The present study starts from the discovery in a private collection of a rectangular slab of terracotta measuring 60 x 42 cm, ending in a vaulted apse type at the top. Inside, in high relief, there is a sculptural group representing Saint Martin on horseback sharing his cloak with the poor man, also called The Charity of Saint Martin. The arm is missing from the left shoulder of the Saint and there are some gluing, but overall the terracotta appears to be in fair condition.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Slab with sculptural group in high relief: Charity of St. Martin, terracotta; 17th century, ca. half. Private collection.
The figuration finds a parallel in the marble statue of the Charity of St. Martin in Naples, once at the entrance of the Charterhouse of St. Martin and now in the local Museum, by Pietro Bernini.
Pietro Bernini, Charity of St. Martin, marble;
1598. Naples, National Museum of San Martino.
To understand the genesis of the work, let us briefly look at the sculptor's beginnings.
Born in Sesto Fiorentino in 1562, after an apprenticeship in Florence in contact with the artistic fervour of the Tuscan city, he went to Naples where he began a fortunate artistic activity and where he also married, becoming the father of Gian Lorenzo in 1598. He spent another brief period with his wife in Florence, but between 1596 and 1567 he returned to Naples, making himself known for his works in marble. Thus around 1598 he was commissioned by the Viceroy to make some statues for the fourteenth-century Carthusian monastery of San Martino, which was being modernized in a Baroque style. Thus began for Pietro a fervent period of important works in the Neapolitan city. Just for the Charterhouse he created the marble high relief with "San Martino che dona il mantello al povero" (St. Martin giving his cloak to the poor man), following the true story of the saint.
However, a direct comparison between the marble high-relief in the Certosa and the terracotta examined here immediately reveals substantial differences, not of image but of style, which lead to some reflections and perplexities. It would be logical to assume that the terracotta was the model for the marble, also in consideration of the fact that the Berninis, father and son, were used to create terracotta sketches to show to the various patrons. Of Gian Lorenzo, who was born in Naples in 1598 and soon came to prominence next to his father in Rome, many remain, among which we recall the beautiful ones for the Chair of St. Peter in the Vatican Basilica; yet we perceive too much difference between the two works. The marble sculpted by Peter appears very chilled compared to the terracotta and one senses Donatello's legacy still from the fifteenth century. The Saint is rigid on the saddle, just as the horse is distracted and indifferent, nor does he turn to follow the scene; the poor man who receives half the cloak is more moved and certainly better. The phrase of Baglione who wrote in the life of Pietro Bernini comes to mind:
Pietro with every frankness handled marble, so that in this he had few equals...
...if this man had had greater design for the ease of working he would have been very advanced".
Pietro was undoubtedly surpassed by his son Gian Lorenzo, and the comparison between the two, who often worked together, is in fact ungenerous. Reflecting and examining the terracotta with due detachment, we note that the dimensions perhaps exceed the common concept of a sketch, but this is not enough, because many of Gian Lorenzo's terracottas are also quite large. Nevertheless from ours emanates a stylistic inspiration so high that it enchants the viewer. The whole figure is moved by an impetuous wind: it musses the horse's hair, which turns suddenly with a surge of the leg so that an extraordinary symmetrical correlation is formed with the head; it whirls the cloak, barely held by the hand of the poor half-naked man, opposite the horse, who raises his arm to hold back the edge of the fabric, thus creating another beautiful correlation. Saint Martin in the middle of this vortex dominates the two figures, creating a triangular symphony, very interesting from various points of view. His face has a very sweet expression and he turns towards the poor man who reciprocates with an act of sincere adoration.
Terracotta slab with Charity of St. Martin, details.
In the intense gaze that passes from the saint to the simple beggar one seems to see again that expression of total abandonment to God which, elevated to the nth power, we find in the figures of the mystics created by Gian Lorenzo, from Saint Teresa to Blessed Lodovica Albertoni.
We can also observe that the faces of the two characters in the terracotta recall the attitudes of the family members attending the ecstasy of Saint Theresa in the Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, while the horse appears close to the late model, also in terracotta, for the equestrian statue of Louis XIV, now in the Galleria Borghese.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Equestrian monument to Louis XIV, terracotta sketch; 1669-1670. Rome, Borghese Gallery.
In the light of what has been examined, how should one place the terracotta, which undoubtedly has the same narrative module as the marble relief of Pietro at the Certosa in Naples? An earlier model or a later derivation? It is not impossible to assume that a family, perhaps Neapolitan, wanted for their home, in Naples or elsewhere, a Bernini copy of the statue of St. Martin, present in the beloved Charterhouse. Since Pietro died in Rome in 1629, he turned to his son Gian Lorenzo, who had already collaborated with his father on many important works. On the back is evident the detachment from a wall; perhaps it had been inserted as an overlay in the entrance of a palace or even in a fountain, architectural structure very present in the gardens of the houses in the Baroque period. It remains to be defined, therefore, the period in which to insert the terracotta within the tormented and intense life of Lorenzo. In fact, when Pietro made the statue for the Charterhouse, it was in 1598, when Lorenzo had just been born, so this terracotta is undoubtedly later, but by how much?
Considering that it clearly proves to be a finished work, we believe we can place it around the middle of the seventeenth century, between the vertical pyramid of the Fountain of the Rivers in Piazza Navona (1648 - 1651) and the Constantine on horseback positioned in 1670 in the atrium of St Peter's Basilica, but already begun in 1654.
However it has come down to us through the antiques market, this beautiful terracotta reveals all the potential that the manipulation of simple clay can offer in the skilful hands of an artist.