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Bernini: Sculpting In Clay — So Good I Want More, And Different

First, the good part: Bernini: Sculpting in Clay, which opens officially tomorrow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,* is a beautiful and very satisfying exhibition. It helps answer the question that comes naturally about masters and masterpieces: how did the artist do that? By bringing together about 40 of Bernini’s “clay sketches” and about 30 of the drawings Bernini made for some of his most famous works — the Four Rivers Fountain in the Piazza Navonna in Rome, the angels on the Ponte Sant’ Angelo there, among others — visitors will gain a window on how this genious transformed his ideas into reality.

These terracotta models have never been shown, the Met says in its press release, which is a mystery. They are wonderfully expressive; it’s a good thing they are in vitrines, because they cry out to be touched. They deserve to be seen.

Here’s another mystery: some 15 of them, if my memory serves, were borrowed from the Harvard Art Museums — all acquired in 1937. The Harvard museum’s online collections database lists 25 of the 28 Bernini pieces in its collection as being acquired that same year — with the notation “Alpheus Hyatt Purchasing and Friends of the Fogg Art Museum Funds.” Hyatt, a paleontology professor at Harvard, died in 1902; he must have left a bequest. That’s a guess.

I asked a couple people at the opening reception, and a few guessed that the legendary Paul Sachs was behind the purchase; he was, a search discovered, the associate director of the Fogg at the time. It could have been. Whoever it was made a great decision.

The Met, which installed this Bernini exhibition in the Lehman wing, also created exemplary educational materials to accompany the show. One large wall is covered with an explanation of using clay and modeling — it even tells us that terracotta clay is 14% water, but it never dumbs down; the text is illustrated with several photos, showing the tools Bernini would have used, the marking he made and how he used those points to create the correct dimensions for his sculptures, and so on.

Which brings me to my criticism: it’s hard to take in all the works and the information (especially when a reception in the Petrie Court upstairs is beckoning), and so today I went online hoping to review some of the didactic material from the show. But — so far at least — there’s nothing on the Met website from that great explanatory wall.

The website does offer the show’s video, “Bernini’s Transformation of Rome,” but it seems to me that the Met has missed an opportunity here. How much effort would it be to take the same info that’s on the walls and put it up on the web? Today, I couldn’t even check whether that 14% figure is correct, let alone spend more time digesting all one could learn about terracotta sculptures.

Maybe that’s coming.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Met

*I consult to a foundation that supports the Met




  1. These Berninis have never been shown? But they were … in a lovely display at the Fogg in 1998:

  2. The Fogg used to show at least some of them. The Kimbell originated the show after acquiring in 2003 the modello for the Fountain of the Moor, the highlight of the show. THey bought it from Salander O’Reilly which paid $3.2m for it at Sotheby’s London the previous June. The exhibit’s exhibit’s missing a number of works from the Hermitage because of the Russian loan embargo.

  3. Doralynn Pines says:

    Saying that the Bernini clay sketches have never been shown reminds me of the claims that the terracotta warriors from China had never been shown. They, too, were shown in the late 70’s or early 80’s at the Metropolitan Museum, and toured around the U.S., and probably Europe.

  4. George T. M. Shackelford says:

    I think I’m right in saying that the wonderful Fogg display of its own collection of bozzetti–the largest group in any single museum–was limited to the Harvard collection. “Bernini: Sculpting in Clay” is the first exhibition that I know of to attempt to reunite as many of the known terra cottas, from collections all over the United States and Europe, as possible. It also has benefited from the scholarship of a team of curators and conservators who have seen all the Bernini and would-be Bernini terra cottas, photographed them, x-rayed many of them, and applied that research to understanding, better than ever before, the characteristics of the artist’s surviving clay models and how they differ from those by other hands, often confused with the autograph works. Among other things, the display of the works together–some of the same composition, from many different lenders–allows the viewer to get a sense of the artist’s hand at work, and to differentiate between the sketch in clay and the model worked up in clay for presentation. Apart from visiting the show, the catalogue–rather than the necessarily brief website or press release–is where readers will want to go to get the full story.

  5. I totaling appreciate your criticism of this apparently wonderful show: that the educational background material on the scholarly wall panel should be more widely available, i.e. online. Actually, I think it’s even worth being printed and be given to visitors.

    One thing I most enjoy with London’s Tate Gallery exhibitions, but one that does not seem to be a regular feature in most other museums is the little exhibition pamphlet that each visitor is handed personally by a gallery attendant at the entry to the exhibition.

    In it, there is an introduction and floor plan of the show, with rooms clearly numbered. The ensuing pages introduce each room, often with an example of work by an artist in it. This information is essentially that on the wall panels throughout the show. And furthermore there is space on the page margins for making notes. It’s so good to take this small pamphlet home and have a handle on what you have seen.

    It would be a shame if such well-researched writings by the exhibition curators get seen only once in a show – and often with such a crowd standing in front that it’s hard to even read it during the show.

    But here is a surprise: wall text panels are not always welcome by museum goers or even artists sometimes, I must add. See my post on this conundrum,

  6. rodney j hutton says:

    You can probably find any information you desire in the exhibition’s catalogue. The scholarly work by Dickerson and others leads to a clear understanding of the methods Bernini employed in creating works of unparalleled beauty. The research for this exhibition took several years and is clearly explained with precision. The ability to bring these works together is an extraordinary accomplishment. Cudos to the principles who assembled this thoughtful collection

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