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Discovering An Unknown Bust

December 15, 2016

Portrait of Steven Ostrow.

Portrait of Steven Ostrow.
Photo by Matthew Weber, CLAgency student

Art historian Steven F. Ostrow has spent the last 35 years making frequent trips to Rome to study early-modern Italian visual culture. By carefully analyzing the works of Roman artists, reconstructing history, and collecting other clues throughout his career, he made an important discovery: Ostrow identified the creator of a heretofore unrecognized sculpture—and the sculptor is one of the most notable Roman artists, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Bernini (1598–1680) is often referred to as the "Michelangelo" of the 17th century. He was a painter, sculptor, and architect who also wrote plays and designed ephemeral works such as firework displays. Bernini was an international phenomenon in his time, working for numerous popes as well as kings and queens of England, France, Spain, and Sweden, among others.

Photograph of Bernini bust
Bernini's portrait bust of Frumenti

Ostrow came across his first clue that he had spotted a new Bernini sculpture decades ago while writing his dissertation on the papal chapels in Santa Maria Maggiore, a major church in Rome. High on the side wall of the baptistery, behind an iron gate that keeps visitors from getting close, the artistic style of a bust of a man, Giovanni Angelo Frumenti, caught Ostrow's eye.

Frumenti had been part of the administrative body of the church during the 17th century. Ostrow researched Frumenti's life, attempting to connect the dots to Bernini. He learned that Frumenti was involved in decisions about architecture and decoration at Santa Maria Maggiore, was engaged in commissioning works of art on the church's behalf, and as such became acquainted with many artists. No documentation, however, had been found that definitively links Frumenti to Bernini.

Years later, Ostrow commissioned a photographer to do a professional photo shoot in order to study the bust in close detail. Ostrow carefully examined the photos and became more convinced that he recognized Benini's trademark ability to capture likeness.

Bernini was famed for the way he would create busts with character and emotion, so that the subject's personality seemed to blossom through the artwork. "The portrait of Frumenti is of such high quality that there can be little doubt that it is an autograph work by Bernini," Ostrow says in the July 2016 issue of The Burlington Magazine. "There was no other sculptor active in Rome at the time capable of this kind of invention and carving."

Many of the qualities found in the sculpture point to its having been made ca.1615–17, before Frument's death and around the time that Bernini carved another bust, Giovanni Vigevano—with which, Ostrow notes, it has much in common. Ostrow points to a number of features that are closely related to Bernini's early portraits: the trapezoidal shape of the upper torso, the way that the eyes appear almost introspective, and the carving of the facial hair. He shared his findings with colleagues around the United States and Europe, who all agreed that the sculpture "could only be a Bernini."

"This discovery will change the course of Bernini scholarship for years to come," says Jane Blocker, chair of the Department of Art History. In fact, art historians from around the world have been very interested in this discovery, writing numerous articles about the sculpture's identification and recently inviting Ostrow to give a prestigious lecture on the topic in Pisa, Italy. But that's not the only lecture he will give on the topic. Ostrow taught an undergraduate seminar on Bernini here at the University in fall 2016. This small, intensive class, primarily aimed at juniors and seniors, gave students the opportunity to take an in-depth look at Bernini's artwork and his influence on other artists.

Ostrow is humble about his discovery but says he looks forward to introducing a new generation of art historians to the diverse works of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He enjoys teaching art history because of the insight that the discipline offers into "history, religion, economics, literature, poetry—not to mention visual culture." He adds that "to be visually literate is as important as anything we do. We live in such a visual world, inundated by visual imagery—to be able to interpret it, read it, be critical in your relation to it is, in part, what art history can teach."

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.