Bernini: Sculpting in Clay, Metropolitan Museum, New York

The sculptor, draughtsman, playwright, architect and painter Gianlorenzo Bernini was also a master manipulator. From childhood on he knew how to leverage his talents, whom to charm and how to siphon the jets of power. He could work a room as confidently as he could shape a hunk of wet clay, and often did both at the same time. You can sense that seductive physicality in the Metropolitan Museum’s Bernini: Sculpting in Clay, a gathering of more than 50 terracotta bozzetti – sketches – he made before taking chisel to stone.

Spend an afternoon wandering round Rome and you can hardly miss the massive ensembles with which he adorned the city’s squares and churches: the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, the conch-blowing triton in Piazza Barberini, the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. The Met’s show lays out that monumental route in miniature, with those immense, still-gleaming marbles shrunk into rough ochre mock-ups. Under the close inspection that the show encourages, small-scale models often look more urgent and alive than the finished marbles, which were enlarged using measurements and grids. The terracotta studies display in microcosm the range of Bernini’s brilliance; they have the drama, vision and swift virtuosity of his most heroic pieces, but also the rushed stirrings of inspiration.

An angel kneels down in supplication, while everything around his body levitates. Thick, wide wings beat behind the little figure’s back. Draperies flare in spirals and swirls. The negative spaces between the folds crack into abstract forms that summon us darkly into their depths. The impressions of Bernini’s touch are everywhere: on the angels’ smudged cheeks, in the bulbous knob of a nose, in the pouchy fold of clay over one eye, and in the sleeves he modelled with rapid pinches.

Bernini was well aware that a sketch could be revelatory. Looking at Renaissance drawings in a friend’s collection, he experienced “the utmost enjoyment from seeing the first productions from the minds of great men”. And yet it’s hard to tell whether Bernini’s maquettes were truly spontaneous, or just calculated to look that way. His saints and prophets seem more explosive in each successive draft. He often returned to statuettes before firing them in the kiln, incising details and adding fresh scraps of clay. Each version or revision became more visceral, not less. As he lifted a saint’s chin, blew an extra gust of wind through a figure’s hair, or gave a twisting torso another notch of torque, the excitement grew.

The look of freedom and fluidity that defines Bernini’s art was a form of artful mimicry. With his chisel, he claimed, he had “conquered the difficulty of rendering marble as pliable as wax”. With his fingers, he wove an even more paradoxical illusion, making the methodically evolving study look impulsive.

But then everything about Bernini involved a mix of the calculated and the unrehearsed. His life was a drama, with him as the star. He opened his studio to friends and observers, turning his creative process into a theatrical event. A friend who dropped in on Bernini’s studio in 1632 gushed: “I will never forget the delight I had in observing this work, seeing every morning how your lordship does a thousand different things with a singular grace: conversing, always abreast of contemporary events, while your hands are engaged elsewhere, working the modello with your fingers with the speed and variety of one playing the harp; marking the marble in a hundred places with chalk; striking the marble in a hundred others, striking it, I say, in one place while looking elsewhere, turning your head while carving to look behind you.”

Bernini wallowed in his own virtuosity and even wrote a play in which painters and sculptors labour in parallel studios, hacking at marble and brandishing brushes as they discourse upon topics of the day, debate philosophies and spin love stories for the audience. In real life, Bernini sculpted a bust of Louis XIV of France with the entire French court as an audience, and, according to an early biography, his work on an equestrian monument was witnessed “by the elite not only of the Roman nobility but that of all of Europe”.

The same instinct for drama played out in his spectacularly eventful life. A friend to fickle popes and kings, he was lionised one day and made a non-person the next. He built a bell tower for St Peter’s that showed cracks almost immediately after its construction and had to be torn down, to his great humiliation. His affair with the wife of an assistant, Costanza Bonarelli, ended in a jealous rage. When he discovered that she was also sleeping with his younger brother, Bernini sent a servant to mutilate her face with her razor. He also went after his brother, nearly beating him to death.

The bozzetti enshrine Bernini’s theatrical personality. Exhibitions of studies are often muted, technical affairs; this one is a high-volume extravaganza, and its concentrated intensity eventually grows tiring. All those taut sinews and ecstatic transports leave little room for subtlety or introspection. Bernini had no interest in capturing moments of serenity.

“To make a successful portrait, one should choose an action and attempt to represent it well,” he instructed. “The best time to render the mouth is when [the subject] has just spoken or is just about to begin speaking.” The Met’s galleries buzz with the tension of those moments, and they give an inkling of how exciting and exhausting it must have been to be around Bernini, even for an hour or two.

Until January 6,

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