“In 1633 Christina inherited the throne of Sweden. She was only seven years old. Later, in 1654, she would shock the whole of Protestant Europe by converting to Catholicism, then abdicating and going to Rome to live under the protection of Pope Alexander VII. Christina would become one of Bernini’s closest friends. Of Bernini she once said, “Whoever does not esteem Bernini is not worthy of esteem himself!” Bernini was to remain very close to Queen Christina until his death in 1680; indeed, he would ask for her to come to his deathbed to pray for his soul.” (From “The Vatican Heresy”, Bauval, Hohenzollern, Zicari, 2013).
Two hundred years after its disappearance the last masterpiece of Bernini has been found in Rome. A marble bust representing the Savior, which the artist sculpted shortly before his death “out of his devotion”. He described it as his “Darling” (by Pina Baglioni)
The shoulders wrapped in a mantle with the effect of satin, the very beautiful face framed by flowing hair and the right hand raised in blessing, a marble bust representing the Lord was hidden in the dimness of a niche. Carved in the wall of a small entrance to the monastery of Saint Sebastian outside the Walls, along the Via Appia Antica in Rome.
It seems that it is not just any old statue. Thanks to some lucky coincidences, in August 2001 some art historians recognized it as the Salvator mundi, the last work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the «great director of the Baroque», the “global” artist capable of warning whomsoever with a peremptory: «Don’t speak to me about anything small». Who, however, «at the end of his extraordinary existence», writes Claudio Strinati, specialist in seventeenth century Rome, as well as Superintendent of the Artistic and Historical Heritage of Rome, «closes his parabola in a silent meditation». So much so as to create «out of his devotion» a most beautiful bust of Christ considered affectionately by the old artist as his “Darling”.
But at the end of the 19th century this extraordinary work disappeared. In over thirty years of studies, at least since 1972, the conviction that it had been rediscovered occurred more than once. And so the journey which ended in front of the threshold of the Rome monastery of Saint Sebastian was rather tortuous.
In February last the Salvator mundi was shown for the first time as a genuine Bernini in the exhibition “Velázquez, Bernini, Luca Giordano. The Courts of the Baroque” at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome. Once the exhibition was over, the bust representing Christ made its return to its obscure and solitary residence on the Appia Antica, removed once again from public gaze.
When and why did Gian Lorenzo Bernini sculpt the Salvator mundi? « …And now […] it was the 82nd year of his life […] in excellent health having worked in marble until his 81st year, which he finished with a Savior out of his devotion». So runs a Bernini biography, compiled in 1680 by the son of the artist Pier Filippo and now in the National Library of Paris. The reference, considered for the first time in studies of the Savior, was kindly anticipated to 30Days by the architect Francesco Petrucci, the custodian of Palazzo Chigi in Ariccia, a locality a few kilometers from Rome. The new document is included in Petrucci’s article entitled Il busto del Salvatore di Gian Lorenzo Bernini: un capolavoro ritrovato [The bust of the Savior by Gian Lorenzo Bernini: a rediscovered masterpiece], soon to be published in the Bolletino d’Arte.
Bernini died at the age of eighty-two on 28 November 1680, and sculpted the statue a year earlier. In another biography, written by Filippo Baldinucci in 1682, it is sustained that the statue was created for Queen Cristina of Sweden but she, even though appreciating it, refused it because she could not give an object of equal value to Bernini. On the death of the artist, Cristina inherited the Salvator mundi in any case. Baldinucci writes that the artist in that last period of his life, dedicated «more to the attainment of eternal repose, than to the increase of new worldly glory… set himself with great studiousness to portray… our Savior Jesus Christ, a work which since it was described by him to be his “Darling”, was thus also the last which his hand gave to the world… in this Divine Semblance he employed all the powers of his Christian piety». And again from another biography by his son Domenico, published in 1713, we know that «by now the Knight, close to death… wants to illuminate his life… by representing a work… with which to end his days. This was the half-length Image of Our Savior, but larger than natural, with the right hand raised somewhat, as in the act of blessing. In it he summed up and compressed all his Art».
The sculpture was therefore left in inheritance to Queen Cristina of Sweden, a great friend of Bernini. The queen, who died in 1689, left it in turn to Pope Innocent XI Odescalchi.
The last “sighting” of the Salvator mundi goes back, according to Francesco Petrucci, to 1773, and not to 1713, as sustained in various studies on the issue: from recent research carried out in the archives of the Odescalchi family, the work turns out to be mentioned once more in the Perizia Odescalchi on 16 January 1773.
Then the curtain falls definitively on the celebrated statue.
The only traces of the masterpiece, a Study for the Bust of the Savior, in the Fondo Corsini at the Rome National Institute of Drawing, is a copy of Bernini’s own study commissioned by an unknown from the Frenchman Pierre Cureau de la Chambre, a friend of Bernini’s known since his Paris sojourn in 1665.
The Salvator mundi : one, two and three
In 1972 the Salvator mundi began to be talked about again as a result of the work of the American academic Irving Lavin, Professor of the Art History at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. It was indeed his insights and discoveries that reopened the “case” of the bust of the Salvator. In an essay of 1972 which appeared in the Art Bulletin review, Lavin gave news of the presence, at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, in the United States (in Virginia), of «a marble bust representing Christ blessing which corresponds so perfectly to the descriptions in the sources and the Corsini drawing that it could be identified both with Cureau’s copy and with the original». The great scholar admits a certain clumsiness in the work compared to Bernini standards, defining it as «awkward». But he justifies the defects both by the advanced age of the artist as well as the problems with his right arm that afflicted Bernini in the last period of his life. Finally in conclusion: «these elements, which would apparently exclude it, testify to the authenticity of the Norfolk sculpture, if we consider the subject and the particular circumstances in which the Salvator was created».
With some exceptions, Lavin’s hypothesis was accepted unanimously by the critics. Only a year later, an important indication was given to the American academic by a colleague. Another bust of the Salvator mundi exists and is kept in the Cathedral of Sées, in Orne in Normandy. Irving Lavin, after he had seen it, wrote in a second essay: «it can almost certainly be identified with the lost copy of the Salvator mentioned by a contemporary source … the copy commissioned from Pierre Cureau de la Chambre (1640-1693), friend of the artist». Bernini’s French friend was the abbot of Saint-Barthèlemy, the church of the royal palace in Paris. The source of which Lavin speaks is the Eloge de M. la Cavalier Bernin written in February 1681 by Cureau after he had heard of the artist’s death. In a later writing, the French abbot made known that the copy of the Salvator was kept in the house. Not a word about the author of the copy nor of its provenance.
At the beginning of the ’seventies therefore, it was thought reasonably certain that the original of the Salvator mundi had been identified in the United States, and its copy in France. But at the end of the ’nineties, the famous statue became news again.
In May 1999, to celebrate the fourth centenary of the birth of Bernini, the exhibition “Gian Lorenzo Bernini director of the Baroque” opened in Venice, under the consultancy of Maurizio Fagiolo dell’ Arco, a recognized expert in the Roman Baroque and in Bernini. Francesco Petrucci also collaborated. A great surprise was on show. In the last small room of the exhibition’s itinerary, devoted to Bernini’s last years, the Salvator mundi from the Cathedral of Sées, in Normandy, was on show. The bust, that is, which Lavin considered a copy. But in the exhibition catalogue Fagiolo dell’ Arco and Francesco Petrucci suggested another hypothesis: the Sées bust is beautiful enough to be the original and not the copy.
The fact is that the Italian scholars wrote and published their pieces having only seen photographs of the bust. But when they saw it from close up, they began to have doubts. And during a conference, Fagiolo dell’ Arco expressed his perplexity: «Study of the work from close up, and not from photographs, convinced me I was faced with a work which, even if very beautiful, was from the artist’s workshop».
The Salvator mundi never moved from Rome
The break-through in the investigations came in August 2001 in Urbino, where an exhibition devoted to Pope Clement XI Albani was in progress. Among the photos published in the catalogue there was one that reproduced a bust representing a statue of Christ. The related note, compiled by two young academics, gave its location as «the Monastery of Saint Sebastian outside the Walls, formerly in the Albani [Chapel] sacristy» and attributed it to a certain Pietro Papaleo, a sculptor from Palermo active in San Sebastiano outside the Walls between 1705 and 1710. Francesco Petrucci was also among those visiting the exhibition and leafing through the catalogue he was stunned by the photograph. The bust was too beautiful to have been sculpted by a mediocre artist like Papaleo. In the article soon to be published and anticipated to 30Days he recounts: «I arranged a joint visit [to the Monastery of San Sebastiano, ed.] with Fagiolo who shared my enthusiasm for the work, and which we recognized immediately as a supreme masterpiece worthy of the fame of Bernini’s lost Salvatore».
Of course, it was necessary to find out how and when the statue had arrived at the Monastery of Saint Sebastian. The history of the monastery is in fact rather complicated: during the Napoleonic period, the period in which the bust could have left the Odescalchi palace, the Cistercians who occupied it were evicted. Returning after the revolutionary storm, they left definitively in 1862 when Pope Leo XII entrusted the monastery in a definitive way to the Observing Friars Minor of the Province of Rome. In the aftermath of the Second World War the bust was to be found in the Albani sacristy, at the time a museum. Between 1954 and 1960 the area was annexed to the church of Saint Sebastian and the statue was transferred to an entrance to the monastery and placed in a niche. And there it remained in a semi-clandestine state until today.
Returning meanwhile to the business of the identification of the bust, in March 2002 Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco published a book: Berniniana. Novità sul regista del Barocco, in which he wrote:«the problem of the last monumental sculpture of Bernini, the Salvator mundi, still remains open, at least in my opinion». And referring to the statue identified in Rome, he considers it absolutely worthy of being introduced to the Bernini canon of studies because the elements in support of its authenticity are many: the prodigious treatment of the marble, typical of Bernini. The hand of Christ appears identical to that of the statue of Constantine in the Scala Regia of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, and to that of the bust of Clement X in the National Gallery of Ancient Art in Rome; further the dimensions of the bust correspond to the millimeter with the Odescalchi inventory. In his Berniniana, Fagiolo dell’Arco announced that he would shortly present a scholarly publication of the work. Meanwhile he sent photographs of the Saint Sebastian Salvator mundi to Jennifer Montagu, an eminent specialist in Baroque sculpture. She replies on 25 March that she has been fascinated by the sculpture. According to the great scholar it was a masterpiece which, in quality and beauty, had nothing to do with the statue of Sées, and much less with that of Norfolk in Virginia.
Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco died on 11 May 2002, unfortunately without finishing his book on the Salvator mundi.
It was Irving Lavin who quickly made up his mind and declared without reserve a year later that Bernini’s original was indeed the bust in the monastery on the Apppia Antica. Disavowing what he had affirmed in 1972, that the original Salvator mundi was in Norfolk, Virginia.
In 2003 in fact, in the essay La mort de Bernin: vision de redemption contained in the catalogue for the exhibition Baroque vision jésuite. Du Tintoret à Rubens, (Somogy, Paris 2003, pp. 105-109), Lavin wrote of the Salvator mundi: «The original of this celebrated work, known thanks to a certain number of preparatory studies and to various copies, was considered lost for many years… This sculpture… was recently found in the sacristy of the chapel of Pope Clement XI Albani (1700-1721) in Saint Sebastian outside the Walls».
At this point, the case of the “paternity” of the Salvator mundi would seem to be resolved. Indepenedently of this, the story of the Salvator mundi gives us an unpublished, moving image of Gian Lorenzo Bernini: that of a very powerful man who held Rome in his hand for over half a century, loved, admired, cultivated by at least four popes, about ten cardinals and indeed by the Roi Soleil. And who at the end of his life wanted to do just one thing: to sculpt the image of Jesus, his Darling. Out of «his devotion». (Pina Baglioni)