2007 : A Bernini year in Rome

Bernini pittore, Rome, Palazzo Barberini, 19 October 2007 until 20 January 2008. La Passione di Cristo secondo Bernini, Palazzo Incontro, 3 April until 2 June 2007.

1. Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Self-Portrait as
a Mature Man
, 1638-1640
Oil on canvas - 53 x 43 cm
Rome, Galleria Borghese

2007 is not in any way a special “Bernini year” on account of the dates that mark the artist’s birth and death (1598-1680), and yet Rome, which was always the centre of his activities, has seen a number of important Bernini events this past year. The exhibition Bernini pittore that opened last month as the first exhibition in three renovated and newly opened rooms on the second floor of palazzo Barberini is the second Bernini exhibition in Rome this year. Earlier, the Province of Rome had mounted an exhibition in Palazzo Incontro on La passione di Cristo secondo Bernini, thematically centered around the recently rediscovered bust of Christ, although the bust itself was the great absentee. Apparently, the costs of insuring it during the exhibition were too high, even though the work had been gathering dust in the convent of S. Sebastiano fuori le mura in Rome for two centuries until it was rediscovered in 2001. May 2007 also saw the official presentation of Francesco Petrucci’s voluminous monograph on Bernini as a painter that, appropriately but somewhat confusingly, is also called Bernini pittore. It was published by Rome-based publisher Ugo Bozzi Editore, which informed us that it has already sold out, unfortunately preventing us from taking it into account for this review.

To what extent do these books and exhibitions reflect trends in current Bernini scholarship ? It is noteworthy that the focus of all three events is not Bernini as a sculptor or architect. The exhibition at Palazzo Incontro on Bernini’s treatment of the Passion presented paintings and small devotional sculpture executed by Bernini himself as well as copies and replicas of his inventions, and works by followers and contemporaries. It dealt in effect with Bernini as an inventor, something that was evident from the choice of presenting several series of related works together. The two other events illustrate another direction that Bernini scholarship has taken by turning toward Bernini as a painter. His paintings had of course always been known and studied (in fact, Luigi Grassi already published a monograph with the title Bernini pittore in 1945), but not until recent years has a sustained critical attention for this problematic part of Bernini’s art really taken hold. The numerous additions to the catalogue of Bernini’s paintings testify to both the vivacity and the potential of the field of research, as well as to the many still unresolved problems. Bernini as a painter is a problematic topic because this activity was a private one, and for this reason very few paintings can be dated or even attributed securely with documentary evidence. Thus, the task of recomposing a corpus of autograph paintings is left for an important degree to connoisseurship, which is of course always a fertile battleground for art-historical quarrels. In fact, the Bernini pittore exhibition itself can be seen as a critical response to Francesco Petrucci’s Bernini pittore monograph.

The exhibition, curated single-handedly by Tomaso Montanari (but with an essay and catalogue entries on the drawings by Ann Sutherland Harris) is bound to cause spirited debates among Bernini scholars. The exhibition is avowedly scholarly and critical, and Montanari’s declared main goal is to present a small but secure corpus of Bernini’s autograph paintings as a point of departure for further research. He criticizes the tendency to “disproportionately enlarge” the corpus of Bernini’s paintings through the common habit of presenting new attributions and he warns for a resulting “inflazione attributiva” that has also affected Caravaggio studies [1]. Montanari here has in mind Francesco Petrucci, who in his monograph on Bernini pittore is more inclusive than himself [2]. He, then, purposely chooses to be exclusive rather than inclusive, with as a result a small (30 works) but interesting and important exhibition.

Though the catalogue and press information somewhat confusingly divide the works in the exhibition over three (autoritratti, ritratti, pittura sacra), four (catalogue, p. 14 : autoritratti, ritratti, quadri di figura, Bernini inventore), or six sections (catalogue, p. 87 : self-portraits, non-autograph self-portraits, portraits, “histories without action”, Bernini inventore, and the drawings), its actual appearance is in five sections : self-portraits, portraits, sacred subjects, (self-)portrait drawings, Bernini inventore. The pictures are presented against a subdued grey-greenish background that reflects the color of the wooden ceiling of the three rooms and it offers an unobtrusive counterpoint to Bernini’s palette. The importance and captivating quality of the (self-)portraits in Bernini’s pictorial oeuvre made them the right choice for the opening of the exhibition. The importance of these works also solicited the addition of six portrait and self-portrait drawings ; a fortuitous choice, though they are presented in a small cabinet in the third room with the religious subjects, rather than in the first room with the other portraits, which would have been their more logical place. Bernini’s self-portraits are perhaps his most intriguing paintings. They demonstrate that the private nature of Bernini’s activity as a painter does not in any way mean he was not a great painter (ill. 1).

2. Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)
Head ‘of an
, c. 1627-1629
Oil on canvas - 42.5 x 33.5 cm
Private collection.

Quality is in fact Montanari’s main guideline for his radical diminution of the corpus of autograph works [3]. For example, the exhibition includes paintings that until recently were attributed to Bernini himself, but that are here ascribed to students by Montanari. One of these, a self-portrait from the Prado (cat. 5) had been unanimously accepted as a Bernini autograph, but the side-to-side comparison with the other self-portraits supports in my view Montanari’s revised judgment, namely that this is a good studio copy of a lost original. Whereas the other self-portraits (all from the 1630’s) show Bernini using the brushstrokes as a means to give plasticity to the face and to shape the facial muscles, the brushwork of this painting is thicker and rather more random. However, the same objection might be raised against the small portrait of Baciccio (cat. 15), which although of higher quality than the ‘self-portrait’ employs a very similar brushwork. If the ‘self-portrait’ is a good studio copy, what then to say of this small portrait ? Questions like these will occupy Bernini scholars for some time to come. Bernini’s oeuvre of paintings, then, is still very much in movement and in debate, as the sometimes widely disparate datings and attributions show. A brilliant example of Bernini’s ability to render a face with a few confident brushstrokes is the oil sketch of the so-called Head ‘of an apostle’ (cat. 19, ill. 2), which is dated by some to the late 1620 and by others to 1655. Other disagreements over attributions emerge from the catalogue of copies and refuted attributions that Montanari included in the exhibition catalogue. For example, the painting of a languishing Christ that illustrated the cover of (the paperback edition of) the La Passione di Cristo secondo Bernini catalogue (La passione, cat. 42), and which has a long-standing attribution to Bernini is by Montanari not only refuted as an autograph work by Bernini (Bernini pittore, p. 162, R20), with whose style he sees “no relationship” (nessuna assonanza), but he tentatively suggests it to be an eighteenth-century (sic) Venetian work.

3. Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-11680)
Biblical Old Man (Patriarch,
Prophet, or Apostle ?)
, c. 1627-1630
Oil on canvas - 64 x 50.5cm
Private collection.

Montanari’s demotion of long-standing attributions is balanced by some recent discoveries and/or attributions (notably the Portrait of a young man (Domenico Bernini ?), cat. 13 and the Biblical old man, cat. 18, fig. 3). On the other hand, on other works there is little doubt. One painting — and a particularly splendid painting at that — appeared in both the La passione di Cristo (cat. 15) and Bernini pittore (cat. 20) exhibitions : the Mocked Christ (fig. 4) from a private collection in London was first published as by Bernini a couple of years ago by Francesco Petrucci, who also wrote its catalogue entry for the La passione di Cristo exhibition. Nevertheless, also in this case there is no complete agreement, for Montanari takes issue with the identification of this work with a “Salvatore” that Bernini left to Pope Innocent XI Odescalchi.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Mocked Christ, c. 1635
Oil on canvas – 147 x 99.5 cm
Private collection

The last section of the exhibition, which deals with “Bernini inventore”, is in Montanari’s own words an “appendix”. It is not, however, a very useful appendix. Bernini’s activity as an inventor for other painters is a huge and equally problematic subject as his own work as a painter, and since Montanari recognizes that he cannot in any way address the issue fully within the context of this exhibition, the questions remains what the added value is. As said above, this aspect had in fact been dealt with much more efficiently in the La passione di Cristo exhibition, where for example a print and three paintings (La passione, cats. 37-40) after Bernini’s well known drawing of the Allegory of the blood of Christ (Haarlem, Teylers Museum, not exhibited) were shown side by side, allowing for a balanced consideration of these works status compared to one-another and Bernini’s own design. Within the context of the Bernini pittore exhibition this last “Bernini inventore” section appeared a bit out of place, and it formed a somewhat anti-climatic conclusion to an exhibition that for the rest successfully centered on the genius of Bernini himself as a painter.

To end with, a word on the catalogue to the exhibition. Besides Montanari’s substantial essay that opens the catalogue and that serves as an introduction to the catalogue of paintings and Ann Sutherland Harris’s essay and catalogue entries for the drawings, the book also contains Montanari’s succinct catalogue of autographs, copies, studio works, and refuted works, and a set of three essays by Alessandro Angelini on Bernini, il pittore e la pittura, by Tod A. Marder on Bernini enfant prodige del ritratto, and by Steven Ostrow on Bernini e il paragone tra pittura e scultura. Mostly the reproductions in the catalogue are good, but there are a few exceptions. Though no photograph can do justice to the actual painting it represents, some of the photos in the catalogue are rather lower in quality than they would have needed to be. The photos of the ‘self-portrait’ discussed above (cat. 5) and the portrait of Urban VIII (cat. 11) do not give justice to the paintings they depict. Both have too much contrast, with the lighter areas loosing detail and the darker ones turning into an unfathomable black, something that is especially true for the Urban VIII portrait that is part of Palazzo Barberini’s own collection. Surely, it would not have been too difficult to make a new picture for this catalogue. On the other hand, many of the paintings in this exhibition come from private collections, preventing easy access to them, and it is thus a valuable thing to have good photos of at least these works.

Huub van der Linden

Tomaso Montanari, Bernini pittore, Milan, Silvana Editoriale, pp. 240, € 35 (paperback), ISBN : 97888 3660960 4.

Giovanni Morello, Francesco Petrucci, Claudio Massimo Strinati, La Passione di Cristo secondo Bernini, Rome, Ugo Bozzi Editore, pp. 212, € 60 (paperback), ISBN : 88 7003 059 8.

Visitor information Bernini pittore exhibition : Rome, Palazzo Barberini, Via delle Quattro Fontane 13, Opened Tuesday through Sunday 10.00 - 19.00, Monday closed. Full price € 6, In combination with a ticket for the permanent collection of Palazzo Bernini € 5, Reduced € 4.

For reservations and information : http://www.ticketeria.it/mostra-bernini-pittore-ita.asp

Huub van der Linden, samedi 1er décembre 2007


[1] Thus Montanari in the Introduzione in the catalogue, pp. 13-17.Montanari mentions Caravavaggio as a painter for who this has been the case. The most notable recent example that he may be referring to was the 2004/05 Caravaggio:L’ultimo tempo 1606-1610 exhibition at Naples that presented a number of questionable new attributions.

[2] In his entry on the Mocked Christ (cat. 20), Montanari writes e.g. : “La pubblicazione del dipinto si deve a Francesco Petrucci, e l’attribuzione è l’unica fra le molte da lui avanzate ad aver incontrato consenso tra gli studiosi della pittura berniniana” (One owes the publication of this painting to Francesco Petrucci, and it is the only attribution of the many that he has proposed to have encountered consensus among the students of Bernini’s painting).

[3] Tomaso Montanari, Introduzione, p. 14 : “Se la qualità di un quadro non convince, ciò vuol dire, molto semplicemente, che quel quadro non è di Bernini”.

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