The clay modeling techniques of Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Tony Sigel


In 1937, the Fogg Art Museum purchased twenty-seven terracotta sculptures from a local collector. Fifteen, including an additional clay modello acquired by the museum in 1995, are associated with the seventeenth-century Roman sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).

Over a three year period, conservators and art historians in the Straus Center for Conservation, and the Department of Paintings, Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Harvard University Art Museums, collaborated on a comprehensive study of these bozzetti and modelli. The project was published comprehensively as a Bulletin of the Harvard University Art Museums (Sketches in Clay for Projects by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Ivan Gaskell and Henry Lie, editors. Harvard University Art Museums, spring, 1999. Vol.VI, no. 3).

The author’s task was to discover and describe, and catalog the modeling techniques used by the artist to create these bozzetti and modelli, and suggest answers to questions about authorship; i.e. what is it that makes a terracotta a Bernini terra-cotta? What technically characterizes a model from the hand of Bernini – his idiosyncratic, or personal sculptural “handwriting”? Can any relationships be established between individual works? The analysis of technique was carried out using relatively simple means: close visual surface examination and x-radiographic analysis.

The author has also examined terracotta’s in other collections, notably the State Hermitage Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, with results which will be incorporated into this discussion.