A Bernini Masterpiece Thought Lost Becomes A Symbol of Transience in an Era of Contagion

Monday, May 31, 2021
A Bernini Masterpiece Thought Lost Becomes A Symbol of Transience in an Era of Contagion

A marble skull from the pre-1800 Skulpturensammlung maintained by Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD) has now been attributed to the famous sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680).

A marble skull from the pre-1800 Skulpturensammlung maintained by Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD) has now been attributed to the famous sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680).

To mark this discovery, the special exhibition “Bernini, the Pope and Death” will be opening in the Semperbau am Zwinger on 28 May 2021 and online at www.skd.museum on 1 June 2021.

This masterpiece, previously believed to be lost, is an extremely striking skull made of white Carrara marble. It is life-size and so realistic that it could almost be mistaken for a real human skull. No element is left unfinished, no detail spared, from the delicately sinuous sutures connecting the cranial bones, to the jutting cheekbone or the paper-thin nasal septum. The skull is hollow and the finish just as perfectly and anatomically correct on the underside.

The attribution of the piece was made possible by its very particular provenance: the marble skull comes from the Chigi collection in Rome, which Friedrich August I of Saxony, better known as Augustus the Strong, sent his agent Baron Raymond Le Plat to purchase in 1728. This was a significant collection of 164 ancient sculptures, along with four contemporary works.

As careful research has now proven, what was then described as a “famous skull” in fact came from Bernini’s hand. It was also the first piece that Alexander VII commissioned from the sculptor, three days after being elected pope on 7 April 1655. During a private audience, Alexander VII ordered a lead sarcophagus from Bernini which he planned to keep beneath his bed, along with a marble skull to stand on the pontiff’s desk. The idea of surrounding oneself with such objects may appear strange today, but considering the fact that sudden, often violent death was part of everyday life in the 17th century, the partly religiously motivated background is clear. It was precisely because of death’s ubiquitous, sinister nature that people made a particular effort to lead a good Christian life, securing themselves an eternal existence in the afterlife. Even the Pope wanted a constant reminder of death.

Shortly after Alexander was enthroned, he gravity of the threat posed by death was demonstrated in Rome by an outbreak of the plague in 1656. Since 1652, the disease had been insidiously approaching from North Africa via Sardinia and Naples – a terrifying scenario we can identify with in a whole new way today in the light of the coronavirus pandemic. One thing which stands out in all this is how closely the measures which Alexander VII took to combat – and ultimately defeat – the plague (quarantines, masks and the extensive shutdown of public life) mirror those now shaping everyday life in the face of Covid-19. The current situation has also brought death back into people’s thoughts again, making Bernini’s skull a memento mori that is highly topical.

On this, there's an exhibition at Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, which examines both the plague of Rome in 1656/57 and the pieces jointly created by Bernini and Alexander VII, who are rightly regarded as a “dream team” of the baroque era. In an attempt to provide as broad a context as possible for the skull, other parts of the presentation are dedicated to the Chigi family as promoters and collectors of art, to the rivalry between Bernini and Francesco Mochi, and to Bernini’s influence on the works of Balthasar Permoser, the court sculptor working in Dresden at the time. This context largely comes from works from the varied holdings of Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden: the pre-1800 Skulpturensammlung, the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, the Kupferstich-Kabinett, the Münzkabinett and the Grünes Gewölbe. One loan of special note comes from the Sovereign Military Order of Malta in Rome: a portrait of Alexander VII depicting him with Bernini’s skull in his hand. The painting is by a disciple of Bernini who died of the plague in 1656.

A richly illustrated catalogue to accompany the exhibition is being published by Sandstein Verlag, edited by Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Stephan Koja, Claudia Kryza-Gersch; 144 pages, 134 mainly colour illustrations, ISBN 978-3-95498-615-6, €19.80. At 6 p.m. on 29 May 2021, Claudia Kryza-Gersch will be presenting the publication in a live book presentation as part of the Sandstein Verlag’s spring book show.

The buildings and fountains of sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) had a lasting effect on the Roman cityscape, and his famous sculptures such as “Apollo and Daphne” or “The Ecstasy of St Teresa” came to epitomise the baroque era. Over the course of his lifetime, Bernini worked for eight popes, but had an especially close connection to Urban VIII of the House of Barberini and Alexander VII of the House of Chigi. For the latter, he created not only the pope’s colossal tomb and the Cathedra Petri, both in St. Peter’s Basilica, but also some highly private works of art that testify to the close relationship between the pontiff and the artist.

 

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