Monday, January 20, 2014

Answer: What's up with her fingers?

Sorry about the delay in answering.  Friday sometimes turns out to be too busy!  

I brought up this Search Challenge about the "webbing" between the fingers because it's the kind of question that students often ask.  "Why is <this thing> like <that>??"  It's a natural kind of curiosity, because, as you've seen, any sculptor of Bernini's talent wouldn't have just left the webbing there by accident.  Or... would he? 

As everyone figured out (most simply by doing image search), this is Bernini's "La Verità"(in Italian) or "Truth Unveiled by Time."  It was  begun in 1645, after the death of Pope Urban VIII.  This woman was supposed to be the personification of Truth, part of a larger statue that would have included a personification of Time (probably an old man) who would have been lifting off the veil (which is why that drapery is going so far up into the sky--Time is supposed to be holding it up). 

The sculpture was made when Bernini was going through a tough time at the papal court.  There was a little incident of another one of his bell tower apparently causing structural problems at St. Peter's Basilica.  (Never really proven, but it didn't make his life any easier. They tore his work down, worried that if it fell, it would take large pieces of the Basilica with it.)  

A slightly different view showing the webbing between fingers, thumb and body, and between rays of the sun's disk.

The consequence is that the statue is apparently unfinished.  It was a turbulent time, and for whatever reason, completing this work never made the top of his to-do list.  

For me, the question was "what about that webbing in-between her fingers?

I did a bunch of obvious searches that didn't get me very far.  

     [ Bernini statue webbing fingers ] 

In short, the use of the word "webbing" just wasn't getting me anywhere.  Given the number of art history books, journals, and articles out there, I couldn't believe that I was the first person to notice this.  I knew there had to be an explanation out there:  I just needed to figure out what the art historians would call this.  

To find the right term, I decided to NOT focus on Bernini, but try to figure out what the word (or phrase)  for "the stone left between fingers by the sculptor."  I was thinking it might be an Italian term that I just didn't know, so by asking a more general question I was hoping to figure out the term.  

My next query was: 

     [ sculpture stone between fingers ] 

And there, in the 3rd position was the "Bernini Struts" article by Michael Cole.   In this search, I got really lucky.  Not only did I learn that the word I was looking for is struts, but the article is explicitly about struts by Bernini!  

Cole writes a bit about the process of sculpting: 
"After drilling through the stone, the sculptor would then hollow out the area with a rasping file (raspa) or small chisel (scalpello), leaving a series of struts or bridges in place to brace the stone while he worked. Only when the hand was finished would these struts be cut away. The fact that many sculptures survive with such struts still intact indicates that their removal was among the last things the sculptor would do on the work, presumably in the interest of keeping the figure’s most fragile parts protected, even while other areas of the statue were being carved. It also suggests that sculptors who had once planned for hands arranged in dramatic poses sometimes lost their nerve, deciding that a seemingly ‘‘non-finito’’ statue was preferable to one with replaced or added fingers, arms, or legs."

Here we learn another technical term, "non-finito" (unfinished), and it certainly explains why struts are used in sculpture.  

But at the end of this article, Cole argues that: 
In these cases, though, the works ... [ including "Truth"]... simply look unfinished. What are we to make of this? It is possible that, after a certain point, the sculptor’s studio no longer commanded the talent to turn out the mesmerizingly virtuoso pieces of Bernini’s youth. ...  Equally likely, though, is that Bernini simply lost interest in blinding his viewers with skill as he had as a youth.

It's possible, I suppose.  

But now that I knew the technical term (struts) I was able to do better searches.  

A search like: 

     [ Bernini struts "Veritas" ] 

now gives me lots of hits, and lots of opinions about what the struts are all about.  

But we've more or less answered the question.  

What's up with the webbing?  

Answer:  It's not webbing, these things are called "struts" and are either: 

 (a) interstitial material left in place to protect the fragile parts of of the statue (typically, delicate parts like fingers, leaves, or thin vines), 


(b) material that's left in place as a commentary on the material (marble) that's being used, and is intentionally there as a kind of reminder that yes, this is stone, not god-like flesh.  

Personally, given the fit and finish of Bernini's work (both before and after "La Veritas"), I find the second explanation a bit hard to swallow.  I suspect that the work just wasn't done yet, and he wanted to leave some structural support in place until he could finish the figure of Time and get it into place.  

Search lesson:  Big lesson #1:  Finding the right term to describe what you're looking for can sometimes open up everything you want to find.  In this case, learning the word "struts" changed everything.  Basically, every search after that point became fairly targeted and worthwhile.  

The problem is (as we've seen before) that some terms are the key to search in a domain, especially a domain with which you're not intimately familiar.  Typically, those domains are things like medicine, finance, or other highly technical realms.  But sculpture is another one of those domains.  The word "struts" makes perfect sense, but it never would have occurred to me to use it in this context.  

This is a great example of the basic search skill "discovering the key term"  for your domain-specific search.  

A "key term" is the word(s) that lets you have very targeted searches within a topic domain.  These key terms are most easily discovered by reading around in the hits you DO get with your early searches.  Hint:  As you read, be sensitive to the use of words that you don't recognize, or words you do recognize that are being used in interesting and non-standard ways.  

As I said, I got lucky with this search, finding the word "struts" in the Cole article about Bernini.  But even if that article hadn't been about Bernini, learning the key term "struts" would have let me find other articles that would solve the puzzle.  

Postscript:  First off, I have to say that letting the Challenge run for an extra day is a GREAT idea.  The quality of the conversation in the comments is even better than before (when, I assume, people were rushed).  And so many interesting things pop up!   I need to comment on a few of them here.  

The Benini sketch of the planned statue:  This was in a site that many people found ( that collects a good deal of info about Bernini and his stautes.  In particular, it has the only published version of Bernini's sketch for the statue: 

Sketch by Bernini of planned statue. Source: ArtStor

It's a little obscure, but if you stare at it long enough, it seems that the female figure of Truth is on the left of this sketch, with the older male figure of Time lifting off the veil with his right hand.  

This suggests that the statue we see now really IS just a fragment of the entire group.  If so, then it makes sense to leave structural supports in place until the assembly is finally put together.  

Adobe 3D printing--Auto-Struts!  Fred pointed out the happy concurrence of Adobe's announcement about automatically adding in struts when doing 3D printing design.  Honestly, I hadn't planned it, but it's a great coincidence!  

Bernini video:  An interesting hour-long documentary about Bernini giving a psychological backstory of the man, his history, and details of his life. 

Finally, Berlusconi...   

While doing my searches on this topic, I ran across a story so improbable, and yet so true and comical that I have to share it with you. 

Apparently the great 18th century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo also made a painting of "Truth Unveiled by Time" around 1743.   

And, apparently, the controversial Italian Prime Minister (of the time) Silvio Berlusconi liked it so much that he had a digital print made of the Tiepolo painting, and then hung it on the wall in his press room at the Palazzo Chigi.  This is all fine, it's his prerogative as head of state to decorate with great Italian art.  

But then, in a move so colossally ironic as to defy belief, he had the painting modified to cover up the nude form of Truth.  

That's right.  Even though the point of the painting is to show how Truth is revealed by the passage of time, Berlusconi's office had the painting literally covered up to avoid offending sensitivities.  (Really?  In Italy, where nudes are on every street corner?)  

Mind you, this is a politician who has had some issues with telling the truth in the past, so the irony is hip-deep here.  

1 comment:

  1. Hey Dan,

    Found your post this while doing a search for ANOTHER unfinished statue by Bernini of 'Truth' in the Borghese Gallery, in Rome. Can't seem to find any pictures on the web, though it also has something that is 'What's up with her fingers?' I have seen the statue on a couple of visits to the Borghese (1997 and 2003), and (as a stone sculptor) I found her upraised right hand puzzling for a few minutes the first time I saw it. Had just come from seeing his life-size Apollo and Daphne in the room next door -- with all the incredible anatomical detail even as Daphne is turning into the larch -- and here was the over-life-size seated figure of Veritas, Truth was placed on the floor of the gallery, and because she was in a seated position her eyes are about on level with the viewer's (though if she was to stand-up she would be several heads taller than the average visitor to the gallery). She was behind a velvet barrier to prevent visitors from touching her, but her face and hand were perhaps only six feet away. Her exposed skin was all smoothed (NOT polished) but the drapery still had toothed chisel marks from the secondary stages of carving. Anyway, Truth's right hand is raised in a gesture much like a benediction, but as I looked at it I realized Bernini had not indicated the finger joints at all -- in fact her fingers looked like they were made of rubber or something boneless like octopus tentacles. Double-take on my part! What in the world was this master of anatomy and detail doing making her hands so strangely . . . !!! In the next room Daphne and Apollo both had very meticulously formed joints (though Daphne's were turning to twigs and leaves). It puzzled me for a few minutes, and then I squinted at the hand with eyes half closed and it struck me as a revelation. Bernini was all about drama -- the David is in twisted mid-throw of the slingshot, Santa Teresa is at the height of her 'ecstasy' while the family members are looking down from the balcony above her. Truth was intended to be an architectural piece, perhaps fifteen or twenty feet above the viewers who would be seeing her (NOT at eye-level six feet away as she is displayed in the museum). At that distance the 'jointless' rubber fingers would not be so easy to make out, but the hand would appear to still be in motion of the gesture. If the joints had been delineated the drama of the gesture would have been arrested by unnecessary and distracting detail. Of course the Borghese did not allow photography in the museum, and in fact everyone had to turn in their cameras at the front desk before being admitted to the museum, and (as usual!!!!) the postcard reproductions for sale in the gift shop/bookstore when leaving did not include and images of this sculpture I was interested-in -- so if you do happen to figure out how to capture images in a search I would love to know the web address. Oh, by the way, sometimes the 'struts' are also called 'bridges' by contemporary stone sculptors. I have a number of examples in pictures I have taken of ancient Roman statuary in museums in Italy. Most of the bridges are only visible because the sculptures are fragmented and thus missing some of the disguising/hiding drapery. These bridges would never have been cut away because where the statue would be placed or installed the viewer would not be able to see it. The struts or bridges would remain on more recent stone works (from the Renaissance on-wards) would not be removed until the sculpture was sited in in its final intended position on a plinth or as an architectural element. Then the stonecarver -- not necessarily the sculptor -- would cut away the bridges as the final process before the unveiling. A friend and fellow sculptor did this for a another sculptor (not a stonecarver herself) who had an Italian stonecarving studio copy her maquette into a monumental statue of Athena and shipped to Georgia with bridges on the fingers and arm.