Each of the terra-cotta objects in "Bernini: Sculpting in Clay" was given a rigorous examination by conservator Tony Sigel, and an aesthetic appraisal by curators C.D. Dickerson and Ian Wardropper. What was gleaned from their close scrutiny provided a wealth of knowledge about each piece and contributed to the understanding of Bernini's working methods that became the litmus test for attribution.
Here are five terra cottas that illustrate the variety of these discoveries.
Model for the Rio de la Plata
This figure was one of four that represented the great rivers of the world -- the Danube, the Ganges, the Nile and the Rio de la Plata -- that symbolized the reach of Roman Catholicism in the 17th century. They grace the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Rome's Piazza Navona.
Only two terra cottas exist, those for the Rio de la Plata and the Nile. While Bernini designed the fountain, four sculptors carved the marble figures. Two of the sculptors were quite adept -- Antonio Raggi, who carved the Danube, and Claude Poussin, who worked on the Ganges. As there are no models for these sculptures, the artists could very well have worked directly from Bernini's drawings.
It is suspected that the two models were made for the two less accomplished sculptors, and there are a number of measuring marks on the surface to indicate these were used to guide their hands when they began work on the marble blocks.
The attribution for this model was always a little questionable, but during Sigel's examinations, he found a fingerprint on the base that matches fingerprints on four known Bernini works. Because the fingerprint is surrounded and slightly overlapped by tool scrapings, it all but confirms that Bernini worked on this model. There are also tool marks on the left side of the face that are Bernini-like in their roughness.
Model for the Fountain of the Moor
This is Bernini's largest and most finished terra cotta in the exhibit. It had to be of a dramatic size to impress the patrons, the Pamphilj family, who had rejected two earlier models. Although there is substantial damage -- both arms, the dolphin's tail, parts of the shell and the rock base are all missing -- there is still a wonderful amount of detail that mimics marks and techniques Bernini used on his finished marbles, although the final Moor was carved by his assistant Giovanni Antonio Mari.
The differences between Bernini's model and Mari's marble are equally telling, as the model is more dynamic than the finished fountain. Dickerson notes Mari's "musculature is more generic ... the sinews less taut, and face not as expressive." He also points to Bernini's execution of the model's right foot, where the toes are clenched to gain purchase on the slippery shell and the right heel is lifted to suggest movement. Mari missed these nuances.
Bernini used a stiff brush on the skin surfaces, circling around the legs, accentuating the rounded forms. He did the same on the face, then used a blunt oval-tipped tool to render the moustache, beard and hair. In the massive sweep of curly hair, he left sharp edges and crumbs of clay as well as punch marks within the curls to give depth and contrast. The same kinds of holes appear regularly in his carved works, frequently in the hair.
Daniel in the Lions' Den
Daniel's attribution went back and forth during the 20th century. First it was considered to be by Bernini, then not, then once it was cleaned of two layers of paint, it went back on the Bernini list. Now that Sigel has found a fingerprint on the piece that matches recognized Bernini fingerprints, it is not likely to be stricken again. The model is different from the larger-than-life-size sculpture in the Chigi Chapel in Rome, and that makes the attribution even more compelling.
Bernini moved Daniel's arms around in drawings and on the marble, raising them higher than those on the terra cotta so that Daniel's face can be seen from below, framed by his arms. The tilt of the lion's head is different and so are the swirls of drapery. The same sculptor made both the model and the marble, or such liberties would never have been taken.
Sigel determined that the clay model had been kept moist with a wet cloth over a prolonged period of time, and this caused deterioration of the surface, obliterating some of Bernini's typical surface textures. There were also fresh finger marks on the deteriorated clay, which point to handling prior to firing.
This piece was in the death inventory of Cardinal Flavio Chigi, whose uncle, Pope Alexander VII, commissioned Daniel in the Lions' Den. The pope was known to have been the recipient of models from Bernini. This is one of the few terra cottas with a fairly clear provenance that stretches back to the 17th century.
Head of Saint Jerome
This is Bernini's only existing full-scale head study. It was the study for his sculpture of Saint Jerome in the Chapel of the Madonna del Voto in Siena, Italy. When Pope Alexander VII was elected in 1655, he began commissioning works from Bernini for chapels in Rome and subsequently one in Siena, his hometown. This head study was used for a full-figure sculpture of the patron saint of librarians, Saint Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, creating what is known as the Vulgate. He was an aesthetic penitent and Bernini's sculpture of him depicts the saint with a deeply sorrowful face, clasping a cross against his shoulder.
Dickerson suspects Bernini executed full head studies "whenever confronted with a particularly challenging face for one of his mythological or religious figures. In the model, Bernini paid particular attention to the eyes, making them look weighed down, filled with sorrow over past sins."
Sigel's examinations revealed extensive finger- and tool-working on the lower edges of both lids. "Bernini also carefully shaped the mouth, giving it a slight downturn at the corners, as though the saint were groaning in penitential pain," Sigel says.
He found that Bernini used his oval-tipped tool to gouge out the clay in the eye sockets, ears, nose and mouth, areas that were inaccessible to his fingers. He modeled the mouth open and detailed the upper teeth, knowing that these would be seen from below, the vantage point of the viewer.
Angel With the Crown of Thorns
One of Bernini's biggest and latest commissions was for 10 larger-than-life-size statues of angels holding instruments of Christ's Passion. They would adorn the Ponte Sant'Angelo, a bridge over the Tiber River that connected the pope's fortress with the Vatican. Bernini designed all 10 angels but focused on two, Angel With the Crown of Thorns and Angel With the Superscription, which he would carve himself; the others were delegated to assistants. He made several drawings and models for these two angels, but as he neared completion, Pope Clement IX decided they were too beautiful for display outdoors and asked Bernini to create two more for the bridge. Bernini passed the chore to two assistants.
The two beautiful marble angles were still in Bernini's studio when he died in 1680. In 1729, Bernini's grandson donated them to the church Sant'Andrea delle Fratte, where they flank the nave, in front of the altar.
One of the models for the Angel With the Crown of Thorns is nude; this one shows Bernini's explorations in draping the figure. Sigel notes numerous stylistic techniques common to Bernini's models -- the way the clay was modeled around the circumference of the arm and leg, the gentle arc around the back of the head, and the continuous finger sweep around the neck that creates an over-the-shoulder shaping stroke.
Sigel also found signs that this terra cotta was made in a single session; there is also a fingerprint along the bottom of the piece. The highly expressive yet quickly made facial features are another Bernini hallmark.