Gian Lorenzo Bernini wasn’t always our Bernini. He was self-made (a ferocious infighter at the Vatican), and dominated baroque Rome with hard work, not simply by being the best man for every job. He wanted every job and usually got what he wanted, but even for an artist of Bernini’s prodigious gifts, it wasn’t easy to stay on top, and the current Metropolitan Museum exhibition, Bernini: Sculpting in Clay, gives us the artist in a sweat—smarter, nervier, more emotional and working harder than anyone else.
Rather than a Great Master, this exhibition gives us a working artist, and a man. Given the sheer grandiosity of practically all his work, an exhibition of his models is maybe the only place we might find the flesh and blood Bernini. The virtual center point of the exhibition is Bernini’s own close-up, a handsome self-portrait drawing in red, black, and white chalk. The whole checklist revolves around the character we read in that face: warm, direct, and immediate as the terracottas, but also hot-tempered, impulsive, spontaneously sexual, and so self-assertive as to border on criminality (Bernini once sent an assistant to slash his mistress’s face. She was Costanza Bonarelli, the wife of another assistant, subject of his best portrait bust. Fortunately, the man left as instructed but ignored his errand). The historical Bernini was a bit dangerous.
The exhibition title is really rather odd; was Bernini ever “sculpting” except in clay? All the thinking happened in clay, as every item in the exhibition and every word of the catalogue essays makes clear. Art history has come to delve into technique, at last, and the whole exhibition is tied to process, specifically to the initial generation of images. The exhibition is most interesting when it comes closest to the studio; the best of the works are exploratory studies Bernini produced alone, for himself, that are literally fingerprints of the man himself.
Every job, whatever size, in whatever materials, started from rough models in clay, bozzetti, which translates best to “mockups.” Bernini always made a lot of them. He believed conception was divine, and that his ideas were lent by God. He knew that it was his ideas, rather than his bravura carving skills, that gave him his edge, and he treasured every flash of inspiration. Rather than rework and develop a single model through successive states he started a new model with each fresh thought. The exhibition includes a “Longinus” model which we know to have been one of twenty-two a visitor to the studio saw around 1635. Commentators, then and now, presumed Bernini’s marvelous speed (not that they actually saw it), but his method wasn’t all speed; Bernini was a thinker, impelled by inspiration, yes, but committed to a logical process. He retained every idea in sequence, for study and comparison, crowding them on shelves or a table, where they jostled for their place in the eternal city.
Like most sculptors, Bernini’s ideas were in the main pictorial. The typical Bernini model is a foot to a foot and a half high, essentially a figure in high relief, the reverse a rough mass later carved and faceted like wood, with a chisel or a hatchet, after firing. To our eye these bozzetti are interesting all around, and from their back, startlingly contemporary. Those views, quite suggestive in themselves, greatly resemble Lucio Fontana’s ceramics from the ’40s and ’50s, which however “abstract” surely refer to just this kind of figurative sculpture, and this crazy combination of rational method and irrational inspiration. For Fontana, for Bernini, and for us, the electric thrill of the emergent image is charged by the inchoate mass just behind it.
A Bernini figure does not have his feet on the ground. He curls up and outward from the mass at his back, light as a feather on the wind. Typically, a Bernini figure is mostly drapery, with only the swooning head, and bits of arms and legs protruding significantly from the roiling folds, which seem to be agitated not by the figure, but by his psychic field. For a practicien this is not a hard act to follow, at least tolerably well, but there is no doubt that the carvers barely touched the conception of these works. We’ve known for five hundred-odd years that sketches are fresher, more intellectually active and expressive than the full-size works executed by others, but in the exhibition, glancing from models to the large photos of the corresponding statuary, one is shocked at how simply incorrect they are. And how much else was lost. All but the spectacle.
Before we leave the Cavaliere, let’s touch only briefly upon the obvious. Bernini’s spectacular vulgarity is just as warm, direct, and passionate as the rest of him. But because the models are perhaps more him than anything else, this indoor exhibition, sans the Rome of Paul, Urban, Innocent, Fellini, and Woody, is practically the best of him. The best of the bozzetti tell us a story we have from Bernini’s son. At home, hearing an unexpected sound in the small hours of the night, he investigated, and came upon the old man working late, by candlelight, alone with the clay. He begged him to put it away and go to bed but Bernini, the best Bernini, said no; Lasciami stare qui, con quello che mi amo così tanto. Leave me alone here, with what I love so much.
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