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How Great Art Was Made


If one thinks of a terracotta as an essentially French thing, a clay sculpture with a high degree of finish, a surface sponged smooth, the color of pale biscuit, a delicate and fine object to be placed on a Louis Quinze commode—that is not what we are talking about in this context. We are talking about what is classed in the old inventories as a primo pensiero, or first thought—sometimes even as just a pensiero.

Such a terracotta is a three-dimensional sketch, in some ways resembling the little wax models which Italian sculptors also made, but with this difference—in nearly all cases it is built up without an armature. It is going to be fired, and an armature would split the clay. So a clay sketch model will if necessary be given a simple exoskeleton to support it while it dries. If a limb projects in the way that, for instance, Bernini’s Saint Longinus thrusts out his arms (arms that in the finished marble would have to be carved from separate blocks of stone, in defiance of the strong tradition that a statue should derive from one block alone), the arms will need wooden struts to support them, and these struts may well leave a little mark on the surface of the clay.

A model like this is not supposed to be finished. The artist is talking to himself and to his assistants. He is not yet talking to a patron or client. Bernini takes a thumbnail and presses it into the clay. Nailprint and fingerprint remain. In one case, at the back of the neck, the curve of the thumbnail is used to indicate the curve of the neck. But in other parts of the same surface the thumbprints are simply a consequence of the pressing of the clay into shape—they are not meant to be “read.” The fingerprints are not sponged off, nor are the marks of the various tools erased. Whereas in a finished marble sculpture every tool mark will have been left for a purpose (giving various textures to different areas of surface, so that they will respond variously to light), in a sketch model the tools are used haphazardly, as they come to hand.

Modeling is not, as sometimes thought, essentially a process of addition. It is a conversation between addition and subtraction. The clay is added, then gouged out. The folds of the drapery—which are the abstract, emotional language of the Baroque—are deeply, deeply gouged. There is nothing remotely tentative about the process. With a Renaissance terracotta, one can usually be pretty sure that the drapery implies a garment which could be tailored without a problem. They think of the garment first, then of the effect it can make.

Bernini thinks of the effect first. He is not a clothes designer—why should he be? He is thinking of the meaning of ecstasy. And he is thinking fast. Although there are some places on the models where the addition of clay implies an afterthought, several hours later, for the most part what is conveyed in the pensieri is speed of execution. He is expressing himself in a shorthand which his assistants can read without a problem.

Sometimes there are marks on the models, cut into the wet clay, giving a rough scale to allow for an enlargement. At other points on the surface, measurements have been taken with calipers, giving, say, the distance between the foot and the elbow. By searching for these paired indentations the researcher can come extremely close to the daily details of studio practice. Some of the bases are cut off the stand with wire. Some have been placed on a tray of sand, so that they can be moved without being squished.

One is not to imagine a modern art school, with a kiln handy in the corner. Rather the economy of the community resembles those peasant villages where the household sends the meat down to the baker’s shop to be roasted in his oven. The sculptors, in other words, lived in association with kiln workers whose chief job was making pots and tiles. The low heat at which the sketch models were fired suggests that the firing of these sketches was something that could be fitted in, cheaply, alongside of the major business of the kiln.

One can tell that an object is fired at a low heat both by the comparative softness of the clay and by the fact that, under a certain temperature, minute organic forms of fossils will remain intact. Subjected to a higher heat they would disappear. Firing at a low heat reduces the chance of disaster, but it leaves an object which is extremely fragile. At the laboratory of the Fogg (for Charles Eliot Norton’s dream came true, and the Fogg both possesses and is itself “a well-fitted art laboratory, for the study and comparison of facts relating to art and artists”)—where I was shown the Brandegee collection before it went on display, a large terracotta fragment, a saint’s head, was being examined. Because it was an irregularly shaped object, it was placed on a glass dish containing small clear vinyl beads, which arranged themselves, after the manner of a beanbag, in order to support the terracotta along all its contours.

The “study and comparison of facts” included the building up of an archive of fingerprints, and the analysis of these prints by the FBI in the hope of perhaps identifying Bernini’s. (Two prints did indeed match, and on models made some thirty years apart.) It is not known how useful this research will prove, but the Fogg hopes to build up information from Italian terracottas all over the world. Fingerprints are one part of this. Another new line of inquiry is into the mineral composition of the clay. It might be that the local Roman clay, which came from the Valle d’Inferno, not far from the Vatican, has a sufficiently distinctive composition to assist in establishing the provenance and authenticity of a piece.


It is good to ask of a work of art three questions: What is it? Where does it come from? And why is it here? The third of these questions is a way of asking: Are works of art distributed at random around the world, or is their location an aspect of their meaning? Might a drawing in London just as well be in Vienna, or is there some significance about its being in London, in a certain building, in company of other drawings?

Terracotta working models are such rare survivors—especially in comparison with drawings—that the existence of an old collection of them is inevitably full of meaning. The eighteenth-century sculptor and restorer Bartolomeo Cavaceppi built up a collection with which he hoped to found an academy. He had 7,300 drawings: these are now for the most part in Berlin. He had, by comparison, perhaps a couple of hundred terracotta sketch models, and that was a large collection. The Brandegee terracottas, it was recently established, come from Cavaceppi’s collection, as do a group of models in the Palazzo Venezia in Rome. So what we are looking at at Harvard is a fragment of an eighteenth-century vision of what was exemplary in art.9

The Chicago exhibition, so beautifully mounted and lit, comes from the Hermitage. It had been in the Palazzo Farsetti, a private museum in Venice. In 1782 the future Tsar Paul I came incognito with his wife, traveling Europe under the pseudonym the Count and Countess Serverni (“Of the North”). Everyone knew who they were. They saw the museum and wanted to buy the collection, but the Venetian government refused to allow the sale. The Tsar did not forget, however. The Republic of Venice fell in 1797. The then owner of the collection was a passionate botanist whose garden was ruining him. He sold.

In 1992, when a slightly different choice from the same collection went to Italy, it was shown under the title Alle Origini di Canova. Strangely enough, this title was just as appropriate as Chicago’s Bernini’s Rome, for the models were studied in Venice by the young Canova, along with the rest of the sculptures and casts in the Farsetti collection in Venice. What the Italian exhibition asked the visitor to remember, then, was the early education of the preeminent neoclassicist sculptor. The young Canova was an enthusiast for the Baroque. And indeed, when we look at the address and verve with which he habitually made his own models in terracotta, that astonishing decisiveness can easily remind us of Bernini.

The Farsetti collection had been formed in Rome by Abbot Filippo Farsetti, a rich man who decided to turn his palace into an academy of drawing. He had permission to make casts from the antique, and he also collected small-scale models of classical statues, including a series by Stefano Maderno. For him to have put together a collection of, again, a couple of hundred items, he must have gone the rounds of the artist’s studios. Charles Avery says he bought from Cavaceppi, but Sergei Androsov, in the Chicago catalog, does not echo this view.

What Farsetti could have found, in Rome around 1750, of the models made in the previous century (he attempted in fact to collect as far back as Michelangelo) would have been valued objects preserved by artists as exemplary. We know that the Bernini family let their collection go to rack and ruin, so it is most likely that the Bernini terracottas Farsetti found came from the collection of Giulio Cartari, Bernini’s pupil. We can see also, from a eulogistic address delivered at the opening of the Farsetti museum, that the intention of the collector was to persuade the young artists of Venice, as Androsov says, “to study the classical heritage from the masters of antiquity to Bernini, François Duquesnoy, Pierre Legros, Nicolas Poussin, Annibale Carracci, and Guido Reni.”

It would be impossible to guess, from the excellent selection in Chicago, that this was the classical program. It is a perception that only comes from the posing of the question: Why are these objects here (in the Hermitage)? In Chicago, the answer is that these objects are here in celebration of Bernini and Algardi’s 400th birthdays, and to show us what the standard is for the Baroque terracotta. Here (among first thoughts, developed sketches, and presentation models by various artists) is Algardi’s executioner, designed for the altar on which Luigi Bernini was working when he skulked in Bologna after the unfortunate business with his brother’s mistress. And here is a model of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, made to get the family out of that other unfortunate scrape.

After Chicago, I went to Detroit and saw the model of the Cathedra Petri at St. Peter’s in Rome, made to show the Pope how Bernini proposed to encase Saint Peter’s very throne. The angels flanking this throne have been broken off the terracotta, clearly deliberately, by Bernini, and have been replaced in stucco. As if after a conversation with the Pontiff, who had made some objection, Bernini, being a consummate courtier as well as an artist, had said: Of course, as your Holiness wishes, I shall change the angels at once. What looks at first like an imperfection in the piece becomes, as you reflect on it, the most vivid invitation to insight. This is what these terracottas do for us. Here, they say, is how all that great art was made.

  1. 9

    Maria Giulia Barberini and Carlo Gasparri, editors, Bartolomeo Cavaceppi: Scultore Romano (1717-1799) (Rome: Museo del Palazzo di Venezia, 1994).

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