All artforms are in the service of the greatest art of all: the art of living.
Bertold Brecht (1898-1956)
Time to start taking a closer look at the four marble masterpieces Gian Lorenzo Bernini made for the Cardinal Borghese. When he completed the last one, he was only 27 years old and had already secured a prominent, permanent place in the History of Art. And yet he died at 82, which means at that moment he had most of his incredible career still ahead of him, an amazing thought.
We will look at the statues in the order in which he created them, to observe him as his art evolves, but also to see how he had absolute clarity on what he wanted to achieve right from the start.
Like the last post, this is not intended as a tour of the Borghese Gallery, but as a break in our day, accompanied by a cup of tea or a glass of wine, and an exploration of how to use our eyes next time we cross the threshold of a museum in person (and what a happy moment that will be!).
So we return to the rooms of the Borghese. We evoke a comfortable silence in our immediate surroundings, but also the sounds of life and joy on the other side of the walls, in the park around us. This time we will indulge in stories along with details.
Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius (1618-1619)
Aeneas, a valiant Trojan hero is leaving his fallen city, defeated by the Greek ruse of the Wooden Horse that put an end to a ten-year war. He is carrying his elderly father, Anchises, on his shoulder and has his little boy, Ascanius, close to his side, almost hidden from view.
Creusa, Aeneas’s wife and mother of Ascanius, got lost in the chaos of besieged, burning Troy. Aeneas called out her name in the streets until he met her ghost. She entrusted their little boy to him, beseeched him to go on without her, and faded away as he tried to embrace her. Grandfather, father, and son, ancient refugees, leave their beloved, war-stricken homeland in search of a place where they can start anew. Aeneas and Ascanius will reach the coast of central Italy and become the ancestors of Romulus and Remus. The journey we see starting here will lead to the birth of Rome (the story of that journey is the subject matter of the Aeneid by the Latin poet Virgil).
They have lost everything, yet the elderly frail Anchises is clutching a small statue of the Penates, the household gods of family and ancestry, an attempt to salvage the past, their roots, their history. This starts a train of thought in my mind, what is unrenouncable and dearest to us if everything is taken away? I am there. I feel empathy. I become a witness to what I imagine is slow, hard, heartbroken progress.
Statues are three-dimensional objects, they require our curiosity, our willingness to move around them, to take in different angles; they ask us to interact with them. We allow our eyes to wander and we catch it. The intention, the transformation of the stone into something else. We walk past little Ascanius, the child, his survival the sign of a future guaranteed, carrying the eternal flame that will one day burn in the Tempe of the Vestal Virgins in the Roman Forum, re-founding Troy in Rome. The flames flicker, it is easy to imagine that as we start seeing where twenty-year-old Bernini (lets us take a moment to think about that!) is going with this, the first non-ancient Roman statue to enter the cardinal’s collection. As we move, our eyes take in the tender plumpness of the little boy, the strength of the father’s muscular build, the back of the grandfather, his vertebrae discernible, the skin thinner and sagging. Three generations. Past, Present, Future. This is not flesh represented in marble, it is marble that turns into flesh. This is how our story begins.
And then, the expressions on their faces, what do you think? Bernini is giving these stone creatures an inner life, a psychology. What do their faces communicate to us: uncertainty, resignation, determination, awareness of the responsibilities of fatherhood and filial love? This is how the poet Virgil describes the moment in which Aeneas gathers what is left of his family around him as they embark on their journey. This is how Aeneas addresses Anchises who is unable to walk:
So come, dear father, climb onto my shoulders / I will carry you on my back. This labor of love / will never wear me down.
Here are their faces again:
We turn and walk away from this room, wondering where our young master of illusions will take us next, what story will unfold in front of our eyes.
Pluto and Proserpina (1621-1622)
If I could choose one statue I would like everyone to see, as proof that even the wildest invention of the imagination can turn into matter through art, to celebrate the supreme value of craft, the work of human hands in the art of the past, it would be this one. I miss showing it on tour, watching people turn to look at each other as if to confirm that what is in front of them is real, reaching for each other’s hands to share the wonder, fully inhabiting the here and now, looking with occhi lucidi (“shiny eyes”, as we say in Italian, when we are moved and a tear veils our eyes without falling). I miss witnessing that, the warm, gentle human connection it creates between us and the art, in a moment in time I know will live on.
Bernini is now 23 and these are Pluto and Proserpina (Hades and Persephone in Greek mythology). Pluto is the god of the Underworld and he rises from the depths of his dark kingdom on his chariot to claim Proserpina, daughter of Cerere (Demetra in Greek), the agricultural goddess who watched over crops – and has given us the English word cereal -while she was picking flowers in a field with her girlfriends. Pluto kidnapped Proserpina, stole her away from the sunshine and the love of her mother, taking her into the reign of the dead, guarded at its entrance by the three-headed dog, Cerberus.
Kids and parents who read to them before sleep often mention he looks like Fluffy from Harry Potter, and it delights me to see how contemporary children’s fiction equips them to move in museums with ease and recognize themes, just like generations of kids before them who studied the classics in more traditional ways. Go Humanities, in any shape or form! Proserpina will become Queen of the Underworld, but also goddess of Spring, as she will return each year to the Earth’s surface and her mother’s loving embrace.
This myth, as any story, has duration and progression, but here it must be summed up in the single freeze image captured by the statue. The word statue derives from the Latin word for the verb to stand (still). The very word describes immobility, absence of motion. These figures, in contrast, move, and their gestures seem to pierce, to rip through a veil of separation between them and us: it is our space they are moving in, humans and marble creatures truly meeting and connecting. And these stone figures also feel with great intensity. They move and they feel every time someone walks into this room and lays eyes on them. This is cinema, the story playing again and again for us viewers and we find ourselves reacting to Pluto’s arrogance and Proserpina’s desperation, and our response becomes integral part of the work. Regardless of how this statue was viewed in the past, I find it to be a powerful empathy machine, in the same way great music and literature can be. We have no doubt about whom our sympathy should lie with and who deserves our outrage.
My friend Val asked, after my last post, if Bernini’s statues were made out of a single block. This one is, and it is the finest Carrara sculpting marble (from the same source in Tuscany Michelangelo used although, unlike him, Bernini did not go there to choose his blocks in person). He discarded 10% of it – unheard of! – to create Proserpina’s right arm and the swirl of fabric beneath it, both dramatically projecting into space, and seemingly supported by nothing at all.
If you are curious about the single block versus multiple parts theme, look up Bernini’s statue of Saint Longinus in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican: it is almost 15 feet tall and made up of about five different pieces of marble. By comparison, Michelangelo’s David is 17 feet tall and is made out of a single block.
But we are here for details so let us move closer again.
Let’s consider the treatment of surfaces and texture. One block of flawless white marble, and of course Bernini turns it into very noticeably different materials: hair, dog fur, leaves, fabric. And flesh: Pluto’s grasping fingers press into Proserpina’s thigh and waist as if the stone were wax or butter, as if art had the power to change its very chemical composition.
Now let’s zoom in on the fur of the dog Cerberus. Look.
Compare the silky skin of Proserpina to the fur on the dog’s chest. Shiny versus matt, smooth versus rough. How does Bernini do it? First we consider the skin, then the dog fur. Once the marble has been roughed out with large chisels and then worked on with finer ones, the surface is made smooth with a series of files and rasps, then polished with powdered pumice stone and hay. It gleams. I always wondered about this and asked myself if wax was ever used. Ancient Greek authors describe how in their day (when statues were still mostly painted), a thin layer of wax and oil was often applied to sculpture to enhance luminosity, “warm up” unpainted flesh parts, and brighten colors. By Bernini’s time, marble statues had long been made to be unpainted, but still, Bernini never used wax on his statues (we will encounter someone who does, almost 200 years later); he did everything through the treatment of the stone surface with his tools.
The fur of the dog is rough and has a remarkable tuft on the chest that I have seen in many breeds and always makes me want to run my fingers through to rub and ruffle it. The textured fur of the dog is obtained with a tool called a claw chisel (I think of it as a fork with short tines).
It marks the surface of the stone with a series of ridges (we can compare it to crosshatching in drawing), creating a texture that receives light in a completely different way than the polished parts do. This came to my mind as I was walking by the lake near the place I call home when in Seattle. I thought of the way light reflects off the surface of the water like a mirror when it is calm, and how different it looked one blustery day when the surface was wind-whipped, rippled, and non-reflective.
And an imaginary wind exists in this museum room too (remember the palms fronds from the Fountain of the Four Rivers?).
As Pluto and Proserpina struggle, her hair is blown back, fabric moves and swirls around her, expressing and reflecting the rush of high emotion caused by the dramatic event we are witnessing. Once I read about Bernini’s “emotional use of fabric” and it just stuck with me. Proserpina’s hair is rendered with ropey, highly textured strands, the fabric is smooth but opaque and is quite different from the sheen of her skin. Bernini has both an incredibly developed imagination and astounding technical skill to translate what he imagines into this. It lights up something in my core every time I see it.
My eyes and mind are full, the stories are still unfolding, my emotions are like widening circles from a pebble thrown into a pond. My teacup is empty, there are only a few crumbs left of my cookie. Maybe it is time to return to our day. Let us say goodbye and allow this to settle and linger. We can take the time we cannot when we are there, at the Galleria Borghese, where we are (very wisely) allowed two hours and there is so much to see.
Next time, a young woman transforms into a tree and a young Bible hero pulls us onto the battlefield as he takes on an incredible challenge.