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: The Mysterious Attribution: A Detective Story


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
It all started in late December of 1998 when the director's administrative assistant, Jon Severson, brought me an almost illegible fax. "He wants you to read it right away," Jon said. Although "he" was indeed the Institute's director, Evan Maurer, such an urgent request was unprecedented. The reason, however, was immediately apparent. This was a loan request for the Institute's bronze bust of Pope Clement X, herein attributed to Gianlorenzo Bernini, for an exhibition covering Bernini's vast output, to take place in Rome over the summer of 1999. The previous attribution to another sculptor, Domenico Guidi, had long been accepted, but now this fax indicated we might actually have a Bernini!

Why all the excitement? Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was a multi-faceted genius, the artist most responsible for the creation of Baroque Rome, the great capital city as we know it today. Although primarily a sculptor, Bernini was at the same time an architect, painter, theatrical designer, and poet. The premier artist in Rome during the reigns of seven popes, Bernini was a first-rate impresario who produced many innovative works of sculpture, and several great churches and palaces. He orchestrated such grandiose projects as the colonnade embracing the piazza in front of St. Peter's basilica. For fifty years every artist in Rome, willingly or unwillingly, had to bow to his eminence. Who would not be eager to own a work by this unparalleled artist?

The new attribution, we learned in the exhibition catalogue, has been made by an Italian scholar, Francesco Petrucci. When the smudged pages of his entry came through by fax, I translated the convoluted phrases from the Italian and found that Petrucci's opinion is based on both documentary evidence and stylistic analysis—two common tools used by art historians to reason out an attribution.

According to seventeenth-century sources, Bernini executed four portrait busts of Clement X (Emilio Altieri, 1590-1676): three in marble and one in bronze. A bronze portrait bust "by Cav. [Cavaliere] Bernini" was first noted in the travel diary of a German traveler, Nicodemus Tessin, who saw it in the Altieri family palace in Rome in 1688. Another art historian, Eleanora Villa, recently uncovered documents in the Altieri archives recording payments made in 1671 to the painter Giovanni Battista Gaulli for the casting of a bust of the pope "all in metal." This paper trail convinced Petrucci that this documented bronze portrait was none other than the Institute's sculpture, created by Bernini but with Gaulli responsible for the casting process. Since the Institute owns one of Gaulli's major paintings, Diana the Huntress (about 1690), pictured on page 8, Petrucci's joint attribution is ideal.

Whereas today the collaborative—rather than strictly individual—production of a work of art is uncommon, in Bernini's era it was the norm. In order to produce his numerous commissions, Bernini relied on the many highly skilled artists and craftsmen in his large workshop, who worked under his close supervision in conformance with his distinctive style. But Gaulli's involvement was puzzling. Why did Bernini choose a painter to oversee the precarious process of bronze casting, and why did his own name not appear among the payments? Eleanora Villa suggests the following intriguing explanation.

In 1670, Bernini abruptly fell from papal favor when his brother, Luigi, was charged with sodomy and exiled. In order to obtain the pope's pardon of the criminal charges against his brother, Bernini executed several sculptures gratis for the Altieri family. Villa contends that Bernini trusted Gaulli, an artist of stature patronized by the papal family, to oversee the completion of the portrait on his behalf, whereas Bernini himself received no recompense. Gaulli may also have provided a painted portrait of Clement X to serve as the prototype, now lost but documented by an engraving in the British Museum in London.

Assuming that we could reasonably accept this complicated solution, I set about with Catherine Futter, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts' Associate Curator in the Department of Decorative Arts, Sculpture, and Architecture, to explore the stylistic connections between our sculpture and others more securely associated with Bernini. We found no shortage of salient characteristics: the high quality of technical execution, the expressive vitality and naturalism of the modeling, the acute psychological insight, the ermine-lined cape slightly arched as if to accommodate the right arm raised in blessing, and the hyper-realistic detail of the half-buttoned button.

Still, Catherine and I were dubious. Much of the sculpture's history cannot be explained. Is this indeed the portrait whose last recorded sighting in the Altieri palace dates to 1725? Or is it another work altogether? We do know that ours was one of four papal busts in the collections of Baron Gustave de Rothschild in Paris and then Brussels in the nineteenth century, that were subsequently acquired by four American museums in the late 1950s through a New York dealer. According to one theory, the Rothschild group can be identified with a group of four papal busts included in the interior decoration that Bernini designed in 1676 for the church of Santa Maria di Montesanto in Rome, one of the twin churches in Piazza del Popolo. (The original four busts disappeared in the latter nineteenth century—when so many works of art were spirited away from Italian churches to be purchased by foreign collectors—and were replaced by plaster replicas.)

I wrote to curators at two of the other three museums, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Cleveland Museum of Art, for photographs and information. (Only the bust in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, signed and dated by Melchior Caffà, has an unassailable attribution.) We are especially interested in the bust of Clement IX in Detroit, currently attributed to Bernini but cast by the sculptor Girolamo Lucenti, since Anthony Clark, a former director of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and an Italian Baroque expert, had proposed Lucenti as its author. We also contacted the archivist of Rothschild and Sons in London, hoping that they still had records concerning the acquisition of the papal busts by Baron Gustave, but she could locate none.

The obvious next step was to go to Rome and see for ourselves. In May, Catherine accompanied the bust to Rome for the Bernini exhibition and was able to see other examples of Bernini's sculpture, both in the exhibition and throughout the city. Then in July, I had the chance to visit the exhibition in its entirety. In one gallery, a corridor had been created in which a dozen busts of cardinals and popes were lined in two facing rows. This dramatic installation afforded the perfect opportunity to examine these individual examples for stylistic comparisons.

I also went to Santa Maria di Montesanto, and strained to see any similarity to our bust in the plaster bust of Clement X, dusty and dimly lit: obviously an inferior replica, but probably modeled on the same prototype. And I traipsed around Rome to see all available sculptures by Bernini.

To our own surprise, Catherine and I both came away with a similar opinion—we are now confident that this is a work by Bernini, likely produced in collaboration with another artist. In the Institute's sculpture we see the same superlative standard of quality that distinguishes other works by Bernini. Whether this is the same bust that was cast by Gaulli is the less certain part of the equation. As a further step in resolving that issue, we obtained from the British Museum an engraving after a now lost portrait of Clement X by Gaulli, which possibly served as the model.

Art history can only be as scientific as fate permits. Until we have more evidence in hand, the Bernini attribution must remain an opinion, not a fact. In the meantime, we are waiting to hear from several international authorities on Bernini's sculpture who have promised to send us their views—favorable or unfavorable—concerning the proposed attribution. The portrait of Clement X is now back home and will be on view in Gallery 330, next to Gaulli's painting. We invite you to come see it and draw your own conclusions.

Jane Satkowski is Research Associate in the Curatorial Division of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Related Images

Portrait of Pope Clement X Altieri, about 1671
Attributed to Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), in possible collaboration with Giovanni Battista Gaulli.

Engraving after a portrait of Pope Clement X Altieri by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, about 1670. Copyright, The British Museum, London.

The partially-fastened button, a signature detail of Bernini's papal portraits, was often copied by his contemporaries.

Giovanni Battista Gaulli (called Il Baciccio) (1639-1709), Diana the Huntress, about 1690.
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Source: Jane Satkowski, "The Mysterious Attribution: A Detective Story. Curators follow Bernini's trail through time and across continents," <i>Arts</i> 22, no. 9 (November 1999): 6-8.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009