Ideal in progress

Anyone intrigued by the working procedures of great artists often finds the surviving evidence of this -- studies, sketches, cartoons and models -- as revealing and stimulating as their finished works. Howard Hibberd has written of "the almost automatic way Bernini thought with his hands" in producing clay bozzetti, or models like the one shown here, as he felt his way towards a completed sculpture.

When he was making a bust of the French King, Louis XIV, he built up to it in just this way. The drawings were his method of "steeping himself in the likeness of the King." The bozzetti were used to work out the more general aspects of form and outline. But when he came to chisel the stone of the actual bust, he didn't refer to the models and sketches. He explained that otherwise he wouldn't have been making an original, only a copy. So it seems that he used his preparatory studies not as previous versions of which the final work is an enlarged replica, but rather in the way a sportsman "muscles up" for an event.

That at least was so when he himself executed the finished sculpture. But in the case of the kneeling figure (for which this clay model is a sketch) of Pope Alexander VII, it is thought that he only worked on the figure's head. The remainder of the monument -- which comes late in the sculptor's oeuvrem -- was done by assistants. It is therefore in his preparations that we come nearest to his hand. This particular terracotta model appears to represent an early stage in the proceedings. It describes the posture of the pope. And it describes the fall of his robes, combining angularity with flow in a way that is characteristic of Bernini's late style. Few other details are given consideration.

Originally the bozzetto showed the pope's praying hands, but these have been broken off. The features of his face are minimally suggested, or, when it comes to his notable moustache and beard, not at all.

Yet it would be wrong to say that this lively, proficient model doesn't give the figure a definite character. The somewhat overwhelmed -- dignified but timid -- look of the final head is already hinted. Here Bernini achieved (as he deliberately didn't in his Louis XIV bust) dignity without losing likeness. His Louis was more king than man. From numerous other likenesses of Alexander -- busts and medals -- it is clear that Bernini, even in the model, has grasped something of the man's unusual mix of pretension and humidity. The marvelously expressive movement of the robes, having their own rich life and drama even in this stationary figure, makes it conceivable that this man might act as the peak and climax of the highly "baroque" final monument.

Bernini had above all the most remarkable skill in carving marble. He thought of sculpture as a rival of painting, with one predominant viewpoint, and a pictorial, painterly freedom never before attempted in stone. In fact he made his marble look like clay. To virtually witness him at such close quarters, working in clay itself, is to visualize a great sculptor pressing, forming, kneading, touching and modeling his natural medium.

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