Restoration of the Bust of Medusa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

As part of the project “FIT for Art and Culture”, the Federazione Italiana Tabaccai & Logista Italia have financed the restoration of the Bust of Medusa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and its 18thcentury base.

The sculpture, a gift of the Marquis Francesco Bichi, Conservator of the first trimester of the year1731, was documented for the first time in the Inventory of the Palazzo dei Conservatori in 1734 in the Sala delle Oche, where it has remained until today.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Busto di Medusa - Appartamento dei Conservatori, Sala delle Oche

The restoration of the Bust of Medusa, which will last four months, will be carried out in an open workshop set up in the nearby Sala di Annibale. Visitors will be able to observe directly the various phases of the restoration.

The phases of the restoration project are the following:

  • Non-destructive investigation: multi-spectral investigations (infra-red and ultraviolet), laser reading of the surfaces, documentation and graphic restitution with optical instruments; photographic documentation
  • Study of the techniques used in creating the sculpture by identifying the marks left by the different instruments used. Study and identification of the surface finishing techniques based on the most up-to date methodologies applied to the restoration of the sculptures of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
  • Restoration of the surfaces, preceded by gradual tests of cleaning aided by the localised application of the multi-spectral investigation.

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Bust of Medusa - Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Naples 1598-Rome 1680)
5th decade of the 17th century
White marble: 50 x 41 x 38 centimetres circa
Small spool-shaped pedestal in portoro marble: height 18 cm, diameter 20 cm
18th century base in coloured marble veneer; from the bottom upwards antique grey, African marble, proconnesus, antique yellow, antique green, Caria red, alpine green;
inscribed on the marble on the left side: the coat-of-arms of the Senate and Roman People;
on the right side: the Bichi coat-of-arms;
inscribed in capital letters on the front side:
“The head of Medusa, in ancient times used as ornamentation on the shields of the Romans to terrorize their enemies, today shines brightly in the Capitol in glory of the renowned sculptor, donated by Marquis Francesco Bichi, Conservator in the month of March in the year of the Lord 1731.”
Provenance: gift of the Marquis Francesco Bichi, Conservator of the first trimester of the year1731; The Bust of Medusa and the base are documented in the Sala delle Oche since 1734, inventory S/1166.

In the Metamorphoses, Ovid narrates that Medusa, the most beautiful and deadly of the Gorgons, had the power to turn to stone anyone who dared gaze into her eyes.
By surprising her in her sleep, Perseus was able to cut off her head while looking at her reflection in the bronze shield given to him by Minerva.
The hero, after having freed Andromeda and defeated Phineus thanks to the still intact petrifying power of Medusa, he gave the head to Minerva who used it to adorn her aegis, and then her shield, as a terrifying weapon to defeat the enemies of reason and knowledge, virtues that she embodied. This very ancient use led to the custom, started in the Renaissance, of decorating battle and parade shields with the Head of Medusa as a weapon to terrorise enemies, but also as a symbol of the virtue and wisdom of whoever held the shield.
Disregarding the depiction of the head of the Medusa proposed by classical sculpture, Renaissance and Mannerism, so skilfully revived in the last decade of the 16th century in Rome by Caravaggio, in the parade shield painted for cardinal Del Monte, later donated to the Grand Duke Fernando de’Medici and by Annibale Carracci in the frescoes painted between 1598 and 1601 in the Galleria of Palazzo Farnese, Bernini sculpted a true bust - portrait of Medusa, alive, caught in a transitory moment of unique “metamorphosis”.
The myth narrated by Ovid, wherein the beautiful blonde hair of Medusa is transformed into horrible serpents by Minerva as a punishment for having had an intercourse with Neptune in the Temple of the female divinities of Faith and Truth, is revisited in a completely original manner in the eyes of the poet Giovan Battista Marino.
In a well-known madrigal taken from La Galeria (1620, I, 272), the poet pretends that it is a wonderful statue of Medusa that is speaking: "(…) Non so se mi scolpì scarpel mortale, / o specchiando me stessa in chiaro vetro / la propria vista mia mi fece tale".
(“I don’t know if a mortal chisel sculpted me /or whether by looking at myself in clear glass/ the very sight of myself made me this way.”)
The classical myth is overturned to exalt the virtue of the unknown sculptor: it isn't the Gorgon who petrifies her enemies with her gaze, but it is Medusa herself, by making the fatal error of looking at her image in a mirror, who seems to have transformed herself into marble.
Considered by the critics as one of the most problematic works of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, it was probably created in the first years of the papacy of Innocent X Pamphilj, between 1644 and 1648, when the artist was sent away from the papal court because he was a favourite of the Barberini and at a time when his fame had been temporarily diminished on account of the professional humiliation caused by the demolition of the bell tower of the basilica of St Peter's (1646).
The Bust of Medusa seems to fall into the category of sculptures carried out “for his study and pleasure” (as was the case of the Truth in 1646 which remained in his study and was left for all posterity to his family in his will), the result of a personal meditation by the artist on the finality of sculpture and the virtues of the sculptor (Lavin, 1996).
In this work, which has no iconographic or iconological precedents in his extremely original interpretation of the myth, the sculptor takes up anew the confrontation of sculpture and poetry already developed in the youth groups for cardinal Scipione Borghese. But after Virgil and Ovid, it is the poetry of Marino that gives him the idea to “autenticar coi fatti il suo valore" (“authenticate his value with facts”) and defeat his enemies and detractors in one of the most critical moments of his career.
Medusa, with a classically beautiful face and delicate features, sees herself in an imaginary mirror and is caught in the moment when she realises the atrocious trick of fate, and before our very eyes, her soft flesh changes colour, the writhing serpents in her hair paralyse and her expression of pain and anguish are forever captured in marble.
It is another proof of Bernini's ability to capture the climax of a transitory action and the contradictory complexity of human emotions in his sculpture.
Although, the Bust of Medusa was also intended by the artist to be a refined Baroque metaphor on the power of sculpture and the value of the sculptor.
As Medusa “dimostra la vittoria, che ha la ragione degli inimici contrarij alle virtù” (“demonstrates the victory of reason over the enemies of virtue”) (Cesare Ripa, Iconologia, 1603,426), Bernini's Medusa leaves his enemies and detractors literally “petrified” in astonishment by using his sharpest weapon: the virtue of his chisel.
The book edited by E. B. Di Gioia, "Il Busto di Medusa di Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Studi e restauri" was published by Campisano Editore at the conclusion of the restoration.