Bernini on Sculpture vs. Painting

One of the most original arguments in the sculpture vs. painting debate came from Bernini, the Italian sculptor.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Self-Portrait [38 × 30 cm (14.96 × 11.81 in)]
Museo e Galleria Borghese, Rome  (Wikipedia Commons photo)

He told the French Academy that the painter has this great advantage over the sculptor: he learns while he paints and can correct his work as he proceeds. His painting, therefore, is the result of all he has learned while painting it.

The sculptor, for his part, must stick with his original idea, since he cannot correct it. His statue, therefore, is a record of what he knew only before he started to carve.

That might have been true for Bernini, who carved his figures right off in marble, without solving all the problems first in a sketch. He hated to go to the trouble of finishing a model. “If I did the work in clay or wax first, then all I’d be doing in marble was copying myself. I want my marble to be the original work, not a copy.”

During his portrait sessions with the Sun King, for instance, he carved  the marble bust directly.

Louis XIV (1665) by Bernini (H. 105 cm; W. 99 cm, Depth 46 cm); Diana Salon, Grand Apartment, Palace of Versailles.   Creative Commons Genérica de Atribución/Compartir-Igual 2.5 photo

No other sculptor would dare work directly in stone for a portrait. They all used sittings to make sketches or models and then copied them later in marble back in their studio.

Most of the old stone statues, because of their complexity, were copies of models the sculptor had finished completely. Nowadays, however, sculptors prefer to carve their figures right off if they can, with reference to only simple sketches, just like Bernini.


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8 Responses to Bernini on Sculpture vs. Painting

  1. zeladoniac says:

    It’s astounding to think Bernini was flying without a net, especially when you look at his Apollo and Daphne; the complexity of that piece from every angle and the intricate detail is awe-inspiring. Perhaps he was just very good at putting his mistakes to good use, if he ever made them.

  2. 100swallows says:

    It IS an astounding piece, zeladoniac. I don’t think he did that one without a net. I didn’t check it for “points” but I’m sure he had a well-worked-out model, even if only a third the size. His assistants would have copied the model in marble, enlarging it at the same time with compasses, and then turned it over to him to finish the faces and important features. They used a drill to do all the leaves and hair and fine carving. But I don’t know how they could finish them all without breaking them. I don’t know how the statue has made it to our time without damage either. Marble breaks sooner or later.

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  4. Filipe says:

    Hi… Very nice article and very nice blog…

    I’d like to know from wich book you took the informartion about the Louis XIV bust and Bernini’s comment about clay/wax copy….

    And, if possible, you could create a list of sculpture books you find interesting…


    • 100swallows says:

      Filipe: Thanks.
      “Bernini’s Bust of Louis XIV”, Oxford, 1951–an article by Rudolf Wittkower, who is the Bernini expert of reference.
      His source is largely Chantelou’s Diary of Bernini’s trip to Paris. This was available at Abebooks the last time I looked but very expensive.

      All this can be found summarized in the good Penguin Books Series, Bernini, by Howard Hibbard, 1965, often re-printed–the best short study of his works.
      According to the critic James Fenton, no one has written a biography of Bernini since 1900. Fenton keeps quoting a work called Bernini: Genius of the Baroque by Charles Avery. I don’t know if it is any good.
      I put some of the ugly things I learned about Bernini from Fenton in the comments after this post:

      That’s a good idea to put in a list of books on sculpture.
      Thanks again.

  5. Filipe says:

    Thanks for the reply… I’ll look for these books and the article…

    And on your list, don’t forget to put “Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture” ( ) … Its a wonderful book…

    And, of course, Lanteri’s books…

    Thanks a lot…

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  7. troller says:

    would u mind leaving the dewey number please

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