Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 17, 2013
C. D. Dickerson III, Anthony Sigel, and Ian Wardropper Bernini: Sculpting in Clay Exh. cat. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. 432 pp.; 437 color ills.; 35 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300185003)
Exhibition schedule: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, October 3, 2012–January 6, 2013; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, February 3–May 5, 2013
Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Model for the Lion on the Four Rivers Fountain (ca. 1649–50). Terracotta. 12 5⁄8 x 23 1⁄4 x 12 5⁄8 in. (32 x 59 x 32 cm). Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome (258).

Bernini: Sculpting in Clay argues for the centrality of modeling in clay to Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s total conception of sculpture (also reviewed here in, ranging from the placement of one or more bodies and their limbs in space, down to the treatment of folds of drapery, locks of hair, and the articulation of the elasticity of flesh—regardless of whether the intended sculptures were to be cast in bronze, carved from marble or travertine, or modeled in stucco. Bernini sought to match both the suppleness and tensile strength of his clay models, which he could, in the words of curator C. D. Dickerson III in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, “bend and stretch . . . until (they were) visually pleasing as a whole,” in his marbles (21).

As cited in the catalogue, Joachim von Sandrart describes how in the 1630s Bernini showed him twenty-two wax models, each about twenty-six inches tall, preparatory for the colossal marble Longinus (1635–38) for the crossing of St. Peter’s. Sandrart noted how unusual this was, as sculptors habitually made only one, or occasionally two, models (50–51). Surprisingly, not a single wax model by Bernini exists, and the two three-dimensional models that survive for the Longinus (cat. 3 & 4) are terra-cotta modelli (“presentation models”) that were shown to patrons—though it should be noted that this terminology was used more loosely in the seventeenth century. As Dickerson and Andrea Bacchi show in their catalogue essays, modelli were often made in part or entirely by Bernini’s assistants and were more highly finished and larger than the preliminary bozzetti, which are Bernini’s primo pensieri in the third dimension. Sandrart saw a surprisingly large number of bozzetti, probably fashioned out of clay instead of wax, and allegedly all for the Longinus, which highlights the importance of this project and the problems it posed for the still-young artist. Interestingly, the fragmentary model for the Longinus unearthed in 1982 (cat. 4) shows the tooth marks that are such a conspicuous—and unprecedented—feature in the marble statue, causing it to sparkle in the changing light of the crossing of St. Peter’s. Giorgio Vasari had recommended making models to scale as the final step in preparatory work. Two such modelli grandi made of terra cruda (unfired clay) survive for two angels for the Cathedra Petri (ca. 1661–66, figs. 60 & 61). These works were not featured in the exhibition.

Bernini also drew as he planned his projects, with pen and ink, with or without wash, and with red or black chalk; but his drawings vary widely both in quality and function. Occasionally, Bernini’s drawings played second fiddle to the terra-cotta models that were displayed first at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and subsequently at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas—models that are almost always of very high quality and teeming with life. Exhibition curators Dickerson, Anthony Sigel, and Ian Wardropper only selected drawings that could shed light on the projects for which clay models happened to survive and that could be included in this extremely important exhibition, thereby presenting the preparatory steps that were taken by the most brilliant sculptor of the Seicento. In the drawings, details—such as a cluster of folds, or the musculature in a torso (cat. D.4 & D.6)—could be studied in isolation. Moreover, in his drawings Bernini could explore the intended play of light or water, or the integration of constituent parts of a grand scheme such as the Cathedra Petri.

Bernini also explored the relationship between a variety of parts in his preparatory models, though how often he did this remains unknown. An example is the one made of wood and clay (with some plants fashioned of wax) for The Four Rivers Fountain (1649–51; cat. 10), which undoubtedly included more personifications of the rivers than the single one that survives for this model. A project such as the Tomb of Pope Urban VIII (1628–47) almost certainly required terra-cotta models to be arranged (see cat. 1) around the architecture fashioned out of clay or wood in the modello. The many studies for the statue of Longinus were almost certainly tested inside a model for its niche, and I cannot help but imagine that the models for the Angels (1667–72; cat. 35–47) for the Ponte Sant’ Angelo were arranged in two lines opposite one another in order to see how they would play off one another.

Excepting heads (such as the two fashioned in terra cruda for the Church Fathers on the Cathedra Petri, which remained in the Musei Vaticani, presumably because they are too fragile to travel), autograph models for parts of bodies or drapery are almost entirely unknown, although it is important to remember that an enormous quantity of preparatory material is lost. (I say “almost entirely,” as there is the Study of a Horse [ca. 1662; cat. 22], modeled only for the rear half of the animal, from the Museo Nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia, Rome, which is preparatory for one of Bernini’s two equestrian monuments.) The losses are perplexing, considering that preparatory work produced by exceptional artists of the order of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael were already being collected more than a century earlier—though what remains in those cases are almost exclusively drawings, which take up less space and are thus easier to safeguard. Unlike Michelangelo, Bernini is not known to have destroyed copious amounts of preparatory work, even if he must have occasionally discarded materials for lack of space. Nevertheless, following Bernini’s death, many preparatory clay models were improperly stored away by his sons, and eventually succumbed. A significant reason for this is the little amount of interest that was shown on the part of most connoisseurs during this period for terra-cotta models. Significantly, when collectors acquired such models, these could be painted or gilded over to make them look more finished and precious (as Montanari shows in his essay [63–73]; see also cat. 3 for a gilded modello for the Longinus). In her recent book on Costanza Piccolomini Bonarelli, the findings of which appeared too late to be included in the exhibition catalogue, Sarah McPhee discovered additional evidence for the early collection of Bernini’s terra-cotta models (Sarah McPhee, Bernini’s Beloved: A Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012 ) (click here for review). However, the loss of countless clay models indicates how unusual this was at this early date.

Bernini, one of the great precocious talents in the history of art, was already carving work of exceptional quality while still in his teens. However, the earliest clay model generally attributed to him, for the figure of Charity on the Tomb of Pope Urban VIII (cat. 1), dates no earlier than 1627. In other words, there are no existing preparatory models for the four great statues carved between 1618 and 1625 for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, three of which include at least two life-sized figures. Three-dimensional models were certainly produced in preparation for such intricate works, and it is more than likely that Bernini’s father, the Mannerist sculptor Pietro Bernini (for whom there are no surviving models), introduced his son to the necessity of taking such preparatory steps. Vasari and Benvenuto Cellini speak of the importance of preparatory models in their treatises, and the superlatively designed sculpture of Giambologna bears witness to the critical role played by such models in the genesis of Mannerist work tailored to be viewed from multiple angles—unlike Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculpture.

In the exhibition catalogue, Dickerson argues for the impact on the young Bernini of Stefano Maderno’s clay models (10–12), which, unlike Giambologna’s, were in Rome and constitute—in Dickerson’s opinion—the outstanding body of work of this nature at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In 1624, Bernini invited Maderno to provide “little putti in clay” for the enormous Baldacchino (1624–35) for St. Peter’s, an indication that Bernini held this artist—who had produced only one significant work of monumental sculpture, the marble Santa Cecilia (1600) in Santa Cecilia in Trastevere—in some regard. Dickerson suggests that what impressed Bernini most were Maderno’s models of clay. Seeing one or more models by Maderno next to examples by Bernini would have helped establish if there is indeed a strong link between the preparatory works of these two artists; and seeing earlier as well as contemporary models would have highlighted the extent to which Bernini innovated both in his approach to the three-dimensional model and his handling of clay.

This exhibition seeks, among other things, to deconstruct the making of Bernini’s models by applying techniques akin to those used by forensic scientists, thereby enabling the curatorial team to confirm attributions and reassign some models that were previously believed to be by Bernini. Conservator Anthony Sigel (Harvard Art Museums) has done groundbreaking work in meticulously examining Bernini’s clay models, a significant number of which are preserved at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. His methodology is laid out in the catalogue’s “Visual Glossary” (87–107), and his findings add much to each individual catalogue entry. For example, by pouring silicone into the grooves, Sigel was able to recreate the tools Bernini used to work the clay. Sigel further shows the idiosyncratic ways in which the artist alternated between his fingers and different instruments in articulating form, leaving his signature marks behind. These include pinching the clay between thumb and index finger at the back of the neck, pushing the clay with the thumb around the limbs (instead of along their length), and shaping “his models’ shoulders by pushing or pulling his fingers from front to back alongside the neck. In most cases, the tracks from his fingers and a fingerprint remain in the mound of displaced clay at the end of the stroke” (100). Occasionally, clear and complete fingerprints were left behind, which are now inventoried.

The exhibition was deeply moving from beginning to end. One work that struck this viewer with the force of revelation is the superb Model for the Lion on the Four Rivers Fountain (ca. 1649–50; cat. 7). Bernini, it is sometimes forgotten, was a great animalier. “A wealth of new technical information affirms the view that Bernini—not some assistant, nor some later copyist—made the terracotta” (145). An X-radiograph reveals that “near the end of modeling, the lion (which is solid, and not hollow as one would expect of a model of this size and finish) was cut in two just forward of the rear haunches. . . . A V-shaped wedge of clay was then inserted, lengthening the torso by a few centimeters. The modification suggests that elements of the design were still evolving during the course of modeling” (148).

The bozzetti of kneeling and half-kneeling angels preparatory for The Altar of the Blessed Sacrament (1672–74; cat. 48–52) in St. Peter’s that close this exhibition were particularly mesmerizing; in them, Bernini reaches entirely new heights of expression in his old age. Fraught with motion—implied, when the angels kneel—Bernini achieves much in these works through increasingly abstract means; witness, for instance, the self-combusting drapery. Bernini would live another eight years. Regrettably, these angels are among the last existing clay models from Bernini’s hand. The exhibition ends with a bang.

Rome would have been an ideal host city for this exhibition, as it would have been most useful to be able to compare the terra-cotta models to so many of the sculptures for which they were preparatory. Instead, visitors to the exhibition settled for large, often lovely black-and-white photographs of the sculptures hung within proximity of the pertinent model(s) and drawing(s). I missed an up-close photograph of the entire Four Rivers Fountain, for which different clay models survive, and I would have liked to consult a photograph of the Moor (1653–55) standing on his fountain in the Piazza Navona, Rome (instead of a huge close-up of the Moor’s face, carved by Giovanni Antonio Mari), especially since the superb, recently discovered presentation model for this statue lacks both of its arms (cat. 13).

From an early age Bernini worked for patrons in the highest echelons. He was thus asked to produce ephemeral work for a variety of occasions, in addition to the copious amounts of sculpture he and his workshop produced in stone, bronze, or stucco. These temporary projects called for preparatory models, especially since Bernini had to delegate so much of the work to other parties. None of these preparatory models seem to survive. As noted in the catalogue, Bernini learned to delegate early in his career, at the beginning of the reign of Pope Urban VIII, when he was charged in 1624 with the design and execution of the great Baldacchino for St. Peter’s crossing. The act of delegating required the use of preparatory models to transmit Bernini’s ideas to his associates.

The works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Kimbell Art Museum were arranged more or less chronologically, by patron, type, and project, though the particulars differed at the two venues. At the Metropolitan Museum, the exhibition was displayed in the lower galleries wrapped around the atrium of the Lehman wing, from which daylight—which plays such an important role in Bernini’s conception of sculpture—is largely banned. Louis Kahn’s building at Fort Worth, with its barrel vaults sliced through at their apex and still charged with romanità, allowed for a much airier installation, inviting contemplation of Bernini’s remarkable terra cottas in a more serene and less confined environment. Additionally, the travertine walls of Kahn’s galleries evoked a palpable sense of Rome. The lighting of the individual models at the Kimbell was excellent.

At the Metropolitan Museum there was a large, silent video projection showing the extent to which Bernini transformed Rome. This video, which was also featured at the Kimbell, was most welcome, but what I missed in New York was a video showing how Bernini worked the clay. A wall with detailed photographs of the terra cottas with text explaining Bernini’s ways of handling his medium was most informative, but a moving image can better record the steps that go into creating such work. Happily, a video in which Sigel demonstrates how Bernini prepared the clay and constructed his bozzetti—more slowly and carefully than is generally assumed, as Steven F. Ostrow highlights in his catalogue essay—was featured at the Kimbell.

The importance of the Bernini: Sculpting in Clay exhibition and its catalogue, which cover far more ground than I can possibly address here, cannot be sufficiently emphasized. Both will have a profound impact on the future study of the sculpture of Bernini.

Michaël Amy
Professor, School of Art, Rochester Institute of Technology

Please send comments about this review to