From his dramatic design for St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican City to his remarkably lifelike sculptures of popes and European nobility, 17th century artist and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini created a body of work that is widely regarded as a cornerstone of the Baroque era.
Three months ago, there were no major Bernini works in Los Angeles museums. Now there are two: The J. Paul Getty Museum is set to announce Wednesday that it has acquired a Bernini bust of Pope Paul V that has been hidden from public view since the late 19th century.
The Getty’s purchase follows the announcement in March that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art acquired a late-period Bernini bust depicting an unidentified man in honor of its 50th anniversary.
The bust of Pope Paul V stands more than 2 1/2 feet tall. It was created when Bernini was only 23 and is believed to be the artist’s first papal portrait. The Getty said it acquired the piece in a private sale through Sotheby’s.
Sotheby’s in London contacted the museum in March. “It was a surprise. We were immediately interested,” said Timothy Potts, director of the Getty Museum.
The Getty sent curatorial staff members to London to inspect it, and they found it in excellent condition. Potts declined to say how much the Getty paid for the work. “But it was a significant amount,” he said.
In 2002, a terra-cotta figure attributed to Bernini sold at a Sotheby’s auction in London for about for 2.1 million pounds, or about $3.3 million.
The Bernini bust of Pope Paul V was completed in 1621 as a commission from Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a nephew of the papal leader who would become one of the artist’s most important patrons. It belonged for centuries to the family until it was sold at auction in 1893 to a private Viennese collector.
The Getty said that when it was sold, the bust was erroneously attributed to Italian artist Alessandro Algardi, not Bernini. But a study published in 1916 re-attributed the work to Bernini.
For more than 100 years, the bust disappeared from public view, and its ownership during this period remains a mystery.
The most recent owner of the sculpture acquired it in 2014, according to the Getty Museum.
“It’s a real coup for the Getty,” said Tony Sigel, a Bernini expert at the Straus Center for Conservation at Harvard. “I think it’s tremendously exciting when an original work becomes known again after so long.”
An early work by Bernini is especially significant because the young artist didn’t delegate as much work to assistants as he would at an older age, Sigel said.
There are few sculptural works by Bernini in the U.S. Only one other portrait bust by Bernini resides in an American museum: a sculpture of Francesco di Carlo Barberini at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
A non-portrait marble sculpture by Bernini is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, while the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth owns terra-cotta works by the artist.
The Getty’s acquisition is the first sculpture attributed solely to Bernini to enter its permanent collection. The museum has a Bernini sculpture that is attributed to both the artist and his father, Pietro. In addition, the Getty owns drawings created by the younger Bernini.
In 2008, the Getty presented the exhibition “Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture.” The Pope Paul V bust wasn’t part of the exhibition, but it did feature a bronze cast of the bust, which is now in a museum in Copenhagen.
Although it is almost 400 years old, the marble sculpture is in excellent condition, according to Anne-Lise Desmas, head of the Getty’s sculptural and decorative arts department.
“Usually, there will be cracks or other damage in something of this age,” Desmas said. “It’s astonishing that it’s in such good shape.”
The bust was sculpted out of a single piece of marble, including its base, she said.
The Getty’s Bernini is scheduled to go on public view Thursday. LACMA’s sculpture is currently part of its anniversary exhibition and is expected to go on permanent display after that show closes in September.
The Bernini will be displayed at the Getty’s Italian Baroque gallery where there is already a portrait by the Italian artist Guercino of Pope Gregory XV, the pope who succeeded Paul V in 1621.