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The Brain of Bernini, For All to See

Model for the Lion on the Four Rivers Fountain, Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome

The Kimbell Art Museum has opened an exhibition that takes visitors inside the mind of one of the greatest sculptors of all time. “Bernini: Sculpting in Clay” collects models and preparatory drawings the artist used to design his many statues that can be seen throughout Rome. The show is equal parts scholarship and scavenger hunt:

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Gian Lorenzo Bernini is a name that even casual art fans know. But unless you’ve visited Rome, it’s unlikely you’ve ever seen his work in person.

Fountains and churches can be difficult to send on museum tours.

That’s what makes the Kimbell’s exhibition of 40 terra cotta models, most created by Bernini, so special.

“I think one of the reasons that these beautiful little terra cotta clay modeling studies are so appealing is because almost everyone as a child has played around with clay, made things out of clay, Play-Doh – whatever,”  says Anthony Sigel, a conservator at the Harvard Museums and a co-curator of the exhibition. “I liken it to, if you open a jar of peanut butter and take a knife and make that first scoop of peanut butter – it’s such a pleasurable sensation. Everyone can relate to it.”

The Harvard Museums are home to 15 Bernini models – the largest collection in the world. The Kimbell owns three such models. On top of that, Kimbell curator of European art C.D. Dickerson wrote his dissertation on the models.

Head of Saint Jerome, c. 1661, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum

Dickerson and Sigel, with the help of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have been piecing together the exhibition since 2008. Dickerson says one of the most thrilling elements of his study has been observing the artist create, like when he inspects a life-sized head of St. Jerome that is included in the show.

“For me, a lot of it’s just his hands. He’s sort of pulling those eye lashes, working the bridge of the nose, using his thumbs to create these pleats down on the beard,” he said.

And in some cases, you can literally see Bernini’s fingerprints. Those prints helped the team attribute at least one model definitively to Bernini while calling into question other models thought to be by the artist. In addition to the finger prints, they also studied Bernini’s signature modeling techniques.

Sigel says that a model for an angel that adorns the Ponte Sant’Angelo in Rome is full of tell-tale signs that it was created by Bernini, plus an approach unique to the piece.

“One can see that when he was shaping the side of the left wing – and we can only seen this if it is lit exactly right – as he moved his finger from top to bottom along the edge of the wing, every time he lifted the finger, he noticed the fingerprint impression looking exactly like a feather,” he said. “It’s really a wonderful little detail that puts you right there in the studio with Bernini.”

Looking for these details from model to model turns the exhibition into a scavenger hunt for the eagle-eyed. If you notice that Bernini always shaped arms and legs by pushing the clay around the limbs rather than along the limbs, give yourself a gold star.

The experts, who’ve spent hundreds of hours studying these prototypes, can spot these signature techniques with one eye closed. But recognizing them is only the beginning.

“These pieces are loaded with gestures that are fairly easy to understand. You see the clay is pushed with a finger in a certain direction or something,” Sigels says. “But occasionally you see things that you don’t understand at all. But paradoxically, those are the ones that are the most important. … Because it’s only in the things that you see that you don’t understand that there’s an opportunity to make a new discovery.”

That might have Bernini buffs packing their own magnifying glasses when visiting the Kimbell. But for most, the rare opportunity to see so many of the artist’s creations gathered in one place will be discovery enough.