TOP 500 REVIEWERon 24 April 2014
There is quite a history to this marvelous monograph and catalogue raisonné by the German art scholar, Rudolf Wittkower, 1901-71. It was originally published in 1955 and, eleven years later, a second edition was published under the author’s supervision. Following Wittkower’s death, the third edition of 1981 included revisions by Howard Hibbard, Thomas Martin and Margot Wittkower, 1902-1995, Rudolf’s wife, that were presented as addenda to an otherwise unchanged text.
In 1990, an Italian revision was published by Electa, which included a new design, newly commissioned photographs including 30 in colour. The addenda of the 1981 edition were incorporated into the body of the book and new addenda were introduced taking account of the results of new art historical research published between 1980-89. This edition, published in 1997, is based on the Italian edition, incorporating its new features whilst retaining the original English text. There is no indication of who made the translation.
Wittkower explains that his original, 1955, work was the result of a desire to interpret Bernini’s sculptural work in the spirit in which, he believed, it was created. Bernini, 1598-1680, was the most fertile and most accomplished artistic exponent of 17th-century Catholicism and his religion conviction is a necessary background against which his art should be considered. As Wittkower points out, it is impossible to divorce the artist’s views on art from his religious belief. The sculptor prophesied that after his death his reputation would decline and Wittkower suggests that this is exactly what happened. Ruskin’s considered view of his sculpture is that it seemed ‘impossible for false taste and base feeling to sink lower’. This book, then, is the author’s contribution towards reversing this undeserved ecline and ensuring that the Bernini is considered by scholars and lovers of art to be the genius that he undoubtedly was.
The sculptor’s life and work of is presented in complementary chapters that address ‘Early Works and Borghese Patronage’, ‘Religious Imagery’, ‘Portrait Busts’, ‘Work in St Peter’s and the Vatican’, ‘The Cornaro Chapel, other Chapels, Churches and the Baroque Stage’, ‘Fountain and Monuments’ and ‘Bernini and his Period, The Organisation of the Studio: Theory and Practice’. The colour plates precede the Catalogue, following which there is a Chronological Table, Bibliography, an Index of Names and an Index of Places and Works.
The catalogue comprises 81 works, together with 10 attributions that Wittkower did not accept in 1955, and a further 8 attributions not previously mentioned. There are well over 300 b/w reproductions, many as full page plates.
As has been mentioned by an earlier reviewer, the photography in this book is splendid, especially the 30 colour plates which show the polychromatic environment of these exceptional sculptures, most notably “Tomb of Pope Urban VIII”, 1627-47, “Medusa”, mid-1630s, “The Ecstasy of St Teresa, Cornaro Chapel”, 1647, “The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni”, 1674, a detail of which is illustrated on the front cover, “Altar of the Cappella del Sacramento”, 1674, and “Tomb of Pope Alexander VII”, 1675-77. Since sculpture is a 3-dimensional medium, the multiple photographs from different perspectives help the viewer envisage the sculpture on the 2-dimensional page. The close-up photographs enable the viewer to focus on elements that might otherwise be missed or glossed over.
The delicacy of sculpture in the early “Apollo and Daphne”, 1622-25, is quite staggering, with the leaves sprouting from Daphne’s extremities at the transitory moment of metamorphosis. I remember seeing this many years ago in a deserted room in the Galleria Borghese where I was able to see the delicacy of the metamorphosing leaf tendrils from very close up and also, I admit it, to touch them. As Wittkower points out, in this gallery environment the sculpture is free-standing but the work was initially placed, and was designed to be placed, against the wall to enable it to be seen from their principle direction of view. The photographs of “Pluto and Proserpina”, 1624, which show the God’s splayed fingers digging into the Goddess’s thigh and back, is so realistic as to lead one to expect the marble to be warm to the touch.
This scrupulously research book provides the art historical knowledge available at the end of the 20th century. As such it can be unreservedly recommended.