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The Secrets of the Vatican Museums
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The temporary and the eternal

Meant for a temporary purpose, destined to be destroyed – today they are timeless masterpieces. Extremely rare clay cast models conserved in the Vatican collections were made by Bernini and Algardi, two sculptor protagonists of the 17th century. The materials they are made of are crumbly and extremely delicate. Intended as models prior to casting the definitive bronze works, they instead survived. On a model created by Bernini, an imprint of the Maestro’s fingerprints can be seen.

by Paolo Ondarza – Vatican City

Temporary, fragile, delicate – therefore, rare and priceless. Clay models such as these 17th-century examples have for the most part been lost. They are testimonies of an ancient practice called consolidation used prior to the bronze casting of the final sculpture. Several examples are conserved in the Vatican collections. Unique and extraordinary, having survived history, they are enduring evidence of the great 17th-century artistic period. Originating as preparatory models, they are today acclaimed as masterpieces, as pulsating testaments of the joy of artistic creation.

© Vatican Museums
© Vatican Museums

Signature impressed in clay

Particularly prized are those models moulded by the hands of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, leader of Baroque Rome, a sculptor who, as his contemporaries wrote, knew how to give his creations the warmth of flesh. He is the author of the works commissioned by Pope Alexander VII (Chigi) that adorn Christianity’s largest church: the colonnade of Saint Peter’s Square, and the Altar of the Chair in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Six of the seven extant Bernini models are traced to the latter: two pairs of angels and the heads of two Doctors of the Church – Saint Athanasius and Saint John Chrysostom. Also made of clay, a fifth angel in a kneeling position was instead created by the sculptor for the altar in the Blessed Sacrament chapel.

© Vatican Museums
© Vatican Museums

Destined to be destroyed

The seven Bernini models are owned by the Fabbrica of Saint Peter. Dating between 1661 and 1673, they are in permanent storage in the Vatican Museums on display in the Pinacoteca. These models were designed both to evaluate in advance the final effect of the sculpture as well as to create a mould for the final bronze work. Generally, the final stage in this operation caused the destruction of the model.

© Vatican Museums
© Vatican Museums

Angels for the Chair of Peter

The two pairs of angels are a particular testament to the creative process that consisted of drawings, sketches, trials, modifications, changes that characterize the creation of the Chair of Saint Peter. This monument was, in fact, highly symbolic because it was designed as a reliquary to enshrine the wooden chair that, according to tradition, was used by Saint Peter, the first Bishop of Rome. Few people know that the royal throne toward which the eyes of the many pilgrims who pass through Saint Peter’s Basilica are directed is, in reality, the one used on Christmas Day in the year 875 for the imperial coronation of Charles the Bald (Charles II).

© Vatican Museums
© Vatican Museums

Even a “maestro” can make a mistake

Six years prior to January 1666, the inauguration date of the incredibly complicated and intricate structure made of bronze and gilded stucco that we can admire today set behind the main altar’s Baldacchino, Bernini had to deal with a design error. He had to acknowledge the fact that the models of the first two angels he had prepared for casting were too small compared to the imposing dimensions of the apse. He then decided to create another larger pair of celestial creatures depicting different poses.

© Vatican Museums
© Vatican Museums

Bernini, Leonardo the creative moment

Documents from that period report cartloads of clay arriving at the Vatican work site, along with bundles of hay supplied by haymakers, nails, pieces of wood, iron cables, bundles of string and pounds of plant trimmings. These were the ingredients used in the impasto for these models. The mixture remained unbaked, thus making it particularly pliable so as to be worked and shaped to create the desired models. Incredibly, they also bear the fingerprints of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. This detail is worth much more than his signature, because it is evidence of the origin of these works of art, to the physical aspect of their creation, a unique and unrepeatable mark left by the artist’s own hand in the material.

This makes us think for a moment of another masterpiece in the Vatican Pinacoteca: Leonardo da Vinci’s Saint Jerome. On the walnut panel painted with oils around 1480, scholars have discovered the fingerprints of this great Renaissance genius who used the “finger painting” technique, as it was called, to soften the sharp curves of the figures depicted.

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Vine branches

As we draw near the altar in the Blessed Sacrament chapel, we observe the kneeling angel. Like the other examples used for the Altar of the Chair that measured up to 2.5 metres (8.2 feet), this one too is made of wrought iron “armour” and its wings are attached to the body with nails, plaster and straw. Cracks in the outer clay layer reveal a tightly braided bundle of vine branches and other vegetable fibres tied together with string over which the mixture of clay and hay was spread. This leads the imagination to suggest that supplies of clippings would come from the many vineyards that populated the area around Vatican hill in the 17th century.

© Vatican Museums
© Vatican Museums

Restoration before your eyes

A recent ten-year restoration was carried out on these models within a transparent structure before the eyes of the Museums’ visitors. The wood and straw underwent an anoxic disinfestation since these two materials had become compromised by the presence of xylophagous (wood-eating) insects. Gaseous nitrogen was used to treat the models which remained in a sealed chamber from which oxygen was removed for about two months. Those parts made of iron were also stabilized, slowing down the corrosion and degradation process. Dental technology and instruments were then used to effect many micro-scale adhesions to consolidate the sculptures.

In the process, traces of whitewash were found on the five Bernini angel models. This is very probably the result of an 18th-century restoration undertaken when the works were gathered together and placed in Clement XI’s Museum of Models within the Vatican Tower of the Winds.

© Vatican Museums
© Vatican Museums

Practice in use in the 17th century

From models destined for oblivion to works of art elevated to masterpieces – fate and the technique used to connect these seven clay models to another contemporary work of inimitable beauty: the Alamandini Crucifix, conserved in the Vatican Museums’ storerooms. The artist, Alessandro Algardi, also created Leo XI’s funerary monument as well as the grand marble altarpiece depicting the meeting of Pope Leo the Great with Attila, both of which are found in Saint Peter’s Basilica.

© Vatican Museums
© Vatican Museums

Algardi and the Alamandini Crucifix

Contemporary rivals, one favoured by the Barberinis, the other considered the best by the Pamphilis, protagonists of both the Baroque and classicist current of the 17th century, Bernini and Algardi can once again be compared today for the more unique rather than rare survival of these unrepeatable clay works. In a twist of fate, any trace of the finished bronze Algardi crucifix commissioned by his fellow-Bolognese Ercole Alamandini in 1641 has been lost. What survived, instead, was the cast model, given by the sculptor to the then-rector of the now destroyed Church of Saint Martha in the Vatican. It was then transferred to the Governor’s Palace until it finally arrived in the Vatican Museums. This crucifix is made of clay over an iron structure filled with straw. Finished with coloured wax, it too has become an independent masterpiece.

© Vatican Museums
© Vatican Museums

Algardi compared to Lysippus

Contemplating the peace of the Saviour’s death in the immobility of Christ’s dead body and the slight movement of the loincloth, contemporaries did not think it too daring to compare Algardi and the ancient Greek sculptor Lysippus, master of the great Hellenistic sculptural tradition.

Photogallery

Bernini's clay models--Photogallery
22 February 2022, 15:00