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How Great Art Was Made

When he was carving his portrait of Louis XIV, the courtiers giggled at the way Bernini stalked around the King, observing him from all angles; and Louis himself had a hard time keeping a straight face. Bernini sketched the King standing, motionless; he sketched him sitting; he himself sat at the feet of the King to draw him from below—a view which is extremely familiar, since the resultant bust is always photographed from below, and was designed to be placed high, so that it has a commanding presence. Bernini not only posed the King, he also sketched him at work in the council of ministers, so that he could become familiar with the living features. He said that the human face was at its most characteristic either just before, or just after, speaking. If the artists of France learned any one thing from Bernini, it was this last maxim: time and again, especially in the eighteenth century, a portrait relies for its vividness on a mouth slightly open, as if about to speak.

He made sketches. He made models. What these preliminary procedures did was fix in his memory the nature of the task ahead of him. Once he could remember what his task was, he could ignore the sketches and the models. They had served their purpose, as far as he was concerned.

He carved his portrait of Louis under the eyes of the whole court. When it was said that the bust lacked the characteristic lock of hair fallen over the forehead, Bernini replied at first that a sculptor cannot do what a painter can—he cannot show the forehead as seen through the hair. Every art has its own limitations. He was also wont to point out that the difference between a sculptor and a painter is that a sculptor cannot change his mind. On this occasion, however, he did change his mind, cutting into the forehead to allow for the lock of hair. This story tells us two very characteristic things about Bernini: he did listen to criticism, even when he had a ready answer; and he did always bear in mind that he was not creating a phrenological replica of a head, as defined by the measurements of calipers, but an object that would create the illusion of a living human being. If those who knew the King well thought that the curl was so characteristic, then it might be worth rethinking the whole surface of the forehead in order to accommodate it.

Bernini did not invent the Baroque, nor indeed did he invent Baroque sculpture. As Bruce Boucher implies in his useful introductory account, the revolution had its origins in painting. Furthermore, there were stirrings of something new in the works of older sculptors such as Stefano Maderno and Francesco Mochi. The examples Boucher gives are chosen for their originality of composition and theatricality of impact. Visitors to the Chicago exhibition of Bernini’s terracottas can check out Mochi in the Art Institute’s permanent collection: there is an extraordinary white marble head of the young John the Baptist—a work which used to be ascribed to Bernini himself, as was a Mochi bust of Cardinal Antonio Barberini, now in the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio.

It is indeed quite possible to attribute too much to Bernini. Many visitors leave Rome under the impression that he built St. Peter’s (or those bits of it not by Michelangelo). Others (tour operators included) think that he carved the Trevi Fountain. But I have to confess myself shocked by Jennifer Montagu’s argument, in an essay called “Bernini Sculptures Not by Bernini,” that, while the design and most of the execution of the Apollo and Daphne are by Bernini himself, the “metamorphosis of the block of marble into delicate roots and twigs, and into floating tresses, was largely the work of Giuliano Finelli.”5 The evidence for this comes mainly from sources Montagu states to be hostile to Bernini, but it is taken up by Boucher: “Of course, Bernini did not carve the Apollo and Daphne alone. Giuliano Finelli (1601-1657) was responsible for some of the more dazzling passages of tendrils and sprouting leaves….” Dazzling passages of tendrils? Daphne is turning into a laurel, not a sweet pea, a tree (as per Ovid), not a climbing plant.

Charles Avery, who quotes Montagu at length at this point, concludes that Bernini “succumbed to the temptation of claiming as all his own work virtuoso passages of carving that ethically he perhaps ought to have declared as the morceau de réception of the gifted newcomer.” But a passage, even a brilliant passage, that is a part of someone else’s sculpture can hardly be termed—even in a loose figurative sense—a morceau de réception.

Returning to Montagu’s article we find that she has apportioned the “roots and twigs and floating tresses” to Finelli on the grounds that they demonstrate the kind of use of the sculptor’s drill at which he elsewhere excelled. Finelli, Montagu tells us, grew tired of seeing his triumphs enriching another, and so “left Bernini’s studio and set up on his own, seeking the opportunity to demonstrate that it was he who had produced these admired carvings.” But what was the outcome? Montagu adds in a footnote that “in his independent work [Finelli] does not achieve (and probably did not seek) the extraordinary finesse Bernini required of him.” In other words, brilliant though he might have been, he was not as brilliant without Bernini as he had been under his instructions. If so, it seems wrong to speculate (for that is all that it amounts to) that the virtuoso passages in this famous group can be attributed to someone other than Bernini.


Bernini knew, or at least said, that after his death his reputation would wane. But whether he realized how far it would wane is another matter. He had been the most famous artist in Europe. By the mid-nineteenth century he was a villain. Charles Eliot Norton, later to become the first Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard, published his Notes of Travel and Study in Italy in 1860.6 At the climax of this work Norton tells us that Savonarola’s “Bonfires of the Vanities” had been a good thing, that the execution of Savonarola had triggered a decline in Italian civilization, and that—this is the last sentence of the book—“for two hundred years Italy has lain dead.” Here is Norton on the age of the Baroque:

Raphael and Michael Angelo were the forerunners of decay…. The spirit of the earlier artists was incongruous with the worldly pomp and selfish display of the capital of the Popes; but Michel [sic] Angelo’s genius gave just expression to the character of the Papacy in its period of greatest splendor and Bernini is the fit representative of its weakness and decline. The eye is wearied and discouraged by the constant repetition of monuments of Art which, the more skilful and elaborate they may be, only the more exhibit the absence of noble design and elevated thought…. Simplicity is banished and modestly proscribed. Instead of being the minister of truth, the purifier of affections, the revealer of the beauty of God, Art was degraded to the service of ambition and caprice, of luxury and pomp, until it became utterly corrupt and false.

This is what Norton and his friend Ruskin believed. This is what Norton, a pessimist, taught generations of young men at Harvard. When the Fogg was founded, on a bequest made in 1891, Norton successfully argued that it should be “a well-fitted art laboratory, for the study and comparison of facts relating to art and artists.” And when the museum began to collect original works of art, it concentrated for years on building up a collection of early Italian panel paintings, until eventually people began to feel that enough was enough. Arthur Kingsley Porter, the great medievalist who on becoming Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard used his salary as an unofficial purchase fund for the museum (most of the early curators seem also to have been collectors), expressed his impatience thus in 1910:

Characteristic of this America of ours are the waves of fashion that sweep through the country. There is a danger in this jerky, intense way of doing things, even when the excitement is directed towards some object in itself entirely laudable. It is therefore with some mixed feelings that we must regard the rise in the field of art of a distinct fad for Italian primitives. We may concede that the present popularity of the Giotteschi in many ways gives cause for optimism. It is impossible not to feel that a taste for Giotto, if sincere, represents an immeasurable intellectual and artistic advance over the taste for Barbison [sic] and Fragonard, which it supplants. Yet American fads have a way of blighting and befouling all they touch. The swarm of locusts flies away leaving the verdure sere, the flowers deprived of their freshness.7

I quote this in order to show that Richard Norton, the son of Charles Eliot Norton, was not alone in his exasperation, and was not merely attacking what his father stood for (although there may have been an element of that in it, for all I know), when he began his 1914 essay on Bernini with the observation “Whereas our grandfathers and our great-grandfathers held Carracci and Guido and others of the same time in high esteem, we are now taught that these later men are of little value or interest in comparison with the artists of the fifteenth century, and even the most halting and stuttering ‘Primitive’ is held of more worth than the more able masters of the seventeenth century.” 8

Richard Norton had done something quite extraordinary. In 1905 he had gone to Rome and purchased from the director of the Galleria Borghese, Giovanni Piancastelli, a collection of twenty-seven clay sculptures, twenty-five of which were later deemed to be “by or in the manner of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.” Norton is described as having been “a discreet dealer.” So discreet is he in his essay that he does not say that it was he who purchased the collection and sold it to the Brandegee family, of Faulkner Farm, Brookline, Massachusetts. What he does say is that it is

extremely fortunate that their present owner realized their great beauty and extreme interest and added them to the artistic treasures stored in America, where they will serve in ages to come to show students and sculptors a clear reflection of the mind of one of the world’s greatest artists.

The phrasing here contains perhaps a hint that, in due course, the terracottas would find their way into a museum. The sumptuous production of Norton’s book, with its heliotype plates, suggests to me that the writing of the essay and its publication were all part of that happy symbiosis whereby curators and collectors have advanced each others’ interests in America. In 1937, Mrs. Edward D. Brandegee sold her terracottas to the Fogg, which carefully stored them away. Now on view in Cambridge, they are the greatest and most various representation of the work of any of the major Italian sculptors in any American collection, including several studies for the angels on the Ponte Sant’Angelo, but they were not displayed at first. In recent years only a few have been on show at any one time. In this, their fate closely resembles that of the Farsetti collection of Italian terracottas in the Hermitage, thirty-five of which have been sent for exhibition in Chicago, where they are finely presented. Neither of these great collections has been easily visible until recently. Neither has been particularly well known to scholars. Important facts about both collections have only recently come to light. In many respects, this is a new field of research.

  1. 5

    See the volume listed in note 4.

  2. 6

    Ticknor and Fields.

  3. 7

    Kathryn McClintock, “Academic Collecting at Harvard,” in Medieval Art in America:Patterns of Collecting, 1800- 1900, edited by Elizabeth Bradford Smith (Palmer Museum of Art/Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996).

  4. 8

    Richard Norton, Bernini and Other Studies in the History of Art (Macmillan, 1914), p. 3.

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