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Hard and unyielding, marble is a rock that must be wrestled with by sheer force, exquisite care, and grunt of labor. Human hands require the intermediary hammer and chisel, and touch is distanced in the service of the eye. To give this rock the spark of life is a formidable task, one that few are able to accomplish.
Red clay is mud. Dirty, cheap, and plentiful, it is underfoot, low, and common. By dint of water it is plastic and alive, the fingers imprinting an instant record of presence, time, and motion. A mound is grasped—three, four moves, and it is done. Contours are smoothed and chunks sliced off, all in the same bold mass.
Bernini: Sculpting in Clay at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (also reviewed here in caa.reviews), presented for the first time thirty-nine extraordinary terra-cotta sketch models, or bozzetti, created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini as he began to flesh out his ideas for what would be some of the most spectacular marble statuary and architecture of the Baroque era. These small works made from mud and fired as terra cotta were conceived as rough drafts. The exhibition sought to celebrate them—in the words of the press release—as “bold, expressive works in their own right,” and to illuminate their role in Bernini’s creative process of visualizing and designing his monumental works. More importantly, they show a glimpse of Bernini’s vivid, restless imagination and his distinctly human touch as he quickly worked to capture an idea in clay and to find the perfect composition, gesture, and attitude to make marble come alive.
Muscular, intricate, flowing, turbulent forms give way to supple glistening skin that is simultaneously ideal and hyperreal in Bernini’s finished marble. But as the exhibition showed, Bernini also possessed an unparalleled ability to pull life from clay with a vitality that feels modern, expressive, and fresh—temporarily suspending its role as a planning device in the service of colossal finished works. How does he do it, and what does it mean to see and appreciate these small sculptures with the eye of someone who works in clay?
In the Western sculptural tradition, clay models were of little value when compared to an artist’s finished work in bronze or stone. In his catalogue essay “‘The Fire of Art’?: A Historiography of Bernini’s Bozzetti,” Steven F. Ostrow refers to Giorgio Vasari, and states that “he articulated ideas that would become central to the aesthetic appreciation of preliminary sketches, both in two and three dimensions, that sketches are products of creative furor; that they are spontaneous creations, ‘dashed off in a moment,’ and that they reveal the essence of the artist’s conception” (75). Vasari argues for the appreciation of clay models by elevating them through essentialist language, romanticizing touch and speed as a godlike gesture. But seeing these small, exciting, even breathtaking sculptures in human, sensuous terms or with a contemporary eye offers a different set of questions and an opportunity to connect with them in a visceral way.
Most of Bernini’s clay models are small energetic studies, often roughly made. He had little interest in details and was more concerned with weight, expression, and orientation to their surroundings. One of two surviving sculptures of St. Longinus (1634), a wonderful piece shown near the start of the exhibition, is striking in its combination of crude and skillful gestures. The modeled figure was boldly cut into sections and restacked, corresponding to the marble blocks Bernini intended to use. This deconstructed/reconstructed piece with missing parts appears startlingly modern. It would not be surprising if contemporary ceramic sculptors like Stephen DeStaebler and Doug Jeck looked to Bernini for inspiration.
Bernini’s technique is additive rather than carved; there is no chipping away to reveal the “spirit in the stone.” Toothed tools mimic the texture, value, and linear qualities in his preparatory drawings, shown in tandem with the sculptures. Thick and thin strips of clay create rippling drapery, and wads are added here and there. Back and forth the clay moves between fingers, brain, and tools with a gifted but imperfect, correcting human hand. Did the feel of damp clay activate a liminal space between sensation and intellect, or satisfy him in ways not possible with marble?
Model of an Angel and Cherub for the Celestial Glory (1663) is so vigorously modeled that you imagine Bernini racing to get his impressions down before they were lost. Faces and overall shapes are abstract, as if they are in the process of becoming. Damp clay records every stroke, fingerprints and pinch marks are clearly visible, and you can practically see him pulling the clay over the top of the cherubs’ heads in a chunky swoop. Charity with Four Children (1627–before 1634) is more developed. Skillfully modeled in the front, its backside is an unfinished wall of clay alternately built with small pieces and forms pulled from the mass. Deep finger grooves smear clay with force and care—you can all but feel the mud under your nails when you see Bernini’s marks. Today, evidence of an artist’s process is often celebrated as a finished aesthetic, and it is exciting to look at the work this way as you switch your view from front to back and back again.
Mud turns into meaty flesh and swirling hair in the Model for the Fountain of the Moor (1653). Here, textural differences are palpable on surfaces smoothed by hand, bits of clay are left on tooled edges, and fish scales are drawn as if by a child. Large handfuls of clay at the base show shrinkage cracks, reminding viewers that it is earth, and suggesting a material tension absent from a finished marble.
Bernini’s religious works are particularly emotive; they convey intimacy and power in both refined and quickly formed works. Drapery flutters in thin strips over bodies, and his hand rakes a broad stroke as he creates saints and angels in various states of devotion or fervor. The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni (1672) is perhaps the most gorgeous of these. Hauntingly tender, she communicates both weight and lightness of being as her hands press her own flesh like Bernini presses clay.
Bernini’s expressive touch holds center stage in all of his clay sculpture. Working expediently through image and form, he thinks with his hands. We mentally match our fingers to the imprint of his, we feel the curves and edges, and we connect on a sensuous, synesthetic level. Philip Rawson discusses this idea in two short but elegant passages, “memory traces and meaning” and “tactile values,” in his classic book, Ceramics, first published in 1971 and still considered required reading for anyone looking to understand ceramic art (Philip Rawson, Ceramics, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984, 15–21). Although we cannot touch the work, we remember what it feels like to squeeze and move clay; Bernini’s ability to transport us there activates and charges our “touch memories.”
Bernini’s tools and techniques, and the order in which he coiled, pinched, or draped a formless lump are described throughout the richly illustrated and beautifully composed exhibition catalogue, giving even the most skilled ceramist an in-depth and fabulous “how to” lesson. Time, gravity, moisture, and pressure are all given their due. A vivid explanation of Half-Kneeling Angel (1672) reveals how overlapping tools and finger marks were made: “vigorous downward strokes with a dull or blunted chisel, a little over an inch wide, was used in very wet clay to create a shallow V-shaped hollow”; text and image go on to describe the resulting surface as “that of melted ice cream” (350–51). Anthony Sigel, conservator of sculpture and objects at the Strauss Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums, contributes a stellar visual glossary that is both accessible and scholarly. Joins, struts, buttresses, applied hair, measuring, hollowing, surface textures, and tool marks are all explained in the context of understanding the stages of working with clay. Signature modeling techniques such as “clay pushed around limbs,” “neck fingernail pinch,” and “finger sweep around the head” (98–100) earn entire paragraphs, shedding light on Bernini’s methods in palpable language that is a treat to read. Most books that touch on artists’ techniques are pedestrian at best, and it is refreshing to see this impressive volume crank up a maligned category more than just a notch.
The catalogue, audio tour, and exhibition signage give considerable attention to the careful analysis of each work to determine which terra-cotta models were most likely made by Bernini and which were done by his workshop assistants. Were copies thrown into the mix? This mainstay of museum study was an important goal of the exhibition, and the catalogue did not disappoint, with its marvelous images of X-radiographs, close-up details, and characteristic sweeps of the thumb. The sculptures come alive through the eye of new technologies used to make the unseen visible, and to reveal exactly how each piece was produced. Ghostly “x-ray” views humanize selected figures in unexpected and perhaps unintended ways—time and motion is captured and rendered transparent. As bodies that can be probed and measured, these images transport us back to a felt response.
The aesthetic quality of assistants’ work as compared to the master is at the core of determining who made what, and exhibition signage encouraged careful looking and material speculations. Do the finger marks jibe with others believed to be Bernini’s? Those attributed to his assistants “reveal a lack of energy in both modeling and expression,” according to the wall text, and are skilled but stiff. Painstaking analyses of many of the selected works, including studies of attribution, were at home in the catalogue and fascinating to read. But at times the signage seemed overstated as one walked through the exhibition—constant attention to authorship eclipsed the thrill of feeling a visceral connection to the clay and to imagine Bernini’s fingers in it. One could not help but hear the constant reinforcement of traditional master narratives in tension with an intimate view of the artist’s hand and mind.
Perhaps clay still holds its baggage (or its unique place) here. Is clay—or drawing, for that matter—somehow different from other mediums when considered in terms of touch and authorship? Scale, content, and the artist’s intent all factor into the mix. Does it matter if it is an installation, a singular work, or if it involves industrial or digital tools? Does the imprint of the hand or the speed at which ideas fire between the hand and mind continue to feed a master narrative with its connections to genesis and signature?
In the end, we see these works in our time and place, in the now. With an appreciation for history as a backdrop, the real pleasure in experiencing this work is in our own sensual imaginations, with our own touch memories, as we marvel at an artist’s skill and vision. We know what it feels like to grab a hunk of clay, the pliant mass in our own hand, as we wait for the right moment to create an image and make our mark. As our eyes retrace the push and pull of Bernini’s hands, our fingers twitch as we remember that first grasp of wet clay.
Associate Professor and Chair, Art Department, Connecticut College