(first of three parts)
Recently I wrote about the Museum’s small exhibition of two remarkable objects resurrected from storage: Pier Leone Ghezzi’s painting Pope Benedict XIII Presiding over the Provincial Roman Synod of 1725 and a handsome bronze medallion with portrait of Pope Clement X in relief. Both works are from the baroque period, when Rome became the dominant religious and cultural center of Italy as popes, cardinals, and others directed enormous energy toward the beautification of the city and glorification of the Roman Catholic Church. The term “baroque,” from a Portuguese jeweler’s term (barroco) for irregular-shaped pearls, describes a style of European architecture and art of the period circa 1600–1750. It implies anticlassical proportions, fluidity and plasticity, movement, drama, realism, and sometimes bizarre sensory effects.
The two objects represent different moments and artistic media of the baroque period but issued from the same milieu, the papal court. And while the Ghezzi dominates the gallery spatially and provides a cinematic view into early 18th-century Rome and especially the Catholic Church, the medallion is the exhibition showpiece because of its rarity, aesthetic merit, and proposed association with Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680), the prodigiously talented sculptor, architect, and painter who reigned over the Roman art world for most of the 17th century.
Bernini is known for his innovative presentation of subject matter, psychological insight, and technical virtuosity, especially his uncanny ability to make marble look like flesh, fabric, fur, hair, or foliage.
Think of Daphne’s hands morphing into branches in the wondrous Apollo and Daphne (1622–24), or the comfy-looking tufted mattress and tousled sheets added to the Hellenistic marble Sleeping Hermaphroditos (circa 1620), two works commissioned by Bernini’s first important patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, for his suburban villa in Rome, the Villa Borghese.
Bernini also made monumental statues of Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius (1618-19), Pluto and Proserpina (1621-22), and David (1623-24) for the cardinal’s villa, a commission that launched Bernini’s career and catapulted him to fame. According to his biographer Filippo Baldinucci, “Such acclamation arose” around the Daphne “that all Rome rushed to view it as though it were a miracle.”
Bernini’s second major patron was Scipione’s uncle, Pope Paul V Borghese, the first of seven popes to call on Bernini’s services. The last of his papal patrons was Clement X, the subject of our medallion, of whom Bernini made a sketch in red chalk and at least two half-length marble statues.
Last spring, I was doing research on the Ghezzi painting for the current exhibition when David Steel, curator of European art, suggested I take a look at another example of baroque papal art to display alongside it. He directed me to a coinlike relief with profile view of Clement X, located in storage. This medallion —resembling an oversized Renaissance or later commemorative medal but blank on the reverse—bore an attribution to Gioacchino Francesco Travani (active circa 1634–75), a die engraver and goldsmith employed by the papal mint who did some casting for Bernini. It was acquired by the NCMA in 1970 (Paul Drey Gallery, N.Y.—from Heim Gallery, London, 1969) as possibly by Bernini and placed on view for only a few years after an outside expert proposed that the artist was not Bernini, but the lesser-known Travani. According to the Heim Gallery records, the medallion had come from the Altieri Palace, Rome, home of Clement X, via a French private collection. The Altieri provenance has not been confirmed, but current Bernini scholarship suggests that Bernini is the artist. In my next two posts, I will discuss the case for his authorship and make a hypothesis about the circumstances of its production.
The painting and medallion are on view in West Building, in the gallery next to Judaic Art, through February 1. Lyle Humphrey is GlaxoSmithKline curatorial fellow at the NCMA.