by Roderick Conway Morris

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Casting Light on a Baroque Sculptor

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 20 March 1999
Hermitage St. Petersburg
Portrait of Gaspare Mola
by Alessandro Algardi, 1639



Alessandro Algardi and Gianlorenzo Bernini, the two leading exponents of Roman baroque sculpture, were born within months of each other in 1598. But whereas Bernini's star has never set, Algardi, whom some of his contemporaries regarded as the superior artist, has sunk into comparative obscurity.

Algardi has never before had a show devoted entirely to his work, and 'Algardi: The Other Face of the Baroque,' which is principally curated by Jennifer Montagu (and continues at Palazzo delle Esposizioni until April 30), is something of a revelation.

Born and trained in Bologna, Algardi spent several years in Mantua, where he had the opportunity to immerse himself in the Gonzaga dukes' superb art collection, which included fine classical pieces, an experience that stood him in good stead for the rest of his career.

By the time Algardi got to Rome in 1625, Bernini's precocious brilliance and sparkling personality had won him the devotion of the Barberini Pope Urban VIII and a virtual monopoly on important commissions dispensed by the Vatican. Indeed, Bernini, was, as one Italian writer put it with suitably baroque extravagance, like a 'dragon jealously watching over the Gardens of the Hesperides,' making certain that no others could 'make off with the golden apples of papal favor.'

The new arrival did, nonetheless, manage to launch himself in Rome, initially by undertaking restorations of classical statuary, notably for Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi -- and one of these statues, now at the new Palazzo Altemps museum, has been loaned to the show. Algardi even collaborated with Bernini on the rebuilding of a statue from an ancient torso, the former carving the missing limbs and the latter the head. Nor was Algardi entirely without supporters among his fellow artists, being befriended by his fellow Bolognese, the painter Domenichino and the Tuscan Pietro da Cortona.

Algardi's talents in due course became sufficiently evident for him to obtain major commissions for portrait busts of some of the prominent figures of the Roman scene. And the gathering here of surviving terra-cotta models and finished works from collections in Italy, England, Germany and Russia make abundantly clear why Algardi was so admired by connoisseurs during his lifetime.

He was a supremely skilled modeler in clay and wax and, in the case, for example, of a pair of busts of the Pamphilj Pope Innocent X, the terra-cotta model is clearly superior to the finished marble apparently executed by one of Algardi's expert studio assistants. And for all their restraint in contrast to Bernini's more flamboyant productions, Algardi's ability to convey the underlying bone structure of his subject's faces lends his portraits an uncannily immediate presence.

Algardi's consummate control over the three-dimensional realization of human anatomy is equally revealed in a very unusual survival - a life-sized, unfired clay model, coated with colored wax, of Christ on the cross, from the Vatican. This figure is positively startling in its lifelike, or rather deathlike, power and captures a horrifying vision of a tortured human being. It evokes an overwhelming feeling of pathos.

While Bernini seems seldom to have thought otherwise than on the grand scale, Algardi, as a 17th-century commentator complained, 'wasted' days on end making models of 'putti, figurines, heads, crucifixes and ornaments for jewelers.' In fact, no other prominent Roman sculptor of the epoch expended such energy on smaller-scale works. Many of them, as Jennifer Montagu points out in the invaluable catalogue (which also provides a guide to other Algardi works not in the show), were probably intended to be cast in silver, but most of these have been lost, having been melted down in times of war and necessity.

Happily, a considerable number of models and bronze versions have come down to us. Once again the modeling is marvelous, the anatomical sense faultless and the dynamic impression of movement in figures and drapery breathtaking.

The death of Bernini's champion, Urban VIII, in 1644, after a reign of more than 20 years, and the accession of the Pamphilj Innocent X was a setback for Bernini, yet did not prove of such instant advantage to Algardi as might have been expected. However, Innocent's nephew, Cardinal Camillo Pamphilj (who was soon to renounce the cloth and marry), did commission Algardi to design a lavish palace amid extensive gardens on a charming site on the Janiculum hill, now known as Villa Pamphilj.

The sculptor was not practiced as an architect and appears to have worked in collaboration with Girolamo Rainaldi, although the overall conception remained Algardi's. The exterior facades of the villa incorporated numerous antique sculptures and the intricate stucco-work of the interiors also drew on Roman models. Algardi brought a sculptor's sensibility to every stage of the project, achieving an effect that is complex, yet balanced and harmonious - creating in the process a monument to the successful marriage of the coolly classical and more sumptuous baroque.

No visitor to Rome can fail to see and be impressed by Bernini's grandiose colonnades embracing the vast space of the piazza before St. Peter's. Few in comparison ever set eyes on Villa Pamphilj and its more humanely proportioned gardens, which are, however, a great favorite with the today's Romans and a fitting memorial to an artist who, as this exhibition highlights, repays more attention than he has for a long time received.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023