna Palmer

 

TJ's letter

Because this writer knows naught about marble sculpting, I contacted my friend, Artist and Sculptor TJ Mabrey, who has first-hand knowledge of marble and has spent many summers in Italy:

"Marble carving" is like brain surgery — EASY! — if you are well trained, have the right tools, and are assisted by competent experts. Bernini had all this! Plus, he had creative talents.

Time was money — even in Bernini's time, so he spent most of that time schmoozing the powers that be in order to get commissions, and then he spent creative time making small clay models and drawings, which were later given to his assistants to execute on a grand scale — a process still used today by well known artists — i.e., Damien Hirst.

Many of the assistants were good at only one element in the carving process: One was trained to "rough out" the form, another to do hair, another to do drapery, and yet another to do skin over muscles. They were trained in special technical schools for each talent, practiced endlessly, and then went about doing their job for the rest of their lives (boring!) … some getting VERY good at what they did. Drapery flowed. Skin looked soft. Muscles rippled. And those few were hired by master artists like Bernini.

The initial carving of a marble sculpture was done by rote, according to tradition, by the copy process called "pointing" with the use of calipers. No mistakes. What you saw in the full-scale plaster model (Another unique profession was "scaling up" to full size from the small model) was what you got in the marble! Special skill in the finishing — sanding/polishing — could make or break a piece. Drapery and skin were indeed special skills, but there was nothing magical about the outcome. This skill/talent was also left to a professional "skin guy" — or sometimes the master (Bernini) — for that "final touch!"

None of this has changed much when it comes to producing a work in marble for today's commercial/public art market. There is, however, one distinct difference — those assistants, imbued with their magical, unique skills no longer exist — or they are few and far between. After Vatican II, when churches no longer had to have the requisite marble statues lining the walls, no one needed those skills. Those skills died with the artisans. This fact — though tragic for some — has not stopped me from carving marble. I am not a Bernini. I do all my own work — good or not so good. I am simply a human being looking for the beauty in stone.

Your informative article should send readers to the Kimbell to see what a clay model looks like when it comes directly from the master's hands. Models are magical.

Cheers!  To Art,
TJ

Crowd, Curators & Lee - Photograph Copyright 2013 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Gathered Art Press, with Anthony Sigal, C. D. Dickerson III
and Kimbell Museum Director Eric M. Lee at the far right
 

More Bernini information

I recommend Simon Schama's highly theatrical The Power of Art - Bernini (complete episode), though not necessarily this low-res version.

Revisiting Bernini, Master of Marble from PBS's Art Beat includes another exhibition of the terracottas in a serious video presentation.

The Best Artists - nine links to slightly simplistic stories about Bernini's work with photo illustrations

Here's a multi-dimensional color photo of the Four Rivers Fountain and a similar pan/tilt view of the sculpture-studded St. Peter's Basilica, among other Roman tourist spots, which you can pan left < and right >, up ^ and down, although it offers but a limited view of the fountain itself or its statuary.

Real Clear Arts Culture Writer Judith H. Dobrzynski reviews the first showing of Bernini Sculpting in Clay at the Metropolitan October last year through early January this, including that "25 of the 28 Bernini bozzetti are among the Harvard Art Museum's online collections database, which is free access.

This rather static presentation of mostly monochrome with a few color works by Bernini offers no context, chronology or titles and is accompanied by a goofy chanting-monks soundtrack.

And there's a soundless video of Bernini's Transformation of Rome by the Metropolitan Museum of Art showing how Bernini altered the map of Rome.
 

Saint Teresa in Ecstasy and other stories

Here's a delicious visual parsing of its parts on this page of Sexuality & Love in the Arts. It also has the best quality image of the piece that I've seen.

And this jumpy YouTube video shows us right where Santa Teresa floats in that vast and busy church.

The most fascinating text I read about her was what might be quotes from her autobiography, called The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by syntax and by Lomenta on everything.

Info about Saint Longinus includes the entry in Wikipedia and #2, near the bottom of the Top Ten Truly Badass Saints on Listverse.

The catalog is available at The Kimbell — price unknown, or at Amazon for $41.

See also Anna's and my joint review of the Kimbell's Age of Impressionism Show last year.

 

Signature Modeling Techniques

Signature Modeling Techniques

Kimbell signage is significantly better and more legible than this image taken for the writer's
information. Both the show and the catalog have more info on Bernini's modeling techniques.

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