Category

Southern Baroque

Bernini’s Elephant, Another Myth, and Dali

Bernini, elephant obelisk outside of Maria Sopra Minerva, 1667, Rome. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of Petar Milošević

Bernini, elephant obelisk outside of Maria Sopra Minerva, 1667, Rome. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of Petar Milošević

Of all of the sculptures created by Bernini, I think that the elephant carrying an obelisk is the most unexpected and bizarre. This monument has its own unusual history surrounding its creation and subsequent discussion in the 17th century, and then this monument ended up being incorporated into bizarre Surrealist imagery in the 20th century.

Originally, this monument was commissioned by Pope Alexander VII; its creation was really instigated by the 1665 discovery of the Egyptian obelisk within a garden of a Dominican monastery, and it was decided that the obelisk would be placed just outside the monastery itself. These facts are clearly documented. However, much of the following popular history surrounding the monument doesn’t have a historical foundation at all and seems more like another Bernini myth. According to this popular, although historically unsubstantiated, anecdote, the proposed designs for the monument allegedly included one by the monastery’s Dominican friars, Father Domenico Paglia; however, Alexander VII supposedly rejected this design and ultimately selected Bernini’s design of an elephant.1 According to the contemporary inscriptions written on the pedestal of the monument, the elephant was selected as a symbol of strength, and the obelisk was surmounted on top was to serve as a symbol of holy knowledge or divine wisdom.2 (The symbolism of the obelisk as Divine Wisdom is a little ironic, considering that this obelisk originally held a political – and non-Christian – context, since it was created by the Pharaoh Apries, who reigned 588-569 BCE).3

Bernini, elephant obelisk detail, 1667. Outside Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome.

Bernini, elephant obelisk detail, 1667. Outside Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome.

This anecdote continues by mentioning alleged controversy surrounding the construction of the monument. Father Paglia apparently didn’t like Bernini’s design, and thought that the obelisk would be unstable without more supporting weight underneath the elephant. Bernini refused to change his design (as seen in his bozzetto model), but later allegedly was forced to do so (although he tried to add a saddlecloth to hide the supporting weight placed underneath the elephant). According to this story, Bernini may have made a final retaliating remark to Paglia with the way that he positioned the elephant: the rear of the animal is pointed toward the direction of the Dominican father’s office. Furthermore, the tail of the animal is slightly raised, suggesting that Bernini’s elephant is defecating (since the muscles look more tense) and/or saluting Paglia in an obscene way.4 (Although this story is unsubstantiated, one can note that that Bernini’s design, especially with the raised tail, is a unique departure from Bernini’s visual inspiration for this project: an image from a fifteenth-century novel Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which shows the elephant with a lowered, not raised, tail).

It is interesting to me that this anecdote has held such popularity over the years (with origins going back to the 17th century), even though there isn’t a historical document to support this story about Paglia and Bernini.5 (I really appreciate that someone on Wikipedia is trying to set the story straight through a lengthy footnote.) In some ways, the story reminds me a bit of the myth that I mentioned in a previous post, in which Bernini’s sculpted figure of Rio de la Plata is shielding its gaze from Borromini’s church Sant’Agnese.

Regardless of the historical circumstances surrounding the creation of the elephant, it has captured the attention and admiration of many people over time. (Today, the elephant is affectionately known by the nickname “Minerva’s Chick” (“Pulcino della Minerva”) which is due to a mispronunciation of an earlier nickname “Minerva’s Piggy” (“Porcino della Minerva”), that alluded to the stout body of the elephant.) The Surrealist Salvador Dali was apparently inspired by the imagery of an elephant carrying an obelisk on its back, and utilized that motif in Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening (1944) and The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1946).

Salvador Dali, "Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening," 1944.

Salvador Dali, “Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening,” 1944.

Salvador Dali, "The Temptation of Saint Anthony," 1946.

Salvador Dali, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” 1946.

I haven’t found any written information about Dali mentioning his interest in Bernini’s monument or in Bernini in general (if you know of anything, please share). But, given the context of Dali’s interest in dream-like imagery and the might-as-well-be-a-dream anecdote surrounding Bernini’s own monument, I think the elephants in these paintings are pretty appropriate.

1 Guiseppe Paglia was the historically-documented director for this project outside Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Pergola’s alleged designs for the monument are mentioned in great detail in this popular anecdote, explaining that his monument would have included the six Chigi mountains (part of Alexander VII’s family crest). However, no historical sources describe this design. It is important to note that Alexander VII makes no mention of Paglia’s design in his journal. See Katie Blake, p. 8.

2 On the side of the monument facing east includes an inscription (translated into English): “Let every beholder of the images, engraven by the wise Egyptian and carried by the elephant – the strongest of beasts – reflect this lesson: Be of strong mind, uphold solid Wisdom.” The side of the monument facing west includes this inscription (translated into English): “In the year of Salvation 1667, Alexander VII dedicated to Divine Wisdom this ancient Egyptian obelisk, a monument of Egyptian Pallas, torn from the earth and erected in what was formerly the forum of Minerva, and is now that of the Virgin who gave birth to God.” See Katie Blake, The Elephant and the Obelisk essay, p. 7.

3 For a detailed discussion of the obelisk as a symbol of Holy Wisdom, see Blake, p. 8-9.

4 For more information regarding this anecdote, see Blake, p. 8-9.

5 It seems this anecdote originated at the end of the 17th century, when Cardinal Lodovico Sergardi, a satirist, circulated a two-line epigram. Therein, he elephant tells the Dominicans that the position of his rear end conveys “where I hold you in my esteem.” See  Ingrid Rowland, ‘The Friendship of Alexander VII and Athanasius Kircher, 1637-1667′ in Early Modern Rome: Proceedings of a Conference Held on May 13–15, 2010 in Rome, ed. Portia Prebys [Ferrara: Edisai, 2011], pp. 669-78.

— 2 Comments

Some Bernini Myths

Photograph of the Pantheon in the 19th century, with two towers created by Maderno and Borromini in the 17th century.

Photograph of the Pantheon in the 19th century, with two towers created by Maderno and Borromini in the 17th century.

I have been thinking about a few myths surrounding the Baroque artist Bernini this evening. One prevalent myth is that Bernini created the two towers (nicknamed “ass’s ears”) that once decorated the top of the Pantheon. The towers were created in the seventeenth-century and were removed in 1892. Contrary to popular myth, a new publication on the Pantheon points out that Bernini wasn’t involved in the creation of these towers. Instead, the papal architect Maderno and his assistant Borromini were responsible for the towers. In some ways, it is ironic that these “ass’s ears” towers are attributed to Bernini instead of his rival Borromini! My guess is that Bernini may have been incorrectly identified with these Pantheon towers because of the two towers that he attempted to build at St. Peter’s Basilica, although that project was soon abandoned: not long after the first tower was built, it was demolished because it was unstable.

Bernini, Baldacchino, Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, 1624-33.

Bernini, Baldacchino, Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, 1624-33.

Another myth associated with Bernini and also the Pantheon has to do with the bronze that Bernini used for his Baldacchino at Saint Peter’s Basilica. We know that Urban VIII (a member of the Barberini family) removed bronze trusses from underneath the portico of the Pantheon in 1625. It has often been said that the bronze went to help create the Bernini’s baldacchino, which was created from 1624-1633. I remember learning about this in school, particularly in tandem with the saying, “quod non fecerunt Barbari fecerunt Barberini” (What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did”). However, recent studies argue that the bronze from the Pantheon either did not go to St. Peter’s at all or was an extremely minuscule amount.1 Instead, the bronze from the Pantheon was used to create some of the cannons at Castel Sant’Angelo.

Bernini, detail of personification of Rio de la Plata from "Four Rivers Fountain," 1651, Piazza Navona, Rome. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Bernini, detail of personification of Rio de la Plata from “Four Rivers Fountain,” 1651, Piazza Navona, Rome. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Another popular myth surrounding Bernini revolves around his Four Rivers Fountain (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) and Bernini’s rivalry with the architect Borromini. It has often been reported and joked that the figure of Rio de la Plata in the fountain has its arm raised, as if snubbing or shielding its gaze from Borromini’s church of Sant’Agnese, which is stands opposite the fountain. However, the building of this church was not until 1652, the year after this fountain was completed, so such a statement was not intended (but perhaps such meaning could have been perceived by either artist after-the-fact!).

Bernini's "Four Rivers Fountain" and Borromini's Sant'Agnese, Piazza Navona, Rome

Bernini’s “Four Rivers Fountain” and Borromini’s Sant’Agnese, Piazza Navona, Rome

Just this afternoon I came across information about the book Bernini and the Bell Towers: Architecture and Politics at the Vatican. The premise for this book is that Bernini’s failed attempt to build the towers at Saint Peters was not merely his own failure. I look forward to reading this book and deciding whether or not Bernini’s infamous failure with these towers has been misrepresented over the centuries.

Do you know of any other myths surrounding Bernini?

1 A few sources report that the bronze for the baldacchino came from Venice. For one citation, see here: https://books.google.com/books?id=CScdAQAAIAAJ&dq=bernini%20baldacchino%20venice%20bronze&pg=PA156#v=onepage&q&f=false

— 2 Comments

Winking in Art

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail of "Netherlandish Proverbs," 1559. Image courtesy via Wikipedia.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail of “Netherlandish Proverbs,” 1559. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

This afternoon my students and I were discussing some of the proverbs that are referenced in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s complex painting Netherlandish Proverbs (1559). One student pointed out one particular detail on the wall of the house that I had never noticed before: a pair of open scissors with an eye placed above. I wasn’t familiar with a proverb or a reference to this detail in the painting, so I looked it up afterward.

It turns out that these two symbols are a reference to winking! This image is a play off of the words “Een knip oog,” which means “snip-eye,” or a wink.1 Scholar Alan Dundes, who wrote about the appearance of this symbol in Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s copy of his father’s painting, explained that through this symbol “Bruegel the artist is winking at his audience and he expects the viewer to understand that what he has painted in a huge put-on.”2

Learning about this fun detail made me wonder about the history of winking and whether other winks (either literal or symbolic) appear in art. I haven’t been able to find any scholarly information on the cultural history of winking (if anyone does find something, please let me know!), but I have noticed that obvious references to or depictions of winking appear in examples of art from the Renaissance and onward. (I also realized that it is futile to determine if ancient figures in the composite pose are winking: if the head is in profile view, then only one eye is visible to the viewer, which makes it impossible to ascertain whether a second eye would be open or closed! Ha! I like the thought that Egyptians are actually winking in all of their art, but we just can’t tell.)

I was also interested to see that references to winking appear in both Western and non-Western art. Here are a few examples I came across:

Giuseppe Maria Crespi, “The Courted Singer,” 1700s. Oil on canvas, 58 x 46 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Image courtesy the Web Gallery of Art.

In this painting by Crespi, The Courted Singer (shown above), the winking figure of on the left reminds the viewer that the scene, which depicts a singer being courted, is not inherently gallant or noble. Instead, this singer and her affections are essentially being “bought” with the jewelry and riches offered to her.

Simon Vouet, “The Fortune Teller,” c. 1618. Oil on canvas, 120 x 170 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Image courtesy the Web Gallery of Art.

Winking was also used between characters within works of art, so that the viewer could understand when a figure was sly or involved in trickery. In this painting by Vouet, a man on the right of the canvas steals the purse from a gypsy woman (who is reading the palm of the woman on the far left). This thief winks to a male accomplice, who looks to me like he might be winking in return.

Master of the Winking Eyes, "Madonna and Child," ca. 1450. National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC.

Master of the Winking Eyes, “Madonna and Child,” ca. 1450. National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC.

Although the winking in this picture may be an aesthetic effect rather than an actual part of the subject matter, I still wanted to include this painting by the so-called “Master of the Winking Eyes.” This piece is included in a current exhibition dedicated to representations of the Virgin Mary in art, which includes a section on representations of her as a wife and mother. This painting, among another in the show, prompted one writer to publish this article: “Did the Virgin Mary Tickle the Baby Jesus?”

Huang Yongyu, Owl, 1973. Image courtesy via Wikiart.

Huang Yongyu, Owl, 1973. Image courtesy Wikiart

Huang Yongu’s Owl is an interesting depiction which caused a lot of controversy. Some interpreted Yongyu’s painting as a self-portrait of the artist who expressing a critique of socialism, and the painting was officially condemned as blasphemous by the Ministry of Culture in March 1974.3 The winking eye in this instance was thought by some to imply, on a basic level, a critique of the socialist system (e.g. officials were turning a blind eye to incorrect behavior). Others did not agree with this interpretation. Even Chairman Mao, who was frustrated with the extent of censorship happening at the time, said with exasperation, “An owl habitually keeps one eye open and one eye closed. The artist does possess the common knowledge, doesn’t he?”Yongu created other versions of the winking owl after this 1973 fiasco, such as this 1977 version and 1978 version.

Of course, to end this list, I have to include a .gif of the Nefertiti bust winking. (Since she has an unfinished eye, she does look a little like she could be winking today.) Do you know of other representations of winking in art? I’m sure there are lots of .gifs with winking works of art too, and feel free to also share those in the comments below!

1 Eric Nicholson, “Et in Arcadia the Dirty Brides,” in Transnational Mobilities in Early Modern Theater, by Professor Robert Henke and Dr. Eric Nicolson, eds (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2014, p. 99.

2 Alan Dundes, “‘How Far Does the Apple Fall from the Tree?': Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s Netherlandish Proverbs” in The Netherlandish Proverbs: An International Symposium on the Pieter Brueg(h)els, ed., Wolfgang Mieder (Burlington: University of Vermont Press, 2004): 20. Citation also found online HERE.

3 The painting was subsequently put on display in a Black Paintings Exhibition, in order for its subversive content to be publicly shamed. Eugene W. Wang, “The Winking Owl: Visual Effect and Its Art Historical Thick Description,” in Critical Inquiry 26, no. 3 (Spring 2000): 435. Article available online HERE.

4 Ibid., 436.

— 1 Comment

Student Research on Bernini and Caravaggio

One of my favorite courses that I taught this past academic year was an upper-level class on the art of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. My students were required to write research papers with original arguments on topics of their choice. I was pleased to see that two of my students, Peg Anderson and Chloe Froom, were undaunted by the mounds of already-existing research for two popular Baroque artists, Bernini and Caravaggio. They have given me permission to share a little of their research and arguments here. I’m pleased that I got to play a small role in helping these students approach these topics, but the original arguments and ideas were entirely their own.

Left: Caravaggio's "Saint Matthew and the Angel," 1602 (destroyed 1945). Right: Bernini, "Habbakuk and the Angel," 1655-61 (Chigi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome)

My student Chloe Froom argued that Bernini was deliberately influenced by Caravaggio when Bernini created Habakkuk and the Angel for the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. The composition and subject matter of Habbakuk and the Angel is very similar to Caravaggio’s painting, Saint Matthew and the Angel (also known as the first version of The Inspiration of Saint Matthew). As can be seen through a direct comparison (see above), Bernini seems to deliberately mimic the extended leg of Caravaggio’s figure of Saint Matthew; this leg projects forward into the space of the viewer. Additionally, both works of art include an angel who lightly and lyrically extends an arm to engage in the the slightest bit of physical contact with the seated figure. Froom writes, “In both works, the angels are covered in delicate drapery [that is] revealing of their forms. There is a deep slit beginning at the top of the hip that continues to reveal the entire leg. Their abdomens are also exposed, Caravaggio’s caused by the sheerness of the fabric and Bernini’s by the parting of drapery.”1

At the time of Bernini’s commission for the Chigi Chapel, paintings by Caravaggio already were in place in another chapel within Santa Maria del Popolo, the Cerasi Chapel (namely, The Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus and The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, which both date 1600-1601). Perhaps Bernini sought to create aesthetic continuity within these two Santa Maria del Popolo chapels by honoring Caravaggio’s style. It is almost certain that Bernini would have been familiar with Caravaggio’s painting Saint Matthew and the Angel. After this painting was rejected in 1602 for the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, it immediately entered the collection of the wealthy collector Vicenzo Giustiniani. Froom explains, “In 1590 the Giustiniani family bought the palazzo opposite S. Luigi dei Francesi and created the Palazzo Giustiniani. The family also had a villa outside the Porta del Popolo, where Bernini created his sculpture Habakkuk and the Angel. The Palazzo Giustiniani, along with their other villas, were filled with the family’s vast art collection and became a popular destination for many artists until the late 18th century. It is therefore, a definite possibility Bernini went into the Guistiniani Palazzo and villas…because he worked in close proximity to them.”2

Bernini, Portrait of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, 1632

Peg Anderson argued in her research that Bernini’s personal relationship with some of his patrons affected the way in which the figures were represented. For example, Anderson finds that the portrait of Cardinal Scipione Borghese depicts the figure in a very positive light, despite Borghese’s overweight frame. Such positive features include the relaxed, slightly-cocked head, and the soft, yet penetrating gaze of the sitter. Anderson also explored how Borghese was Bernini’s first major patron of the arts; this supportive and close relationship accounts for why Bernini cast his sitter in a positive light. In fact, Anderson even argues that the slightly-undone button in the cardinal’s clothing, is really a playful gesture (perhaps a sign of endearment, I think one could argue) on Bernini’s part.

Anderson writes, “He creates an accurate depiction of the sitter, however he portrays Scipione with the persona he would have wanted [contemporary] Romans to believe he possessed. In the Bust of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, Scipione the model appears to be spirited, approachable, and perhaps celebrated. Yet some accounts of Scipione differ from this depiction. The man was described by author Franco Mormando as  ‘ruthless as any sociopath in his mad pursuit of money, power, and pleasure.'”3

Bernini, Bust of Innocent X, completed 1647

For contrast, Anderson explored how Bernini had a negative relationship with Innocent X, which stemmed from Bernini’s ill-fated towers for Saint Peters. The towers were completed in 1644, although they were unstable and a crack had begun to appear before the towers were even completed. Two years later, in 1646, the Pope Innocent X ordered the towers to be torn down. A year later, Bernini completed his bust portrait of the pope, which is less flattering than the one he created of Scipione Borghese.

Anderson argues the following abut the Pope Innocent X portrait: “The sparkle that held the viewer’s gaze in Bust of Cardinal Scipione Borghese does not exist, there is not even a glimmer of hope in [this] old man. The eyes are empty, arguably hollow and absent. The furrowed brow only further contributes to the unpleasant facial expression. Bernini is not generous when he reflects the wrinkles he saw on Innocent X’s forehead, and deep creases in between the nose and mouth…the bust is portrayed standoffish, uninterested, inaccessible, and unable to please.”4

I’m proud of Chloe and Peg and the work that they did on this assignment. Their arguments are much more extensive than I have included here, but this post captures their gist of their research. Really, I had several fantastic research papers submitted from students who took my Counter-Reformation course. I wanted to highlight these two papers, though, because I worked quite a bit with these students during their research process and because I love Bernini’s art!

On a side note, people may be interested to see this online compilation of some of Bernini’s portraits. Additionally, if you would like to help ensure that Bernini’s bust of Francesco d’Este is able to go on public view again, you can donate to this fundraiser (there are only a few days left!).

1 Chloe Froom, “Bernini’s ‘Habbakuk and the Angel’ and Caravaggio’s ‘The Inspiration of Saint Matthew,” unpublished, 2013.

2 Ibid.

3 Peg Anderson, “Bernini’s Portraits: Creating a Likeness,” unpublished, 2013. See also Franco Mormando, Bernini: His Life and His Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 46.

4 Anderson, 2013. Anderson finishes her paper by discussing Bernini’s caricature of another pope, Pope Innocent XI. Pope Innocent XI had issues with the figures of “Truth” (and “Charity”) that Bernini created for the tomb of Alexander in St. Peter’s; the pope found the figure’s exposed breasts to be indecent. The sculptures were accordingly modified, but left Bernini upset. As a result, Bernini may have created this caricature of the shriveled, skeletal and weak pope as a personal means to express his frustration.

— 1 Comment

The Slashing of Velasquez’s “The Rokeby Venus”

Velasquez, "The Toilet of Venus" (also called "The Rokeby Venus), 1648. The National Gallery of Art, London. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Last week I met a feminist scholar who mentioned that she likes to show her students Velasquez’s “The Toilet of Venus” (commonly known as “The Rokeby Venus”) when she takes students to London on a study abroad program. This scholar teaches her students about the suffragette Mary Richardson, who slashed this canvas multiple times in 1914 in order to protest the recent arrest of suffragette leader Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst.

Detail of damage to "The Rokeby Venus." The attack by Mary Richardson occurred in the National Gallery 1914. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

I recently watched a BBC documentary (from “The Private Life of a Masterpiece” series) that covered more details about this attack (beginning about 32:17 in the linked video). At the time, Mary Richardson did not mention that she was bothered by the painting itself. However, Richardson mentioned in 1952 that she was bothered by the subject matter of this painting (as a female nude which attracted the attention of male viewers); this sentiment appropriately encouraged the soon-to-be feminist movement to uphold this attack a symbols of feminist attitudes toward the female nude.1

I think that the image of the slash marks are particularly interesting, because they remind the viewer that the Venus is actually an illusion which is painted on a two-dimensional surface. It’s also interesting to see how the media responded to this attack, since they cast Mary Richardson as a murderer (referring to her as “Slasher Mary,” which is a charged term given that Jack the Ripper killings took place a few decades before). Since Venus was proven to be an illusion instead of an actual body, Richardson had essentially “killed” the Venus.2

It is also interesting that Richardson concentrated her attack on the body of the Venus figure itself, as if to prevent the back and buttocks from serving as palpable, believable fetishes for the male viewer. In its original (now restored) state, this painting is well-construed for fetishization: the back and buttocks are highlighted as objects, especially since the “subjecthood” or “personhood” of the female is lessened through the obscured face (which is not only turned from the viewer, but is represented in the mirror in a very blurry, undefined manner). Richardson’s marks, however, challenge and defy this fetishization.

Do you know of any other physical attacks on works of art by feminists? Do you have any other thoughts on what new meanings were created by Richardson’s slash marks?

1  In 1952, in an interview, Mary Richardson said, “I didn’t like the way men visitors gaped at the painting all day long.” This quote is mentioned in “The Rokeby Venus” episode from “The Private Life of a Masterpiece” BBC series, but also found at “Political Vandalism: Art and Gender” found here: http://www.angryharry.com/rePoliticalVandalism.htm

2 Laura Nead discusses how the media used words that seemed to suggest that wounds were inflicted on an actual body, instead of a pictorial representation of a female. See Lynda Nead, “The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality”. (New York: Routledge, 1992), 2.

— 4 Comments

Email Subscription

An email notification will be sent whenever a new post appears on this site.
Name
Email *

Archives

About

This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.