Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) is considered to be the most celebrated and influential sculptor of 17th century Europe. His innovative designs and unrivalled skill at carving marble secured the patronage of successive popes and prelates, and propelled Rome to the forefront of the artistic world. The present bronze figure of Neptune is almost certainly cast from a model the artist produced as he attempted to finalise the composition of a marble fountain that had been commissioned in the early 1620s by Cardinal Alessandro Peretti di Montalto. Previously known in only four bronze casts – three of them in museum collections – the present bronze is the fifth cast known and has emerged from a noble collection in the United Kingdom.
Bernini first trained in the workshop of his father, Pietro Bernini (1562-1629), who was himself a successful sculptor. Gianlorenzo was a prodigious talent, and is said by his biographers to be carving in marble by the age of eight. By 10 years of age he had already sculpted a group of Amalthea with the Infant Jupiter and a Satyr. His position as the new artistic genius of the age was cemented in the years 1618-24 when he carved four marbles for Cardinal Scipione Borghese: Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius leaving Troy, Pluto and Proserpina, Apollo and Daphne, and David (all today in the Galleria Borghese, Rome). The psychological impact of these groups, along with the compositional innovation and technical brilliance left him in a virtually unrivalled position. In partnership with his great patron, the Barberini pope, Urban VIII, he would go on to transform the fabric and interior decoration of St. Peter’s basilica. His work on fountains, monuments and civic spaces are among the most recognized and important contributions to the Roman urban landscape even today.
At the same time that Bernini was executing the marbles mentioned above for Scipione Borghese, he was asked by Cardinal di Montalto to execute a fountain in marble to be placed above a large basin of water in the formal gardens of the Villa Montalto in Rome. This was executed between March 1622 and February 1623 and depicted Neptune twisting dramatically with drapery swirling out behind him in cork screw folds. He holds a trident in both hands as if to strike, and he stands astride a seashell with the figure of Triton between his legs, blowing into a conch shell from which real water would gush forth. The marble fountain remained at the villa until 1786 before being purchased by the English art dealer Thomas Jenkins. It belonged briefly to Sir Joshua Reynolds before being sold to Lord Yarborough. It was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum from Yarborough’s descendants in 1950 (inv. no. A.18:1-1950).
As mentioned above, the present bronze is the fifth known cast of a variant composition of the Montalto Neptune. The others are today in the J. Paul Getty Mueum, Los Angeles, The Metropolitan Museum, New York, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Corsini collection (on loan to the Galleria Borghese, Rome). They differ from the marble group in that the figure of Triton has been replaced by a dolphin and the shell on which Neptune stands in the marble has been replaced by a rocky base.
In the entry on the Getty example, Peter Fusco argues convincingly that these bronzes must have been cast from an interim model created as Bernini’s idea for the fountain evolved (Fogelman, Fusco and Camberera, loc. cit.). Bernini’s stature as a sculptor was such that his models were highly unlikely to have been altered by followers. Fusco also argues against the idea that it might have been a later re-working by Bernini himself, pointing out the artist’s love of ‘unsupported masses extending into space’ (ibid., p. 172). Rather, the presence of the dolphin, which is structurally unnecessary in a bronze, makes sense in the context of a marble, where it would be required to support Neptune’s considerable weight. It seems likely then, that Bernini had originally envisaged the dolphin, but substituted the figure of Triton, whose body twists in the opposite direction from Neptune’s and creates a greater sense of drama.
Fusco goes on to theorise that little is known about Roman bronzes of the 17th century, and that the Getty Neptune (and by extension, the others) may have been cast by foundries which were also casting models created by his rival, Alessandro Algardi (1598-1564). This seems to distance the bronzes from their creator unnecessarily. Bernini was not himself a bronze founder and would always have taken his models to a specialist for casting. His roughly contemporary bust of Pope Gregory XV is documented as having been carved in marble but also cast in bronze by Sebastiano Sebastiani (Wittkower, op. cit., p. 180). It seems more likely that this variant composition, which would not have been widely known in its day, was cast at the instigation of its creator. In this way there would be a permanent record of the model which could be distributed or sold to friends and admirers.
With either the dolphin or the figure of Triton, Neptune remains one of Bernini’s most powerful and dramatic creations. His muscular torso leans forward, his brow is furrowed and his hair and cloak are swept back by the wind. It is unclear if he is stirring the seas or calming them but the sense of dynamism is pervasive. It is because of these characteristics, and the way his figures interact with the space around them, that Bernini is considered the most important proponent of the Roman Baroque era.