An undiscovered Bernini masterpiece

It has been revealed that an unusual life-size marble skull, previously unacknowledged by art historians, is by the prominent Baroque sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) and was commissioned by Pope Alexander VII (1599-1667).

The skull is in the collection of the Schloss Pillnitz, a palace south of Dresden. However, for decades it has been in the care of the archaeology collections, whose curators focused more on the ancient objects and less on modern items. As such, it has been subject to no previous study by art historians or curators.

This all changed when curator Claudia Kryza-Gersch arrived at the palace looking for objects to include in an upcoming Caravaggio exhibition. She thought the skull would be a perfect addition, suspecting it to be a masterpiece of the seventeenth century, and took it to the restoration department of the Dresden State Art Collections. Kryza-Gersch told The Art Newspaper that once out of its glass case, it quickly became apparent that she was looking at an exceptional object, saying “I was so overwhelmed. It’s scary – it has an aura”. Kryza-Gersch and the restoration team all speculated on who may have made such an impressive item. She says, “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?’”.

It turns out this initial joke soon proved to be correct. After researching Dresden inventories and archives, Kryza-Gersch discovered an early document relating to the purchase of the skull along with other antiquities and Baroque works of art. The skull had belonged to the Chigi family in Rome (the family of Pope Alexander VII) and, in 1728 Augustus the Strong acquired a collection of works from the family, including “una celebre testa di Morto, opera del Cav[alie]re Bernini” (“A famous skull, work of the Knight Bernini”). Further research revealed that three days prior to ascending to the papal throne in 1655, Alexander VII commissioned a marble skull and a lead sarcophagus from Bernini. Bernini’s skull can even be seen in a portrait of Alexander VII by Guido Ubaldo Abbatini, Bernini’s pupil, in which the Pope rests his hand on the marble skull.

Whilst now a beautifully sculpted marble skull may seem somewhat unusual, in the seventeenth century objects which served to remind their viewers of death and the fragility of life were more common. Known as memento mori (literally meaning ‘remember that you [have to] die’), these objects appeared in all types of visual culture, from funeral art to jewellery. In fact, Bernini even created a sculptural monument for the tomb of Alexander VII between 1671 and 1678 in which memento mori symbols could be found, such as an hourglass. Bernini’s skull, which is made out of white Carrara marble and is so lifelike it could be mistaken for a human skull, will be on display in Dresden’s upcoming exhibition, Bernini, the Pope and Death, until 5th September 2021.

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