For decades, a skillfully carved rendition of a skull sat largely overlooked in Germany’s Pillnitz Castle. Who crafted the cranium has long been a mystery, but new research detailed in “Bernini, the Pope and Death,” an exhibition on view at the Dresden-based Semper Gallery, suggests the marble head’s creator was none other than famed Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
“Everybody had the same reaction to it,” curator Claudia Kryza-Gersch tells the Art Newspaper’s Catherine Hickley. “We were standing around a table, looking at it. The question of course was—who made it? And since it has Roman provenance, someone jokingly said ‘maybe it’s a Bernini?’”
Per the German Press Agency (DPA), Kryza-Gersch spotted the skull while preparing for a separate Caravaggio exhibition at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery). She then had it moved to the restoration workshop at the Dresden State Art Collections.
“There was something about seeing the object out of its glass case,” Kryza-Gersch tells the Art Newspaper. “I was so overwhelmed. It’s scary—it has an aura.”
Curious about the skull’s origins, the curator began researching it in the Dresden archives. She soon came across the papers of Raymond Le Plat, art advisor to Polish king Augustus the Strong, and found a reference to a “famous death head” sculpted by Bernini. Further investigation indicated that Pope Alexander VII, who led the Catholic Church between 1655 and 1667, commissioned the cranium within days of taking office.
According to the Gemäldegalerie’s website, the pope kept the eerily lifelike piece of white Carrara marble on his desk as a “reminder of the fragility of human existence.” Though a plague befell Rome shortly after his ascension, Alexander’s proactive response to the threat ensured that the city escaped relatively unscathed, as Taylor Dafoe reports for Artnet News.
Writing for Artnet News in 2017, Menachem Wecker pointed out that artists throughout history have created similarly macabre symbols. Inspired by the Latin phrase memento mori, which roughly translates to “remember you must die,” these paintings, sculptures, drawings and tokens seek to remind viewers of their own mortality. Though the objects may appear morbid to modern viewers, Artnet notes that they often carried “optimistic, carpe-diem messages” about making the most of one’s time on Earth.
After Alexander’s death in 1667, the head—“so realistically sculpted that it could almost be mistaken for a genuine human skull,” according to the Gemäldegalerie—was transferred to his nephew, a prominent antiquities collector. In 1728, Augustus acquired the marble sculpture, as well as 164 antique statues and four Baroque works. It was subsequently moved to Dresden.
Until recently, the Dresden State Art Collections had listed the skull as an unattributed work, notes a separate DPA report. Held in the archaeology department, it attracted little interest from curators more interested in ancient artifacts than modern ones. As a result, a supposedly lost masterpiece by one of art history’s most renowned sculptors remained hidden in plain sight for almost 200 years.
“This time, all the pieces came together like a beautiful puzzle,” Kryza-Gersch tells the Art Newspaper.
Born in Italy in 1598, Bernini displayed artistic talent from an early age. At just 8 years old, locals later claimed, he created a stone head that “was the marvel of everyone,” as Arthur Lubow wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2008. Bernini’s father encouraged the young artist to continue honing his craft, and by his mid-20s, he had established himself as one of Rome’s most preeminent sculptors. Among his famed creations are a life-size rendering of David, the triumphant Biblical warrior who slayed the giant Goliath, and an intricate depiction of Daphne, a mythological Greek nymph who transformed into a laurel tree to escape the unwanted advances of the god Apollo.
The newly identified Bernini skull—as well as a painting showing Alexander resting his hand on the marble sculpture—is on view in Dresden through September 5.