PRINT May 2008


Gian Lorenzo Bernini

BY THE TIME OF HIS DEATH, Gian Lorenzo Bernini had produced more portraits than any sculptor since antiquity. In an oeuvre that ran from semiautonomous marble gallery sculptures to multimedia installations, portraits were a rare constant. It was the one genre in which the artist worked from the beginning to the end of his career—from the Bishop Giovanni Battista Santoni he carved for Santa Prassede in Rome, probably at around the age of twelve, to the central figure of the tomb he designed for Pope Alexander VII in Saint Peter’s Basilica, nearly seven decades later.

Bernini had been told since his youth that he was destined to be “the Michelangelo of his time,” and a number of his early statues show him working systematically through themes closely associated with his Florentine predecessor. Portraiture, though, was one area where even the young Bernini went entirely his own way: Michelangelo had disdained portraits, and while few artists who cared about their careers could afford to cultivate a similar antipathy, rare was the marble sculptor in the century before Bernini who found much interest in the medium. Bernini’s own father and teacher, as art historian Irving Lavin has observed, sculpted only a single documented portrait. The younger Bernini, by contrast, produced dozens—on paper and canvas, in terra-cotta, marble, and bronze. A letter to Cardinal Richelieu conveyed the glory Bernini thought portraiture might bring him: The artist’s willingness to make the kind of object Richelieu desired, he wrote, was “preceded by the ambition that I have always had to show my respect for the sublime greatness of Your Excellency.” The letter displays the Baroque flatteries that the portraits themselves would attempt, but it is also remarkable to see a sculptor describing portraiture as the vehicle of his ambition.

Bernini’s 1641 marble bust of Richelieu is among the works featured in “Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture,” opening August 5 at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and co-organized with the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Curators Catherine Hess, Andrea Bacchi, and Jennifer Montagu cull objects from across the spectrum of Bernini’s portraiture practice, including two of the paintings most recently displayed together in Tomaso Montanari’s scholarly and pathbreaking exhibition Bernini Pittore at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome last year. The show will also feature about a dozen chalk portrait drawings—another type of work rarely associated with earlier sculptors—depicting largely anonymous sitters rather than the potentates Bernini portrayed in three dimensions. The exhibition will exemplify the seventeenth-century Roman artistic scene in which Bernini worked, with sculptures by both Alessandro Algardi and François Duquesnoy, regarded for centuries as the contemporary “classicizing” antitheses to the style Bernini represented. Visitors will also be able to compare the technique in Bernini’s early marbles to that in sculptures by Giuliano Finelli, the assistant who created the virtuosic effects in the Galleria Borghese Apollo and Daphne (1622–25). The primary draw of the exhibition, though, will be nineteen sculptures by or after Bernini himself.

In the artist’s day, these works were events. All the early Bernini biographies contain episodes with viewers exchanging witticisms about them, often having to do with the sculptures’ vividness: Seeing Bernini’s early portrait of Pedro de Foix Montoya, ca. 1622, in the company of the man it depicted, the future Pope Urban VIII allegedly said of his companion, “This is the portrait of Monsignor Montoya,” then of the statue, “and this is Monsignor Montoya.” No less than the portrait format itself, these anecdotes distanced Bernini from his predecessors—the artist they give us could not be further from the Michelangelo of Vasari, who “abhorred portraying things after life.” The temptation for any sculptor working in marble or bronze is to archaize, aggrandize, idealize, and allegorize, and Bernini did all of that, but what makes his portraits of their moment is their uncanny record of identifying particularities of face, mood, even gesture. One sees all the portraits in a different light by remembering that Bernini was also a draftsman of some of Europe’s first caricatures. (None of these, sadly, will travel to Los Angeles.)

Modern Bernini scholars have been struck time and again by what they describe as the portraits’ effects of “instantaneity”—spontaneous expressions, animated draperies, parted lips that suggest speech. Rudolf Wittkower went so far as to compare one of the drawings that will be at the Getty, a sheet from the Morgan Library depicting Scipione Borghese from 1632, to a snapshot. Still, part of what must have appealed to Bernini about portraiture was the duration of his contact with the sitter. Typically, Bernini asked to study his subjects on repeated occasions over an extended period; to prepare his portrait of the king of France, he met with the ruler seventeen times, observing him seated or following him as he performed his everyday actions. At these sessions, Bernini would make multiple drawings and clay models, and then he would set his studies aside, executing the marble from memory so as to avoid any impression that the work might be a copy. Only when Bernini agreed to make portraits for patrons in distant places was he forced to abandon this process. “Bernini” includes a Van Dyck painting of Charles I from 1636 that seems to have been sent to Rome for Bernini’s use in carrying out a marble portrayal of the king. It also features a 1638 bust that Bernini made for Thomas Baker, high sheriff of Suffolk, shortly thereafter, to demonstrate to the English the difference between a portrait made from life and one made from another portrait.

The effects Bernini achieved and the process he insisted on following to arrive at them guaranteed him face time with the most powerful men of his day. Portraiture brought opportunities to banter and charm, and making portraits was a performance, one that continued at the theatrical unveiling of the finished work. What lasted of the entertainments, beyond the written and printed records of those who had witnessed them, were the paradoxes embedded in the sculptures themselves: hard marble that looked like molded wax, a weighty, static rock that seemed blown by a breeze. There is no truth to medium in Bernini, one of the reasons that his work was despised from his death until the beginning of the last century. Instead, there is a mystification of the long labor that went into it—rarely with Bernini can you read backward to the chisel or even to the shape of the original block, as you can with many sixteenth-century sculptures. It is as if the soul of the sitter, having revealed itself to Bernini’s eye, has simply imposed itself on the material.

Marble was the prestige medium for many early-modern sculptors, yet monographic exhibitions of marble sculptors are extraordinarily rare, not just because the works are heavy and fragile but also because they are typically site-specific, ornamenting buildings or spaces from which they are not readily removed. It would have been difficult to do a North American show focusing on any genre of Bernini sculpture other than portrait busts; it is tempting to look for the devices that let these pieces, no less than the drawings and paintings, stand alone, declaring themselves to be complete in themselves. Drapery that hides the points at which the body stops or a hand that implies an unrepresented arm can disguise the fragmentation that is an almost inevitable condition of the format.

Just because the busts lend themselves to the museum, of course, doesn’t mean that they are often lent, and “Bernini” will gather a collection of objects likely never to be seen together in North America again.

“Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture” will be on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Aug. 5–Oct. 26, and travels to the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Nov. 25, 2008–Mar. 8, 2009.

Michael Cole is an associate professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania.