More to ExploreBorghese-Windsor Cabinet, 1620 to 1821 object information Bust of Pope Paul V, 1621 object information Art + Ideas: Sarah McPhee – Postcard from India 1 related episode
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
ARLEN HEGINBOTHAM: Once you open a drawer, you invariably find hidden drawers. And that was not something that we were aware of at the time that we bought the cabinet.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with the Getty’s Anne-Lise Desmas and Arlen Heginbotham about two works in the collection of the Getty Museum: the Borghese-Windsor Cabinet and a marble bust of Pope Paul V.
A little over a year ago in September 2016, the Getty Museum announced the acquisition of a remarkable work: a cabinet standing almost six feet tall decorated with exquisite stones and bright ornamental gilding. The cabinet was commissioned for the Borghese Pope, Paul V, in about 1620, and was later owed by the 19th century British monarch King George IV.
Prior to going on display in the Getty Museum, the cabinet underwent a period of study and analysis by the museum’s curatorial and conservation teams, led by Anne-Lise Desmas, head of sculpture and decorative arts, and Arlen Heginbotham, decorative arts conservator. The Borghese-Windsor Cabinet, as it is referred to now, is currently on view in our galleries not far from a marble bust of its original owner, Pope Paul V, by the master sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
I met Anne-Lise and Arlen in the galleries where the cabinet and bust are on display to learn about their research and discoveries, and their findings were astonishing.
We’re standing before an extraordinary, sumptuous cabinet, the top part of which was likely made in Rome around 1620, for Pope Paul V, and the bottom half, 200 years later, for King George IV of England. Anne-Lise, we’ll get to its ownership history in a minute, but let’s first describe the cabinet for our listeners. Tell us about its size and its extraordinary array of materials and its appearance.
ANNE-LISE DESMAS: Sure, Jim. So as you said its, you know, composed of two parts, a bottom part from the nineteenth century and an upper part from the early seventeenth century. The upper part looks like the façade of a building, and it has actually three levels. The first level is composed of, if you will, seven bays.
CUNO: Seven bays?
DESMAS: Yeah, seven bays, separated by a total of fourteen columns. And it’s marked in the middle with a very deep niche. This niche is surmounted by a semicircular pediment, which is ornated with the coat of arms of the pope. But you can recognize quite easily, because it has a winged dragon and an eagle; and on top of that, of the escutcheon, you can see the pontifical tiara and the keys of St. Peter.
The second level is a little bit smaller in width and heighth. It also has seven bays with columns. And it is flanked by two little statuettes. And its pediment is triangular. And then at the very top, you have another third level, which is decorated by caryatids, and on top of it you have this sumptuous statuette of a Roman emperor. The total height of this upper part of the cabinet is around seventy inches, and its depth is around fifty inches.
The bottom part is more subtle, although it’s quite intriguing thanks to his mirrored backboard that reflects a total of twenty-four fluted unique columns. They are decorated with gilded elements.
CUNO: Now, you said it was seventy inches high or so—when I’m standing next to it, it’s one and a half times my height, it seems, in appearance. The top part, the part that was made for Pope Paul V, is different in style than the lower part, which was made for the Windsor king. What would the top part have originally been put upon? Would it have been on a simpler base at the bottom? ’Cause I assume that it was not just standing on its own on the floor, but rather it was about this height on something else.
DESMAS: Indeed, you’re right. It may have been put on top of a table with a marble top and with a base decorated in gilded wood, I assume. And these kind of tables, you would have found them very commonly in the interiors of Roman palaces.
CUNO: Arlen, if you could tell us something about those materials, and then something about the trade that might have been involved in getting those materials from wherever they were found originally to Rome for the manufacture of this cabinet.
HEGINBOTHAM: Yeah, this cabinet is really a feast of sumptuous materials. And it ranges from, of course, exotic stones to exotic woods to ivory and to precious metals. The stones, which are really the highlight of the cabinet, come from different locations all around the world. Lapis lazuli, which is a dominant stone in the cabinet, probably traveled the furthest, coming from Afghanistan.
CUNO: And that’s the dark blue that we see almost everywhere.
HEGINBOTHAM: That’s right.
HEGINBOTHAM: Mottled, mottled blue. The agates also feature very prominently. They’re these banded and striped stones. Those probably came from Germany and were prepared as flattened and polished sections in Germany, and then shipped to Rome where they were cut and assembled.
Some of the alabasters probably came from Egypt. We think that some of the green bloodstone came from India. So really, these things were traveling from all over the world, being brought together to have their presence here in this cabinet.
CUNO: And then they’re cut very thinly, to be applied on the surface of the cabinet itself, and that the cabinet—I don’t want to give our listeners the impression is made of stones. This is actually applied to the surface, is that’s right?
HEGINBOTHAM: That’s right. And they’re all flat and polished and level on the surface, and assembled into rich geometric patterns. One of the things that’s pretty interesting about the stones is that some of them are opaque, but some of them are quite transparent. And the fabricators of the cabinet, the cabinetmakers and stoneworkers, used that to advantage. And behind the transparent stones, they used a whole variety of different colored transparent resins and metal foils—silver, brass, gold foils—behind the stones, that you can see reflect light back through the stone and add color to them.
CUNO: Now, this cabinet was made around 1620. Anne-Lise, can you tell us something about the history of such cabinets and the fascination with the sumptuous materials, what we call pietra dure, the hard stones. Is this something that one would’ve found in the sixteenth century or is this more a Baroque taste of the seventeenth century?
DESMAS: Well, I think it comes from a long tradition. You know, also during the Roman period, you would have had the fantastic decorations in—
CUNO: [over Desmas] Classical Rome?
DESMAS: Yes, in Classical Rome. And then also during the Medieval times, you had fantastic floors in the basilicas using very colorful stones. So it comes from a very long tradition. And in Rome, we have also the example of another major cabinet made for another pope, Sixtus V, which dates from thirty years earlier than this one.
So yes, already in the sixteenth century, you would have found these kind of objects. And let’s not forget also a very important table, the Farnese Table, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So this use of hard stones was not only for cabinets, but also for fantastic table tops.
CUNO: Then how common were these things? I mean, I call it a cabinet. Might give our listeners the impression that it is something into which one puts things, like a dresser drawer might be a cabinet. Did every aristocrat in the seventeenth century have such a cabinet like this? Or would it only be the pope and the princes and the royals?
DESMAS: So let’s say that no, it wasn’t common for a piece of this size. We have only very few that were documented and are actually preserved. So this is really exceptional for its size and for the richness of all these stones. But you would have found quite commonly in Rome and also in Florence, because Florence had actually a manufacturer with artists [who] specialized in these kind of objects. You know, the Opificio delle pietre dure, that was created by the Medici family. But in Rome, you would have found quite commonly in the interior of palaces, such cabinets, but smaller in size. So let’s say of the size of a jewel box, if you want. And you will have found also similar objects for little altars that would have been used in a private manner by very important families for their private chapels. So let’s say that it’s common to have pietra dure ornaments on smaller objects, but with the size and with the multitude of all these stones for this cabinet, it’s really exceptional.
CUNO: So what was its purpose? I mean, was its purpose to actually hold things, like we would have in a cabinet today? Or was it to show off the style and taste of the owner? Was it to show off the richness of the owner, the owner who could afford to commission such an object like this?
DESMAS: I think its purpose was more to show off the richness of who was the owner of such objects; also to show off the extremely well-mastered skills of important craftsmen. And possibly, it could have been used to hold documents, to hold medals. But we should ask this question to Arlen, actually, since he’s been looking very accurately at all the drawers. Do we see signs of usage of this cabinet?
HEGINBOTHAM: The cabinet was very surprising to us. First of all, if you look at the cabinet, there are no drawer handles anywhere. So in a sense, all of the drawers are hidden. Some of them, when we opened them, appeared to not have been opened for many hundreds of years. The dust in them was very thick. And I think they had been essentially forgotten. The major—
CUNO: Can I ask how you found the drawers? As it is impossible to see them as drawers. Did you push and pull on every bit of the surface of the cabinet to make certain that you discovered every drawer that is possibly there?
HEGINBOTHAM: Yes, that’s right. That’s exactly what we did. And interestingly, I think we found that a lot of the damage to the cabinet, the very small damages and loose moldings and things that we discovered, are associated with people trying to get into it, with no handles, pushing and pulling on the moldings and breaking them loose. But once you open a drawer, you invariably, behind that drawer, find hidden drawers. And that was not something that we were aware of at the time that we bought the cabinet.
There are about twenty-five drawers that are visible. And behind them, another fifty hidden drawers. And the drawers on the interior, some of them are decorated and ornamented, some of them are very plain and simple poplar drawers. And there’s very, very little evidence of them ever having been used.
CUNO: Alright. So is it part of the aesthetics of an object like this, the ingenuity of making such drawers, drawers within drawers within drawers within drawers?
HEGINBOTHAM: I think it’s the surprise and the delight that a viewer would get from having someone open the drawers for you and show you the hidden compartments and things. I think that must have been a big element of the purpose of the cabinet.
CUNO: Now, Anne-Lise, I notice that the decorative materials, the fine materials, are limited mainly, possibly only, to the façade of the cabinet, and that the sides are just much simpler. Why are the sides simpler? Does that give us any indication of how this was meant to be seen in a room in a particular set of circumstances? Or is it just to show off the façade of the cabinet?
DESMAS: I think it’s to show off the façade. Do not forget that anyway, all these materials were quite expensive. So, you know, you tend to put them on the part of a cabinet that you see most. Most likely, this piece of furniture, which is quite big, would have been shown in one of the major rooms of a palace in room, so possibly the biggest salon, salon grande, or the gallery, in which you would’ve seen it from the front, I would say.
But I want to insist that the sides of the cabinet are very interesting, and they create a kind of contrast between the very colorful façade and another kind of colorful sides. And it’s thanks to the work of Arlen, in terms of cleaning and restoring the piece, that we got back all this kind of very subtle colors of the wood on the sides. Perhaps, Arlen, you can tell us more.
HEGINBOTHAM: Yeah, the sides are not about stone, obviously, but they are about wood. And there are five different woods, including ebony, rosewood, probably purple heart, and a couple of woods that we haven’t identified yet.
So this wood that features in the center of the side cabinet, one that’s wild and exaggerated grain and knots and rich color is one that we still haven’t identified. And in fact, right now, a whole team of wood anatomists from all over the world are working with photographs that we took here under the microscope, to help us try and identify this wood.
CUNO: To identify it, do they just look for likenesses between one known piece of wood and this piece of wood, or do they actually take a sample from the wood?
HEGINBOTHAM: We took a sample, a very small sample, and made microscopically thin slices of it, and look at the cell structure of the wood and identify it based on that. This one does not match any of the about 10,000 varieties of woods that are in some of the standard databases. Which is all to say it’s a very interesting wood. It’s a very unusual wood. It’s something that I think would have been highly prized.
CUNO: This kind of fiery pattern of the woodgrain [Heginbotham: Yeah] that looks like as if it might be aflame or something.
HEGINBOTHAM: [over Cuno] Yeah, exactly. It’s really something special. And you can see little traces of white wood, or the sapwood, which is the exterior part of the tree, which tells us that this tree was really a very small tree. It wasn’t a huge tropical timber, but it was something that was selected very carefully from small, very old trees, for its special qualities.
CUNO: [over Heginbotham] Is there any evidence that the wood has come from as far away as [the] stone? I mean, in other words, is that
HEGINBOTHAM: [over Cuno] It certainly has come from far away. Our guess right now is that it’s probably from Central America or the Caribbean.
CUNO: Well, Anne-Lise, tell us about the iconography of the cabinet. You’ve described it so far, both its fine materials, both wood, metals, and stone. But as you said earlier, there are sculptures on the façade, and it’s capped at the very top by what appears to be a generic Roman emperor. Is there something meaningful about the iconography? And could you describe in more detail some of the figures that we see on the surface?
DESMAS: Sure. Well, it’s a little bit difficult to interpret the overall program of the decoration, because of some missing elements. Most of the attributes, but for sure, the little statuettes would have had in their hands, are missing. So it’s a little bit difficult to understand which virtues, for instance, they would have represented. They are all nearly female virtues, actually, for the statuettes, except for the caryatids on the third level that are half male and half female. For the upper statuette of a Roman emperor—well, we could say that in a way, he represents the power on earth, while of course, the power of the pope would have been more of a spiritual order. So there is a kind of link, of course, that popes always wanted to make also with Classical antiquity. Classical antiquity was, even for popes, a model to follow.
CUNO: Yeah. Do we know where this cabinet was in Pope Paul V’s quarters? Was it in the Borghese Villa? Was it Borghese Palazzo Borghese? Was it in the Vatican? Do we have any idea where it was?
DESMAS: So to answer this question we face exactly the same problem as who worked on this piece of furniture. Paintings or statues would have been very precisely described in inventories, usually, while pieces of furniture, less. So you would find only the information of “a pietre dure cabinet.” But it doesn’t tell you if it’s this one or another one. So I’ve looked, of course, into inventories of the Borghese Palace and of the Borghese Villa, and I wasn’t able to say for sure this cabinet mentioned in the archive is the one we have. But I will keep looking for it.
CUNO: Yeah. So it’s placed in the galleries just opposite the door from which one enters the gallery, so one is drawn to it because of its great sumptuous beauty. But it also, with the gilded silver sculptures on it, it picks up a lot of the gold that bounces around off different objects in the room. Would it have been seen in either the villa or the palazzo in daylight? Would it have been candlelight? Because if it had candles in front of it, the sumptuous stone would’ve just flickered and come alive, almost like ablazed with flames. Do you have any idea how it was seen and lit?
DESMAS: During the day, I think it would have been seen in daylight. You know, in a very important gallery or a very big, large room. And for sure, during the night, you know, at the occasion of important dinners, of course, this would have been the occasion to light the cabinet with candles and to highlight some of the details of the stones and to even show more the translucent aspect of some of the stones, as Arlen has said before.
And then it would have been surrounded by many, I would assume, antique sculptures, Classical busts on top of pedestals, but also tapestries on the wall, very important marble tabletop pieces of furniture. So a lot of artworks, of course, including also paintings, I would say.
CUNO: Do we have any idea who might have made the cabinet? Were there famous cabinetmakers of the time? Would they have left their mark somewhere on the cabinet?
DESMAS: So unfortunately, no, we don’t have any kind of signature or marks for this cabinet. We know about artists and craftsmen working for these kind of objects in the seventeenth century Italy. But unfortunately, it’s always very difficult to connect the names that we can see, for instance, in the accountability of very important aristocratic families. So to connect these names with the actual objects are always really a challenge. And you need to also take into consideration that such a piece wouldn’t have been made by a single artist. It was really a team of very different specialists. So perhaps an architect would have been responsible for the design of the façade. A joiner would have made the casework. A cabinetmaker would have worked on the veneer and the moldings, while of course, you would have needed stonecutters for all the little elements in hard stones. You would also need a metalworker for all gilded ornaments of the columns, while most likely, you would have also required a sculptor for the realization of statuettes, and with the help of a silversmith.
CUNO: Well, tell us about Pope Paul V, then, the man for whom the cabinet was made. I know that he was born into a noble family in 1550 and that his family was at its height during his reign as pope. And that his portrait was painted by Caravaggio. And that his nephew, the great Cardinal Scipione Borghese, was an extraordinary collector, that he commissioned sculptures by Bernini, for example—we’ll see one soon—and he acquired a number of paintings by Raphael, Caravaggio, so many others. Was Pope Paul V a collector like his nephew, the cardinal. I mean, did he care about the cabinet as a collector might care about it, or was it just a sign of his wealth and power?
DESMAS: So Paul V was not a collector like his cardinal, but he was a very important patron of the arts. He’s the pope responsible for the completion of the façade of the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome by the architect Carlo Maderno. He did, also, a lot in bringing water to the city, in restoring many Roman aqueducts. And he’s also responsible for the building of an important chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore for him and for his predecessor. But he cared a lot about art, and you can see that very easily in the archives of the moment in which he’s elected pope. He officially gives many important artworks to his nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese. And if he doesn’t collect himself, he encourages his nephew to collect. He supports fully the building of Palazzo Borghese and also the construction of Villa Borghese, and he helps his nephew to acquire major antiquity collections from different families.
CUNO: Is there the possibility that it was his nephew who commissioned this for the pope, his uncle?
DESMAS: This is possible, I’m still investigating about this. I’ve been researching into the Borghese archive, which is kept in the Vatican archive. And you have the evidence of many smaller cabinets given by the pope to the cardinal nephew, and also the gift of a very big cabinet, which is not described, so I can’t tell you [if] this is the one. But very important I am able to say that, thanks to the amount of money that is mentioned in that document. So I would not imagine the Cardinal Scipione Borghese having a piece of furniture made for his uncle.
He will instead have a marble bust done featuring his uncle. So it’s most likely either a commission from the pope or a very important cabinet that perhaps the pope bought from another aristocrat family.
CUNO: So we have a good sense of the appearance of the cabinet. We have a good sense of its materials and from where they’ve come. And we have a sense of the owner of the cabinet, Pope Paul V, and of his extraordinary collector nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese. We have a sense, too, of the ownership history of the cabinet, that it was in the Borghese family for some 215 years, when it was sold to an English art dealer, who then sold it on to the English King George IV in 1827. Do we have any sense of why the Borgheses sold it and why George IV might’ve bought it? And did he buy it for Windsor Castle?
DESMAS: So we don’t know precisely when the Borghese family sold it. Perhaps this happened at the moment of the French Revolution. This is possible. Thanks to a very accurate description of the 1821 auction catalogue, we know that already in 1821, the piece was in London, and already on top of its base.
CUNO: On top of the base.
DESMAS: Yeah. So this is a new piece of information, because actually, we always thought that the base had been made for George IV, King of England, after he acquired the piece. But the base is actually already described in 1821, when this piece of furniture was put at auction, as belonging to a very important collection, unfortunately, still anonymous. So I’ll try to do some research into the archives of Christie’s, because they have these files.
CUNO: [over Desmas] So there may have been an owner between Borghese and the Windsor king.
DESMAS: Exactly. So we can imagine now that there may have been, indeed, a very important collector who may have bought the piece just after the French Revolution, owned it, and then in 1821, his collection is put at auction. But unfortunately, anonymously. And then the piece was most likely bought by [Edwards Holmes] Baldock, who was a very important dealer in London, who sold many pieces to the king, and then acquired by George IV. I can’t tell you precisely for which purpose. George IV was an incredible collector. He bought many, many, many things. And I’m not sure he had in his mind a precise location for the things he would buy. So the piece, as I recall, was first shown in Windsor. But then one year after its acquisition, it was sent back to in London in a storeroom where it may have been restored. And we know that in the following years it was displayed in the green drawing room in Buckingham Palace, because we have actually the cabinet being represented in a watercolor by the artist Douglas Morrison, which is dated in 1843. And most likely, the cabinet stayed in that green drawing room for quite a while, and we still see it in photographs in a book published in 1931.
And then it was moved to Marlborough House, which is a residence that used Queen Mary. And strangely enough, when the queen died and they decided to sell the belongings that were her property, the queen actually also decided to sell this cabinet, which was not the property of Queen Mary, but the property of the British Crown.
CUNO: Well, Arlen, why don’t you describe for us the George IV part of the cabinet, or the base that cabinet now sits on, which was a base dating from the early part of the nineteenth century. And describe what you’ve found in the analysis of it.
HEGINBOTHAM: The base is also made with some very fabulous materials, particularly ebony. The wood is entirely black. Certainly, the veneers on the top are ebony. Most importantly, the columns are all ebony, and they are not ebony veneered onto a core of a less expensive wood, as would be the normal practice. These are all twenty-four solid ebony columns, which is a very conspicuous use of expensive and extravagant materials. Interestingly, then, the gilded bronzes appear to be gilded bronzes, and they go well visually with the gilded bronze of the cabinet. But they are brasses that have been lacquered to look like gold. When it went into the royal collection, it was sent in for restoration. And we have pretty good records of that and what they did. And one of the things that they did was that they relacquered all of the brasses on the base. Which tells us that by that point, there was already some wear and deterioration of the bronzes on the base. The mirrors are the original mirrors. They’ve never been replaced. They’re—have a slightly greenish tone and show some evidence of age.
CUNO: [over Heginbotham] And we should describe the effect of the mirror, what it does for the cabinet itself. It’s at the floor level so it’s not something that you would look and see yourself in, except perhaps the tips of your toes. But it has an effect of increasing the depth of the base by 100%. That is, it doubles the depth of the base.
HEGINBOTHAM: Right. So instead of the twenty-four columns that you see in front of the wall, you get the effect of forty-eight columns disappearing back in behind the cabinet, and it’s quite dramatic.
CUNO: So the cabinet is sold by the Borghese family. There’s an intermediary collector, perhaps, and a dealer; it enters into the royal family in England. And the royal family sells it to a French collector, Robert de Balkany. Tell us—this is in 1959, so about 130 years after the royal family acquired it from the papal family. Tell us about Robert de Balkany and what kind of collector he was.
DESMAS: So Robert de Balkany is a quite interesting figure. He’s very often surnamed as “the king of shopping malls,” [Cuno chuckles] because he quite early on, decided to study architecture. And he studied architecture in the United States, at the Yale University. And really early on, followed the career that his father had as a real estate developer. But he was, in a way, inspired by all the shopping malls he would see in the United States, and he would import that in Europe, and precisely in France, and also a little bit in Italy in the late sixties.
But besides that, he was a very important collector, very much interested into clocks, into silver, into artworks with very precious materials. And so he had, you know, a couple of actually, pietra dure cabinets, this one, and the baroque one. But he had also nineteenth century pietra dure cabinets.
And he had this fantastic residence in the heart of Paris, Rue de Varenne, not far away from the Rodin Museum, a fantastic hȏtel particulier called Hȏtel de Feuquières, truly filled with artworks. I had the privilege to see, actually, the collection when all the pieces were still in the hȏtel particulier, before being shipped to Sotheby’s for the sale. And it was really fully filled. I mean, you couldn’t find one empty spot in each of the galleries
CUNO: Alright, we buy it in September of 2016. It comes to the Getty. Arlen, you and your colleagues spend a good deal of time with Anne-Lise analyzing it, not only for what one can learn about its manufacture but for its condition. What did you discover in your analysis of it?
HEGINBOTHAM: We have fairly good documentation, compared to what we usually have, about the restorations that have been carried out on the cabinet, particularly in the early nineteenth century. The royal collection kept very good notes about restoration work that was done. And in addition to that, we found some physical evidence of the restoration because in many of the hidden drawers, we found inscriptions in pencil, by the restorers who worked on it in the early nineteenth century, saying, you know, “My name is Joel Wood. I worked on this cabinet in 1821.” And so we see that there was a—probably two campaigns of restoration, in the 1820s and another one in the 1850s. And we found, actually in French, highlighted on the very of the cabinet, you could see where somebody had written on paper, and that the marks have pushed through into the wood and left and impression in French, about a restoration that had been done, and replacements of some of the small moldings.
CUNO: Well, it looks to be in spectacular condition. I know that you had to do some conservation work to solidify some of the pieces, and you used 3-D printing in one place or two places to actually reproduce small bits of elements, such as to complete the decoration. Could you describe the process that you had to undertake in its conservation?
HEGINBOTHAM: Yeah. We worked on this cabinet, a team of about eight conservators, for about four months, every day, very intensively. And really, the major thing that we did was to remove old restoration varnishes. So I think in the nineteenth century, this was interpreted as an ebony cabinet, and with the assumption that all of the wood should be black. And so dark, black-toned varnishes were applied to all of the wood. And we have at least two, and in some areas, three layers of varnishes. And those, in fact, over time, had the effect of really obscuring all of the beautiful silver inlay that’s in the wood, and made it almost invisible.
It also obscured the incredibly fine detail in the moldings. They are sharp and crisp and delicate, in a way that when you apply several layers of varnishes, you completely lose the effect. So that was a very long, painstaking process to remove the varnish from all of those areas, and the polish all of the silver stringing and silver inlay, which really highlights those moldings.
Some of the moldings were missing. And as you said, we used 3D printing. We scanned existing moldings. They’re very delicate and very fine, as I said, with silver inlay. Those could have been replicated in ebony. That makes it difficult always to keep track of which is the original and which the restoration. So we chose to go with a 3D printing. The essential form was produced in a plastic on a 3D printer, and then that was sanded and varnished and silver inlaid to give it the same appearance as the old ones. Under an ultraviolet light, it’s immediately apparent which ones are original and which ones are not, and that’s one of the benefits to us of using that technique.
CUNO: So we should make clear to our listeners that there are very few pieces that had to be printed in that fashion and attached to the cabinet. The cabinet came to us in extraordinarily good shape, for something that is 400 years old. Anne-Lise, what difference does this make for the collection of the Getty and its decorative arts?
DESMAS: I truly think it’s a critical acquisition, because we are, let’s say, very strong in French decorative arts, with major artworks in furniture by French cabinetmakers. But the collection truly lacked a major equivalent piece for the Italian part of the collection, and this astonishing cabinet really fills a gap in the Getty collection.
CUNO: So we have a cabinet that was commissioned by or built for a pope, sold to a king, sold to a shopping mall magnate, and now it’s in the Getty Museum, built with the largesse of an oil magnate. We’ve come a long way from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first century. So not far from this gallery is a sculpture by Bernini, commissioned by the Cardinal Scipione Borghese, for his uncle, Pope Paul V, the man for whom the cabinet itself was made. Let’s go take a look at that sculpture.
Okay, so we’ve arrived in front of a bust of Pope Paul V, carved by the young Gian Lorenzo Bernini, commissioned by the pope’s nephew, the Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Anne-Lise, tell us about this sculpture and about why it might have been commissioned after the death of the pope.
DESMAS: Well, that’s a very interesting question, because actually, we don’t know. It’s a mystery for all the Bernini experts why on earth Cardinal Scipione Borghese or the pope never commissioned during the year of a pontificate, of a pope, the portrait of Paul V. Because indeed, as you’ve just said, the pope actually in January of 1621, and the first documents we have about this bust date from six months later, in June. So why? Because, as you know, the Borghese family were truly critical in the early years of the career of Bernini. So while they were commissioning important statues, why didn’t they commission a bust? We don’t know.
CUNO: Yeah. So we know that the cardinal commissioned this bust of Pope Paul V. We know that he then commissioned from Bernini, at some point afterwards, his own bust. So the two busts would have been seen in proximity to each other, as if to say the great partnership between the cardinal and the pope, with regard to the collecting of art and the building of a great art collection in the family?
DESMAS: Yes, indeed. So we don’t know exactly what position was in the mind of the cardinal when he commissioned this bust. As you can see, you know, the gaze of the pope looks a little bit downward. So was it meant to be in a niche, a little bit at a higher position? Perhaps. But what we know, thanks to descriptions of Villa Borghese, as soon as the middle of the seventeenth century, in the year 1650, we already have a description saying that this bust and the bust of the Cardinal Scipione Borghese, done later, actually, in the early 1630s, they were displayed on the top of very beautiful tables, with a top in porphyry, facing one each other, in the most important gallery of Villa Borghese. And at least until the end of the nineteenth century, they were kept in that gallery.
CUNO: As if to celebrate artistic taste and power of the family?
DESMAS: For sure, because Pope Paul V has been really a very important pope for Rome. And of course, he has been critical in the career of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, because when you are cardinal and your uncle is elected pope, of course, you become the cardinal nephew, and you truly have a lot of power. And the Borghese family was also very rich, so sure, the Borghese family was the most important family at the beginning of the seventeenth century in Rome.
CUNO: And tell us how important the family was for Bernini and his career.
DESMAS: This family was truly important, because early on, the Borghese, both pope and cardinal, understood the skills of this very exceptional sculptor, and also architect and also painter. And they had already seen the skills of the father of Gian Lorenzo, Pietro Bernini, who worked in very important basilicas, such as Santa Maria Maggiore.
And early on, of course, at the moment in which they built the villa Borghese, on the Hill of Pincio, they want some fantastic statues by Bernini to accompany a varied collection of antiquities. So—
CUNO: [over Desmas] antique sculptures?
DESMAS: Antique sculptures, yes. So it’s thanks to the Borghese that Bernini could realize these fantastic statues and groups that we know of, Apollo and Daphne, The Rape of Proserpina, the David, all these fantastic marbles that everyone knows, after you’ve visited Villa Borghese in Rome, because they are truly astonishing.
CUNO: And what is the date of those sculptures, and how does that date differ from the date of this bust?
DESMAS: So some of them are a little bit earlier, other are contemporary, and others are later. But actually, for this bust, the payment to Bernini for this marble portrait is exactly done at the moment in which Bernini is carving the group of The Rape of Prosperpina.
CUNO: Alright. Well, describe the bust to us, because it is an intricate carving of a papal vestment, that is, the vestment that is draped over the shoulders of the pope himself. And then out from his garment comes his great head. And that head is carved differently than the garments, and is so alive in appearance, both in the expression of the mouth and in the eyes. The eyes which stare, as you say, slightly downward at us and out in a distance.
DESMAS: Indeed. So you’re in front of quite an austere figure, I would say, of a pope looking at you quite, you know, severely. And what is also astonishing is that it’s done out of one single piece of marble. And very often, at least at the beginning of his career, Bernini would not use a different marble block for the circle of the figure. It’s one single piece. And everything is accurate from the molding of the bottom part, the socle, to all of the details on the vestments and to also all the physiognomy of the pope.
He wears vestments that are actually quite traditional in the representation of popes that comes from the sixteenth century. And as you said, he wears his very heavy coat, which was in a very thick material. Hence this kind of very static impression that you have when you face the bust. But you can already understand that Bernini wants, actually, the viewer to feel that there is a true body underneath these vestments. And of course, Bernini, later in his career, would develop that further with more dynamism, in the fold of draperies. So this vestment was traditionally ornated on the borders by figures of the principles of the apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul. You can recognize St. Peter, because he holds the keys.
And on the other part, you can recognized St. Paul, because he holds the sword that was used for his martyrdom—he was beheaded. And these two saints are, of course, the most important saints in the city of Rome. Every year in June, they are celebrated, and the day is a holiday, actually. And they’re also the saints of the Basilica of St. Peter’s.
CUNO: And the cape is drawn together, across his chest, and there is a brooch, to join the two and holds the two parts of the cape together. And the style of the brooch is quite like the decoration on the cabinet that we saw downstairs.
DESMAS: Exactly. Very rich. And we can imagine that the centerpiece would have been, for instance, in crystal, and the rest of it in silver or gilded metal. And what is astonishing in this portrait is that each piece is an artwork in itself. So you have this kind of decorative art element in the center, through this brooch. The two figures I described before are, in themselves, artworks, masterpieces featuring figures in very low relief. But although they are carved in very low relief, look at how they move in the space. They really give you a sense of a very elegant posture of these figures emerging at the surface of the garment.
Then you have other very elegant decorative elements, with all the other vestments that the pope wear[s], with this skirt that he has underneath, with all this lace element around the neck. But perhaps what is most astonishing is the treatment to feature the face of a pope.
CUNO: Yeah, we should have you describe the difference between the texture of the costume of the pope and the texture of his beard and his skin. It’s very clearly meant to be—to indicate a difference between texture of cloth and texture of skin, to give a sense of the real person that is there, the body that is forming the heart of the bust.
DESMAS: Yes, and in this, we have really a full demonstration of all of the astonishing skills that Bernini had while he was, you know, still very young, at the moment in which he carved this bust. So indeed, while on the bust itself—the body, I mean—you can have a representation a little bit of, you know, soft velvet in the back. All these fantastic garments may have been, you know, originally for the vestments in embroidery or with silver or gilt threads. And of course, instead, for the head, we have a fantastic representation of the flesh, of skin, with of course, wrinkles at the end of the eyes, and all fantastic differentiation of all the type of hair you can have on the face. You have the hair of a very short beard on the cheeks, while you have longer hair under the chin. And we have also very delicate moustache that gives quite a strange expression of this mouth that is half smiling, half thinking, let’s say. Which is also enhanced by the gaze of the eyes that are very accurately carved. Look at how the pupil is actually, you know, singled out with a very deep depression around the iris.
What I also find astonishing is the way in which you have the representation of a forehead with this very strong, you know, mark of bones above the eyebrows that I think, you know, helps giving a very concentrated expression of a face.
CUNO: It certainly shows the power of the man.
DESMAS: Indeed, it does.
CUNO: Yeah, a big, strong, forceful figure. Now, we know that the bust was in the Villa Borghese, as you’ve described it, until about 1893. When it was in the villa, we think it was displayed with the bust of the Cardinal Borghese. Where is the bust of the Cardinal Borghese today?
DESMAS: So the bust of Cardinal Borghese is still in Villa Borghese today, and everyone admires it.
CUNO: Why would one remain in the Villa Borghese, and why would this bust be sold by the family and put on the market and then we would buy it?
DESMAS: This is due to a complex situation for the Borghese family in the nineteenth century. The Borghese family truly had financial issues in the nineteenth century, and they decided to sell most of their art pieces, but also most of their properties. So actually, Villa Borghese was bought by the Italian state from the Borghese family. They organized major auctions around the years 1890s. And in one of these sales was this bust. But at the time, was actually attributed to another important Baroque artist, Alessandro Algardi. So the authorship of Bernini, at the time, was lost.
So many artworks like that were dispersed. So it’s the reason why one is now in the Getty Museum, another one can be in Paris or in Copenhagen or—and others were kept within the Villa that was bought then by the Italian state.
CUNO: Well, it’s a great, I want to call it coincidence, that we have the bust in the same museum as we have the cabinet, both from the same family and both attached to the same pope. I want to say coincidence because, of course, it wasn’t a coincidence. Maybe a coincidence they came onto the marketplace, but it takes a sure eye of a curator like yours to see them and to pursue them, and a director like Tim Potts to acquire them. So we’re grateful to you and to Tim for bringing the bust and the cabinet together. So thank you. And thank you, and thank you Arlen, for giving us your time this morning.
DESMAS: Thank you.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
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