PREPARATORY MODELS FOR THE BRONZE FIGURES OF THE CHAIR OF ST. PETER
Written by Alessandra Rodolfo & Translated by Ami Badami
Long and arduous is the history of the Chair of St. Peter. In 1658, Pope Alexander VII, always turning his attention to Divine Worship and the greater glory of the saints, decided to give the Chair of St. Peter a more worthy residence. The original Chair, according to medieval tradition, was where Saint Peter sat as the ﬁrst Bishop of Rome and ﬁrst Pope to instruct the early Christians. It is a venerated wood and ivory relic, and a gift from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Bald to Pope John VII in 875. Years later, Pope Alexander VII communicated his intentions of homage and
devotion to his most favorite sculptor Giovanni Lorenzo _ Bernini. The artist at once set out on paper to draft ideas for a project that indubitably would, for its supreme beauty and importance, be undeniably worthy of the “sublime intentions” of the Holy Pontiff.
This was indeed the case. In the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica, Bernini’s monumental magnum opus was born, masterfully executed in marble, gilded stucco and bronze, and would be known through the ages as the Chair of St. Peter. Bernini actually invented a type of grandiose reliquary for the chair a veritable theatrical machine in which the four Doctors of the Church, larger than life, support a bronze chair (encapsulating the original wooden relic) that miraculously rises towards angelic hosts and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The preparatory models of the angels and the heads of Saints Athanasius and John Chrysostom are already restored, thanks the generous contributions of the New York Chapter and Mrs. Romanelli of the Patrons of the Arts. The angel models actually vary in size (there are two larger and two smaller), as they correspond to two various stages of design elaboration. These clay and straw models used for the fusion of the bronze ﬁgures of the Chair are precious witnesses of the evolution of the overall work. They testify to how the immense undertaking was transformed over the course of a decade during which Bernini continuously labored with his grand project. The work, in fact, unfolded with great difﬁculty. At ﬁrst, Bernini had designed the Altar of the Chair much smaller with respect to the current design. The Altar visible today in St. Peter’s is about 30 meters high – over twice the size of the original project. The ﬁrst stage is reﬂected in the models of the two smaller angels, which were eventually rejected since they no longer aligned within the new grandiose structure. The source of this change stems from when, in 1658-1660, Bernini made a life-sized model of the altar in wood and plaster to ﬁt into the apse of St. Peter’s in order to verify the project’s proportions.
The angels set against this model were altogether too small. Years later, Lyon Pascoli in his book “Lives”, recalls the episode when Bernini met with a fellow painter friend, Andrea Sacchi. Pascoli writes, “…they entered the church, and little by little came closer to the cross. Noticing that Andrea had still not yet discovered the Chair, Bernini continued to walk so as to lead his friend closer to see it. Andrea, however, remained in his place and said, ‘Here, Mr. Bernini, is the place from where I would like to see, and where one should be able to see the work, and where I long for it to come into view.’ Since this was the point of the visit, Bernini considered and reconsidered Andrea’s words while the latter, still without a quiver of movement or one step forward, added that the three statues from that vantage point should be at least a good hand’s width larger. Leaving the church without anything more to say, Andrea entered his carriage to depart….Meanwhile, the great Bernini who already had known all this himself, angrily set off to recreate his ﬁgures”. (L. Pascoli, “Lives”, 1730).
It was like this, then, and with the help of sculptors Ercole Ferrata and Antonio Raggi, that Bernini decided to enlarge the monument, for which he made a second version of the angels and the heads of Saints Athanasius and John Chrysostom, now restored. The second version of the angels, much larger and proportional to the whole of the altar, was used for the bronze casting. Once the size was clariﬁed, undertaking the Chair’s execution was an event ﬁlled with suffering. Bernini persevered despite King Louis XIV ‘s mandate for him to remain in France. The artist, so far away from Rome, would sometimes have tears welling up in his eyes when thinking about the work. The work was ﬁnally ﬁnished in 1666. In a solemn procession, the work was carried in to be placed in the Bernini masterpiece. The hailed artist wrote to his friend in Chantelou, France, “It is by the grace of God that I ﬁnished the Chair.”
Model for an Altar Angel of the Blessed sacrament in saint Peter’s Basilica
Already in 1629 Pope Urban VIII had commissioned Bernini to design an altar in St. Peter’s Basilica dedicated to the most Blessed Sacrament. The Holy Pontiff never had, however, the joy of seeing the work completed. The long design phase that included several revisions ended only in 1673 under the papacy of Pope Clement X, culminating in an altar design in which the tabernacle is ﬂanked on either side by two angels, adoring, and on bended knee. The kneeling angel, now restored, is the model for the bronze casting, and is located on the right of the tabernacle. The angel was made from clay and straw by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini with the help of Giovanni Rinaldi in 1673.
The restoration work began with a preliminary dust removal, which clearly showed that in numerous places parts of the plaster were missing, and had been subject to past efforts to ﬁll and reconstruct them. In turn, they were cleverly disguised with coloured paints stretching over the original surfaces. A notable type of dust particulate present on the work made it evident that the constitutive elements of the work (i.e wood and straw) were at one point compromised by insect infestation, clearly necessitating the need for anoxic disinfestation treatment. The deposits of dust and layer of dirt that greyed the surfaces were removed by special gum erasers varying in their texture and composition. Varnishes and other invasive substances were eliminated with solvent packs in order to not leave any marks or stains on the clay. This substance was also applied in the areas where the iron structural elements were corroded in order to slow down further degradation.
At the end of revitalizing most of the surfaces from the time when the angels were originally executed, it was necessary to then remove the most recent “refurbishing” interventions that were made. These attempts to consolidate the piece with plaster actually contributed in part to the piece’s overall degradation. The works were also pieced back together. The consolidation efforts, mainly adhesions and structural reconstructions, were executed using an impasto with a cellulite base speciﬁcally formulated for this project. Its characteristic ease in application and workability, lightness, maximum reversibility, and, most importantly, its lack of aqueous or greasy solvents rendered this impasto perfect for the job. The visible surfaces of these reconstructions were successfully camouﬂaged by using watercolor paints applied with a stippling technique. The result: a perceptibly homogenous and intact piece.
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