131 – Memento Mori

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Skull, 1655.

It seems like it’s been a while since I wrote anything, but as I’m getting ready to talk again on Monday – the continuation of the series Caravaggio: A life in three paintings – I suppose it’s about time I got my brain in gear. It would make sense to focus on Caravaggio, I know, but I’ve been slightly distracted by a recently discovered sculpture by Bernini. Now, that doesn’t happen very often (I can’t remember it happening before), which is precisely why it was distracting. However, before you get too excited, I should warn you that it’s not his most dramatic work (and there are plenty to choose from), although it is brilliantly carved. It also appears to be entirely ‘autograph’ – i.e. he carved it himself. The question of originality is complex, but somehow we now have the feeling that artists should make all of their own work (this was not always the case with Rodin, for example, whose work I will discuss this coming Wednesday – for more details, see the diary). However, it would not have been possible for Bernini to execute all of the projects commissioned from him. These included sculpture, yes, but also architecture, and even, occasionally, painting. As a result he had a large workshop to help him out. Even the notoriously solitary Michelangelo had people helping him from time to time, but there were never that many – he rarely trusted others to get things right – and that is just one of the reasons why so many of his works remained unfinished. The fact is, in these cases, the artist knows exactly what the work should look like, and it is the assistant’s job to make sure that they recreate the master’s intentions with precision. But, as it happens, that is not the case today. For personal and political reasons, it seems likely that Bernini carved the work himself.

Die Sonderausstellung Bernini, der Papst und der Tod am 28.05.2021 in der Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister von Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden in Dresden. Foto: Oliver Killig

Now, if I didn’t know that this was carved out of the best carrara marble, and given that we are looking at a photograph, rather than the original, I think I would assume that this was not a sculpture, but a real skull. But then, I’m am art historian, not an anatomist. Indeed, it is probably because it is such a careful, naturalistic rendition – with no obvious stylistic traits, or period ‘flare’ – that it disappeared under the radar in the first place. The skull is currently being exhibited at the Ge,mäldegalerie Alte Meister – the ‘Old Master Painting Gallery’ – in Dresden, as part of an exhibition entitled ‘Bernini, the Pope, and Death,’ and it will be there until 5 September. Sadly I won’t get to Dresden until after the exhibition has ended, so I will miss the skull. Until now it has lived (if that word is appropriate) at Schloss Pillnitz, on the Elbe. Once out in the countryside, Dresden has expanded, and the Schloss now finds itself on the edge of the city, and easily accessible by public transport in about 50 minutes, so maybe I’ll try and make my way over there. The sculpture has been on display for years but nobody knew what it was. It had been included in the archaeological collection, where none of the curators would be likely to guess at its origins. However, when looking for illustrative material for an exhibition on Caravaggio, the art historians took over. Seeing the skull out of its display case made them realise precisely how impressive a piece of carving it was – and they decided to try and track down its provenance. They worked out that it had been part of the Chigi collection, which was acquired in 1728 by the Elector of Saxony, and King of Poland, Augustus the Strong, one of the world’s most impressive collectors. Apart from anything else, some of you may remember that he had no less than 157 pastels by Rosalba Carriera, all of which were exhibited in one room. Given that the collection, as bought, included 164 classical sculptures and a mere four from the Baroque, it is not surprising that the skull did not, for some long time, receive the recognition it deserved. When planning the Caravaggio exhibition, one of the curatorial team even joked, when they had found out that it came from Rome, that it could have been carved by Bernini. But you can’t just pull names out of a hat, and in order to find out who the true author really was – and, from my experience, with no expectation of ever finding out – they started scouring the archives. Among the correspondence which preceded the sale of the collection they found the phrase, ‘Una celebra testa di morto, opera del Cavalier Bernini’ – ‘A famous death’s head, the work of the Knight Bernini’.

The Chigi collection had remained with the family, having been put together by one of the nephews of Pope Alexander VII (Fabio Chigi). Further research revealed that the pope had commissioned the skull directly from Bernini in 1655, shortly after he was elected. Bernini worked under eight different popes, but not all of them were great patrons of the arts – or for that matter, interested in his work. Alexander VII’s predecessor, Innocent X (Giovanni Battista Pamphilj) had not been a great fan, and consequently, with a commission from the new pontiff, Bernini jumped to it and carved the skull himself, rather than handing a model to one of the assistants and letting them get on with the hard graft: it would be good to make the right impression. This choice paid off: Alexander VII turned out to be one of Bernini’s most ardent admirer’s and forthcoming patrons. It was not just the skull that Alexander commissioned in 1655 – there was also a life-size sarcophagus. The latter sat under the Pope’s desk, the former on top of it, both constant reminders that death comes to us all. Morbid, you might think, but given that, following the doctrine of Apostolic Succession, the Pope is St Peter’s successor, he is nominally in charge of the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. It was in his best interests to remember – and to remind us – that our actions will determine where we go after death. It was also relevant that, shortly after his election, there was an outbreak of the plague in Rome, and death visited every street. Alexander was quick off the mark – he insisted people wear masks, he introduced systems of self-isolation, and made sure people were quarantined. You know the drill. He might even have been painted holding this sculpture.

Guido Ubaldo Abbatini, Pope Alexander VII. with Bernini’s Skull, 1655/56. Sovereign Military Order of Malta, Rome.

This portrait is by a student of Bernini, Guido Ubaldo Abbatini, and is also featured in the Dresden exhibition. The publicity confidently asserts that the Pope is resting his hand on Bernini’s skull. I haven’t read the catalogue, but I can only assume that it would point out the most obvious difference: the skull in the painting has, as far as we can see from this viewpoint, all of its teeth, whereas the sculpture does not – and I’m fairly sure that that would be clear from any angle. The skull also looks considerably happier than the pontiff himself, but that’s beside the point. I’m not convinced that you can be sure which skull is in the painting, but as I’m also not convinced that Abbatini was an especially observant artist (not that I know his work, I’m only judging by this painting), I don’t suppose there’s any reason to argue that it isn’t the sculpture. However, it could be any skull. After all, people in the 17th Century were wont to hold skulls. Look at Hamlet (1599-1601, first performed 1609). Look at St Jerome (in this case, c. 1605-6).

Caravaggio, St Jerome Writing, c. 1605-6. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

As a scholar, Jerome is associated with the idea of melancholy, just one aspect of his relationship to the skull. In this, one of the most densely packed, and deceptively simple, of Caravaggio’s mature works, that is just one of the ways in which it functions. Another implication is that, after death – as represented by the skull – the soul is free to contemplate higher things, which is precisely what Jerome is doing. It is a reminder that we only have a limited time – and so we (like Jerome) should get on with our work. Or ‘seize the day’, it could work both ways. The skull is also, of course, the seat of the intellect. In the painting we see Jerome hard at work, deep in thought, translating the bible from its original languages into a consistent Latin – the version now known as the Vulgate. There is a wonderful contrast between the dry cranium and the saint’s bald pate, both reflecting the light (representing divine inspiration). One is… well, dry… while the other, slightly oily.  The brilliant light illuminating the aged man’s chest makes his shadowed, arthritic hand, grasping the pages of the original text, stand out clearly, while the other hand holds a quill, hovering over a page nearer the skull, ready to write. The reach of Jerome’s arm, slightly bent at the elbow, echoes the open halves of the book. I have always been in awe of this ineffable metaphor, an embodiment (quite literally) of the act of translation – the writing arm following the form of the original volume, making the old new, and creating a parallel equivalent. The angle of the elbow and book is then inverted by the red fabric behind them, part of the cardinal’s robes in which St Jerome is loosely wrapped. The book lies above the right leg of the table, the skull above its left, and while Jerome, alive, is clad in red, it is a lifeless white fabric that flows down beneath the skull. With its poetry and pathos, naturalistic making and symbolic meaning, contrasts and echoes, rich colour and deep shadows, this painting ranks for me as one of the all-time greats. Sadly I will only have time for a quick nod to it when I return to Caravaggio: A life in three paintings, this Monday, 7 June at 2pm and 6pm – but then, in recompense, I will be spending more time with The Supper at Emmaus which is also up there with the best. And as for Bernini – well, I suspect he always had an eye on the works of the older painter, and in a couple of weeks I will compare them again, although when I do, it will be more directly.

A view of Bernini, The Pope, and Death, in Dresden until 5 September.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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