Bernini Explains His Statue

Benvenuto Cellini presented King Francis with a design for his fountain at Fontainebleau.
“It’s very nice,” said the King, “but I don’t understand it.”

“Yet the King knew what kind of man I was,” says Cellini. “He added that he was well aware that I hadn’t worked like the kind of fool whose art had a certain amount of grace but was completely devoid of significance. At this I prepared to explain, for having pleased him by what I had done, I wanted to please him with what I had to say.” Then comes Cellini’s explanation, which pleased the King so much he “praised me to the skies”.

Benvenuto was a willing lecturer; he was certainly capable of inventing long justifications and rigamaroles on the spot.
But every great artist of the time had to be able to give a verbal dimension to his work. Look at the MEANING Michelangelo [re-worded by Giorgio Vasari] gave the beautiful figures of his tomb for Pope Julius:

“All around the outer side of the tomb were…figures… which supported the first cornice with their heads; and each of these figures had fettered to it, in a strange and curious attitude, a nude captive standing on a projection of the base. These captives were meant to represent all the provinces subjugated by the Pope and made obedient to the Apostolic Church; and there were various other statues, also fettered, of all the liberal arts and sciences, which were thus shown to be subject to death no less than the pontiff himself, who employed them so honourably. On the corners of the first cornice were to go four large figures, representing the Active and the Contemplative Life, St. Paul, and Moses…; and at the summit, completing the structure, were two figures, one of which was Heaven, smiling and supporting a bier on her shoulder, and the other, Cybele, the goddess of the Earth, who appeared to be grief-stricken at having to remain in a world robbed of all virtue through the death of such a great man, in contrast to Heaven who is shown rejoicing that his soul had passed to celestial glory…”
von-einem-drawing-julius-tomb-michelangeloMichelangelo’s second tomb design as drawn by Herbert von Einem

It is easy to understand that Pope Julius was pleased with the spectacular design. But the explanation alone might have won him over.

An explanation was a sine qua non part of the design in those days. The artist couldn’t get away with a smile and a “Why, it means anything you want it to mean.” No figure could simply stand on its beauty. It had to play a role.

Years later another king, the great Louis XIV of France, ordered an equestrian statue from Gianlorenzo Bernini. The king’s minister told Bernini to make it like his statue of Constantine in the Vatican, but not a copy of it. “Not to worry,” Bernini wrote back to him. “My Constantine is entranced by the vision of The Cross above him and King Louis will be in the attitude of majesty and command.”
True. But aren’t they riding the same horse?


Bernini’s Constantine and his clay model for the equestrian statue of Louis XIV

That Constantine statue was actually a high-relief—it was attached to a giant stone curtain.
The Louis XIV figure had to be free-standing.
Problem: How do you make a rearing stone horse? You can’t have a thousand kilos of marble up in the air unsupported.

No problem for Bernini. He went home and modelled a rearing horse with a rock under its belly.
And he hammered out a MEANING for the rock.

“That’s the Peak of Virtue. The Divine King Louis, like Hercules before him, came to a crossroads down below. There he had to choose between the Primrose Path or the Rocky Climb. He chose the difficult one and now here he has reached the Peak, which is the Temple of Virtue or Glory.”

Would the King think this was a bit far-fetched, a little too fawning? No, not Louis XIV, who was out for La Gloire. The French royal family, as everyone knew, was descended from Hercules Gallicus and Louis was the modern version of the Hero.

Bernini’s statue was finished only after his death and by the time it reached the French court tastes had changed. No one liked Bernini’s exuberance and all the Baroque fuss anymore. The statue was first stored away and then finally given to a French sculptor to update. He turned Louis into the Roman hero Martius Curtius but he wasn’t very successful. Now the dirty old marble stands in a corner of a garden at Versailles behind a bush.
Bernini would no doubt be able to come up with a nice moral for what happened.


This entry was posted in art, art history, Baroque, Bernini, Cellini, equestrian statues, great artists, Michelangelo, Pope Julius II, sculpture, Vasari. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Bernini Explains His Statue

  1. wrjones says:

    Great story again. Human nature makes us all subject to interpretations. Make those images or scuptures have an emotional connection to the buyer. If it takes words (and often it does) to explain it, so be it.

  2. 100swallows says:

    Bill: And you’re the guy who can do it.

  3. Ken Januski says:

    I stopped applying for art grants and fellowships about 20 years ago because I noticed many of my artist friends spending as much time writing them, with lengthy explanations of their work, as they did creating art. That just seemed silly and to me detracted from the quality of their work, not because the writing was bad in itself but just because they had lost their focus on their work.

    Little did I know what a lengthy tradition the verbal justification for art work has had! Though I do recall reading a biography of Rodin where he reluctantly had to go through this process. And I’m sure if I read more I’d find plenty of additional examples.

    You have to give Bernini credit though. I wonder if anyone at the time wondered why there was a rock under the belly of the horse? My guess is that if the work is accomplished enough, the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, soon takes over. I happened to watch a few minutes of a TV special on Otis Redding the other day. The narrator mentioned that one of his successful songs never was fully written because he was in between travel and only had time to write one verse for a hurried recording session. Nonetheless it became very successful. My guess is that most people never noticed that the song only had one short verse.

  4. 100swallows says:

    Ken: You are right–few would have been bothered by the rock under the horse. We’ve all modelled a horse with a mass of clay to hold it up. You dig as much of it away as you can and then forget about it. And, really, it doesn’t matter–everyone’s eyes go to the horse.
    And I have to say that Bernini didn’t make up the story of Hercules’ Choice. According to Hibbard, every educated man in the Europe of the time knew it. So Bernini merely applied it–which took some imagination too.
    I wonder if the Otis Redding song was the famous “Sittin’ on the Dock of a Bay” (or whatever its title is). Nice song.

    One felt so little and worthless filling out those forms, though, Ken. The country is too damn big, everything is so anonymous and diffuse. And then look at what the Endowment chose as good! How do you get anyone to come and look at you? Have to grab them some way.

  5. erikatakacs says:

    Well, the rock bothers me a lot. Of the two statues, I think the one in the Vatican is far more superior. Using the curtain as support was very ingenious and beautiful. The rock is ugly, he could have come up with a better looking rock if he had to use a rock. Also, the first one had more natural energy, the second one seems tired and forced. What is the size of these statues?

  6. 100swallows says:

    Sorry, Erika, I should have given the dimensions of the second horse. It is a little clay model! Bernini certainly didn’t work long on that rock. Here is a link to a drawing he made for the Louis’ statue where you see the same rock with a slant. Now you won’t like that smaller rock under the belly either.

  7. erikatakacs says:

    The rock on the sketch looks much better (great sketch). Maybe he was in a rush, and didn’t matter because it was a maquette. Is there a photo of the original life size statue?

  8. Ken Januski says:

    Speaking of Endowment winners a fairly well-known art critic that I knew in the city where I lived at that time came up one day and handed me a cartoon. I think he meant it specially for me. In the cartoon was an artist and his wife in a huge studio where he was working on a sculpture. The wife announces “You’ve just been awarded a fellowship…. to lie fallow for a year.”

    I took it in good cheer because I don’t think it was directed at me but more because the critic thought that I’d enjoy the humor. Fellowships and grants can be mighty silly and sort of haphazardly awarded. I have to say I never won a major one so maybe I’d say something different if I had. But I think probably not. They’re probably no worse than what patrons have required of other artists. I guess they’re just a troublesome necessity for most, much like taxes. But you are right Swallows, the forms did somehow make you feel little and worthless. I’m not sure why that was. But I do recall that they left a very bad taste in my mouth and I was happy to be rid of them. Still am!

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