Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 18, 2009
Andrea Bacchi, Catherine Hess, and Jennifer Montagu, eds. Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture Exh. cat. Los Angeles and Ottawa: J. Paul Getty Museum and National Gallery of Canada, 2008. 336 pp.; 155 color ills.; 114 b/w ills. Paper $44.95 (9780892369324)
Exhibition schedule: J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, August 5–October 26, 2008; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, November 28, 2008–March 8, 2009; Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, April 2–July 12, 2009 (as “‘I Marmi Vivi:” Gian Lorenzo Bernini e la nascità del ritratto barocco, with catalogue in Italian)

Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Costanza Bonarelli (ca. 1636–38). Marble. H: 72 x W: 35.6 x D: 25.4 cm. (25 x 14 x 10 in.). Istituti museali della Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale Fiorentino, Florence, Italy, 81 S.

With two independent exhibitions in 2008 devoted to the Baroque portrait bust—Heads on Shoulders: Portrait Busts in the Low Countries, 1600–1800, at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp; and Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture, co-organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum and the National Gallery of Canada—the genre of early modern portrait sculpture celebrated an unparalleled year. There has never been a specialized exhibition of Gianlorenzo Bernini’s portrait busts. For logistical and economic reasons, shows featuring early modern European sculpture, let alone portrait busts, are rare. Even more exceptional is their exhibition in North America. From this perspective, Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture, the first comprehensive exhibition outside Italy to bring together Roman Baroque portrait sculpture from private and public collections in Europe, the United States, and Canada, was an extraordinary achievement.

While the exhibition was an unparalleled event, the premise that governs both it and the accompanying catalogue is a more conventional affair. Embracing Rudolf Wittkower’s thesis that “Bernini’s achievement in the field of portraiture was no less revolutionary than in that of religious imagery” (Rudolf Wittkower, Gian Lorenzo Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque, London: Phaidon, 1997 [revision of 1955 edition]), exhibition organizers Andrea Bacchi and Catherine Hess contend that Bernini was responsible for the emergence of portrait busts that possessed a “radically” unprecedented degree of resemblance to the living model. The sculpted portrait is a rather conventional genre, and the current project hinged on identifying the degrees of departure from the inherited norm. For Bacchi and Hess, as for Wittkower, Bernini’s ability to capture the physiognomic and psychological particularities of his subject and to imbue marble with lifelikeness by portraying the subject in motion, as if breathing, speaking, turning, and gesturing, constituted a dramatic departure.

What sets this investigation of Bernini’s innovations in portraiture apart from Wittkower’s canonical view is that it situates Bernini alongside his contemporaries. The exhibition and catalogue trace the development of the sculpted portrait from the 1620s through to the end of the century, underscoring the inventive qualities of busts created by Bernini, Alessandro Algardi, Francesco Mochi, Francois Duquesnoy, and Giuliano Finelli. Obvious as this comparative approach may seem, the tendency in Bernini studies is to isolate him and his work. The comparisons revealed a rich culture of artistic exchange in which Bernini’s novel modes of representing lifelikeness were either conceived simultaneously or later developed in unexpected directions by his contemporaries. Seeing how these techniques of resemblance emerge as part of an overtly confrontational artistic dialogue made for an exciting exhibition.

The Ottawa installation featured twenty-seven portrait busts in marble, bronze, and porphyry (fifteen Berninis, four Algardis, three Finellis, two Duqesnoys, one Mochi, one copy after Bernini, and one Antonio Novelli), ten painted portraits (by Bernini, Andrea Sacchi, Philippe de Champaigne, and others) and twelve portrait drawings (all attributed to Bernini). The combination of sculpture, painting, and drawing underscored the illusionistic affinities among the media, particularly their shared strategies for exploiting the enlivening effects of light and shade. The juxtaposition of sculpture and painting also made evident the hurdle posed by the sculptor’s obdurate and monochrome medium, in which action and color might be implied, but not explicitly represented. Yet the arresting three-dimensional presence of the busts made the sculptor’s chromatic disadvantage seem trivial. The freestanding busts were displayed on minimal pedestals and far enough from the wall to encourage intense scrutiny. Presented just above the height of the average visitor, the animate quality of the busts was further enhanced by their living, standing stature, as if they occupied the gallery space as both the viewer and the viewed.

The Ottawa exhibition unfolded chronologically across six thematic sections: “Art in Baroque Rome,” “Bernini’s Early Portraits,” “Bernini’s Portrait Drawings,” “Speaking Likeness: Intimacy and Immediacy in Bernini’s Portraits,” “New Sensibilities: Bernini’s Contemporaries,” and “Bernini’s Triumph: Art for Rome and the Courts of Europe.” Even for specialists accustomed to the marvels of Bernini’s command of marble and disarming ability to individualize his sitters, the rendering of details such as the mole perched just above Camilla Barbadori’s lips [cat. no. 2.1], Cardinal Montalto’s pockmarked cheeks [cat. no. 1.9], and the spittle between Scipione Barberini’s slightly open lips [cat. no. 4.1] were revelations. A highlight of the exhibition was the pairing of Bernini’s and Finelli’s respective busts of Scipione Borghese (they were displayed separately in Los Angeles), which furnished an unparalleled opportunity to compare the sculptors’ strikingly dissimilar interpretation of their subject. While Finelli [cat. no. 5.4] portrays the stolid gravity of Scipione’s plump visage and loses himself in eccentric modelling of the cardinal’s garments (loose buttons, flyaway lace, floppy biretta), Bernini’s bust [cat. no. 4.1], carved just months later, seems to rally against the static quality of Finelli’s descriptive version of the cardinal. Bernini’s Scipione is more narrative, with emphasis placed as much on the subject’s action as on his dress and appearance. And it is Scipione’s implied outward interaction with his surroundings that intensifies the illusion of a living presence. This juxtaposition of the two Borghese busts effectively demonstrated the importance of seeing and understanding Bernini in the context of his contemporaries. If any claim is to be made about why Bernini is in a category all his own, it is in this comparison.

The comprehensive scope of the exhibition and catalogue is timely. Until recently, Bernini and his rival Algardi dominated studies of Italian Baroque sculpture, while their contemporaries, cast largely as minor figures and emulators, received scant attention. In the past decade, though, comprehensive monographs on Finelli and Duquesnoy have expanded previously incomplete pictures of these sculptors, showing them to be, if not considerable players in their own right, then sculptors who had very active careers. Damian Dombrowski, for example, has argued for Finelli’s influence on both Bernini and Algardi, positing that Finelli not only collaborated on virtually all of Bernini’s early busts but also that Algardi’s later works owe much to Finelli’s virtuosic carving (Damian Dombrowski, Giuliano Finelli: Bildhauer zwischen Neapel und Rom, Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1997). If Bacchi and Hess reject Dombrowski’s vision of Finelli playing a constitutive role in Bernini’s early innovations, thus maintaining for the latter the position of vanguard, they nonetheless acknowledge that Finelli’s style of meticulous drill-work shaped contemporary carving practice. Estelle Lingo’s recent thesis that Duquesnoy’s few portrait busts conformed to Seicento notions of a Greek style of portraiture is largely ignored here (Estelle Lingo, François Duquesnoy and the Greek Ideal, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007). This seems a missed opportunity to openly test whether Duquesnoy’s busts are indeed so distinct from those of his contemporaries and to raise broader questions about the role (if any) that the typology of ancient busts played in the development of Baroque portraiture. Bacchi and Hess also underplay Hans-Ulrich Kessler’s argument that Bernini’s father, Pietro, not only authored many of the early busts often ascribed to Bernini but also played a formative role in his son’s development as a portraitist (Hans-Ulrich Kessler, Pietro Bernini: 1562–1629, Munich: Hirmer, 2005). And only brief attention was given to Philip Zitzlsperger’s groundbreaking study of clothing in Bernini’s portraits of popes and rulers, which has opened up the busts to questions beyond lifelikeness and resemblance (Philipp Zitzlsperger, Gianlorenzo Bernini: die Papst- und Herrscherporträts; zum Verhältnis von Bildnis und Macht, Munich: Hirmer, 2002). His analysis of the typology and implications of dress demonstrates that papal and monarchical busts were objects of state representation and diplomacy wherein sartorial markers of office needed to be understood. Yet our current understanding of costume in portraiture only scratches the surface.

The beautifully produced catalogue presents three essays by international scholars, including three specialists of Roman Baroque sculpture (Bacchi, Jennifer Montagu, and Steven Ostrow) and Hess, a specialist in the decorative arts. The catalogue entries, divided thematically into six sections, focus on the biography of the subject (where known), her or his relationship with the artist, and issues of style and attribution. Each entry is accompanied by color photos of the work under discussion, comparanda, and, where possible, in-situ images. Some busts are also reproduced with side and/or back views, oft-ignored vantages of the sculptures. A checklist with thumbnail images of Bernini’s autograph, disputed, and lost busts is essential as it updates Wittkower’s catalogue raisonné, which was last revised in 1997. Brief biographies of each sculptor are useful for those readers consulting the catalogue as a quick reference.

In the introductory essay, “Creating a New Likeness: Bernini’s Transformation of the Portrait Bust,” Bacchi and Hess offer a thoughtful, if not rigorously historiographic, survey of the origins and development of Bernini’s portrait practice. Their themes, guided by the current state of research, include: Bernini’s artistic influences, his early works, his working method, his portrait theory, his rivalry with Finelli, and his innovation of the papal and the royal portrait type. The authors aggressively pursue the thesis that Bernini’s busts engendered a revolutionary departure from convention. Their argument is contingent upon the assertion that Bernini’s immediate precedents were not found in sculpture but in paintings and drawings by artists in early Seicento Rome (especially the draughtsman Ottavio Leoni) who were “radically redefin[ing] the genre” of portraiture by depicting lifelike individuals distinguished by heightened physiognomic vividness. This is a reprise of Roberto Longhi’s 1951 article in which he claimed that Bernini’s early busts were like “portraits by [Ottavio] Leoni translated into marble” (Roberto Longhi, “Volti della Roma caraveggesca,” Paragone 21 (1951): 35–39). It is difficult to assess the priority Bernini purportedly placed on drawing and painting since early sculptural comparanda are barely explored in this essay. The authors offer a cursory list of Northern and Central Italian portrait busts (with only three comparative images) as evidence of “how radical the stylistic shift imposed by Bernini really was” (6). While Bacchi and Hess note that early Seicento Roman portrait sculpture requires further investigation, their brief treatment of some obvious sculptural influences (especially that of Nicholas Cordier, whose bust of Paul V, to name just one example, is commonly regarded as the precedent for Bernini’s own early bust of Paul V) merits reconsideration. Though Bernini’s debt to painting and drawing is considerable, a serious study of his affinity to trends in early Seicento sculpture might offer a more nuanced sense of his innovations. Such an approach may well show that Bernini’s transformative enlivening of the portrait bust, while palpable, is perhaps not so “radical.”

Montagu’s essay, “Innovation and Exchange: Portrait Sculptors of the Early Roman Baroque,” surveys the sculptural activity and multifaceted styles of Algardi, Duquesnoy, Mochi, and Finelli. In her two-fold study she first examines the economic conditions that dictated a patron’s selection of a portrait sculptor, and then demonstrates just how essential artistic dialogue was to stimulating departures from convention in portraiture by surveying the careers of Bernini’s contemporaries with an emphasis on moments of invention (particularly with regard to pose) and subsequent cross-fertilization.

The final essay, by Ostrow, entitled “‘Sculptors Pursue Likeness,’ The Typology and Function of Seventeenth-Century Portrait Sculpture in Rome,” looks beyond the freestanding busts that are the focus of the exhibition to examine the various classes of portrait sculpture—medals, medallions, wax portraits, funerary portraits, ephemeral portraits, honorific and memorial portraits, and equestrian statues—and their religious, political, and commemorative purpose. His compendium highlights the variety of form, media, and iconographic modes within which portrait sculptors operated.

Bernini and the Birth of the Roman Baroque Portrait ultimately points to the possibilities for future investigations of this understudied sculptural genre. The catalogue lays the basic footing that will make it a standard resource for examinations of Italian Baroque sculpture, especially since Finelli and Mochi have yet to be the subject of major English-language studies. But it is the exhibition experience that stands out as transformative: the rich assembly of animated busts make this conventional genre emerge, rather unexpectedly, as more interesting than most scholarship has been able to make it seem. It not only confirms the value of debates about likeness and verisimilitude, but also stimulates new avenues of exploration. For example, the juxtaposition of marble and bronze portraits raises questions about Bernini’s material and technical sensibilities: Does the illusionistic colourism and life typically ascribed to Bernini’s marble also apply to his bronzes? The idiosyncratic representation of clothing in the busts also makes one wonder about the extent to which dress was a marker of identity as well as individuality. Was what each subject wore as important as how they wore it? And how is the viewer to understand the various gestures suggested by the animated drapery of many busts? Some of these questions were explored in a one-day symposium organized by Evonne Levy and Sebastian Schutze; entitled “Bernini Double-Take,” it was occasioned by the Ottawa exhibition and held at the University of Toronto on March 7, 2009. Papers were given on subjects including Bernini’s portrait multiples and seventeenth-century anxiety over copies, the status of the portrait bust as a fragment, the literary reception of Bernini’s portraits, and the magical associations ascribed to Bernini’s portraits. One hopes that the excitement elicited by this latest look at the Baroque portrait will not end here.

Carolina Mangone
PhD candidate, Department of Art, University of Toronto

Please send comments about this review to