Gian Lorenzo Bernini was the most important sculptor of the 17th century—the Michelangelo of his age. During a lifetime that spanned over 80 years, he transformed the face of Rome with his spectacular fountains, wonders of marble carving such as the Apollo and Daphne, and spellbinding decorations for the interior of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Next February, the Kimbell will lift a veil on how Bernini worked his sculptural magic with the first-ever exhibition devoted to his brilliantly expressive preparatory models in clay. These intensely beautiful works—formed by the artist’s own hands—were the means by which he explored his ideas in three dimensions and presented them for review to his patrons.
Many of the models in Bernini: Sculpting in Clay will be what art historians call bozzetti, from the Italian word abbozzare, to sketch. During the preliminary stages of realizing a design, Bernini used clay to do just that: sketch out his ideas. His bozzetti are very loosely worked and demonstrate the amazing coordination of his hands and mind, which always seems to have been racing. Once Bernini had achieved a design he liked, he usually made a larger, more finished model called a modello. He might show this to a patron or give it to an assistant to use as a guide while carving the much larger marble. His modelli are sumptuous works of sculpture, incorporating a range of textures and a wealth of details.
The heart of the exhibition will be the 15 terracottas by Bernini from the Harvard Art Museums, the largest and most important collection of Bernini terracottas in the world, a collection that has never before been lent. Almost all the other models that can be confidently attributed to Bernini—about 20 more—will join the group from Harvard, as many as have ever been assembled in one place during modern times. The Musée du Louvre, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Bode Museum in Berlin, the Vatican Museums, and public and private collections in Europe and the United States will send their prized works to this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. From the Kimbell’s collection will come three masterworks, including the stupendous Moor, the largest and most highly finished model in Bernini’s oeuvre.
In order to give full scope to Bernini’s preparatory process, the exhibition will also include almost 30 of the artist’s drawings. These will be displayed near related models to demonstrate that, when preparing for his sculptures, Bernini moved freely between media: many of his ideas originated on paper and were expanded in clay. One of the more beautiful sheets to appear in the exhibition will be a drawing in black chalk from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles that was preparatory for a fountain that Bernini designed for a palace outside Modena, Italy.
An extensive campaign of technical research was undertaken on the terracottas in preparation for the exhibition. With the aid of detailed photographs and X-ray imaging, curators and conservators were able to understand better how Bernini actually made his models, which has proven useful in separating terracottas by the master from ones by his assistants.
One of the most exciting discoveries of the exhibition is a model of an angel and a cherub found by the exhibition’s curators in the Museo Horne in Florence. Although the model has never appeared in a single book on Bernini and is virtually unknown, the team immediately recognized that it incorporated tell-tale aspects of the sculptor’s modeling “handwriting”—the distinctive way he used his fingers and tools in the clay and the marks they left behind. In the exhibition, visitors will learn how to read this “handwriting” through large, close-up photographs of relevant features.
Bernini: Sculpting in Clay hopes to bring viewers close to the creative process again and again. Among its star attractions will be a room devoted to the Ponte Sant’Angelo, the famed bridge spanning Rome’s Tiber River that Bernini decorated between 1667 and 1672 with 10 angels holding the instruments of the Passion. He reserved the carving of two of the angels for himself, delegating eight to other sculptors, but he alone planned each figure. More models survive for the Ponte Sant’Angelo than for any other project by Bernini. These—nine in all—are small-scale sculptures of great power and will be arranged in the exhibition according to the order in which they were likely made. In going from one to the next, visitors will be able to stand over Bernini’s shoulder and follow his thoughts as they evolved. Few projects in the history of art grant such access to their making.
Bernini: Sculpting in Clay is organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Kimbell Art Museum. With over 70 magnificent works of art, seen in the light of a new understanding of the creative process, the exhibition will bring a master sculptor’s genius to life once again.