Bernini, Statues and Intuition

The beauty of nature is… natural and we enjoy it without having to rely on to logic. A waterfall that colors its own rainbow in a sunny forest is beautiful by itself and all its charm is ‘owned’ by anyone who wants to appreciate it. The beauty of the arts, on the other hand, has patterns and rules that make it less spontaneous. For this reason there are ‘connoisseurs’. A painting’s signature or the proof of its authenticity increase its price but adds nothing to its beauty. The fame of the artist is critical for the work to be acquired by collectors and museums. Although beauty should be beyond comparison and analysis, reality is different.

Recently, for the second time in my life, I had the immense aesthetic pleasure of wandering around the Piazza Navona in Rome, a magnificent focal point of sculptures, piles and buildings. Its great attraction is the Fountain of the Four Rivers, a spectacular work by Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), the creator of Baroque art in sculpture. The four statues of this masterly work represent the four major rivers of the world (Nile, Ganges, Danube and Rio de la Plata) at the time of the construction (1659).

Visitors do not get tired of walking around the fountain and there are no words to convey the awe inspired by this man-made inspiring scenery. In the first visit, my ignorance was unaware of who Bernini was and, for all purposes, any explanation, including the reference to the four rivers, becomes unnecessary.

The visibility of the Fountain in a famous square makes it of public domain and any calculation of its monetary value lacks any sense. What happens with the works that need authentication to estimate their price? Here analysis and intuition come into competition.

The Introduction to “Blink: Intuitive Intelligence”, the excellent book by Malcolm Gladwell, shows with a real-life case the importance of intuition in the recognition of art. In 1983, the Canadian author relates, someone offered to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles a 6th century BC Greek statue of the variety known as kouros. After fourteen months of tests and examinations, the Museum’s experts and record trackers endorsed the legitimacy of the statue and authorized its acquisition. Towards the end of 1986, the statue was exhibited with much fanfare.

​The kouros was false. Other art connoisseurs, when looking at it for the first time, felt immediately what one of them called ‘intuitive repulsion’. These unsuspicious experts could not explain in rational terms what was the abnormal ‘something’ in the work. “It was ‘fresh’,” said one. “I felt like as though there was a glass between me and the statue,” said another. “It didn’t look right”, said a third. Those initial moments, where only intuition plays, is what Malcolm Gladwell calls ‘intuitive blink’. The following verifications with other Greek experts proved them right.

From my side, on the opposite bank of rejection, it is ‘intuitive wonder’ what I experienced in front of the Fountain of the Four Rivers. Something similar must feel the thousands of people who visit the Piazza Navona, even if they are unfamiliar with the century of Bernini or the geographical location of the Four Rivers.

Last March, the same Getty Museum received a new call, this time from someone offering a bust of Pope Paulo V, sculpted in 1621, by the same Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the trail of which had been lost in a chain of private collections. Timothy Potts, the big boss of the Getty, not the same person of the previous story, when he received the phone call, flew immediately to London to acquire such treasure. “Bernini was the master of the ‘speaking likeness’. He found a way of breathing life into marble,” he said.

As I guess it goes for 99.9% of the transactions of art that the Getty completes (the 1983 statue is in the remaining 0.1%), the bust of Paulo V was authentic. Through both knowledge and intuition, Mr. Potts knew what he was getting. On June 18, the bust was placed on display, with a fanfare similar to that displayed at the exhibition of the kouros twenty nine years ago.

Atlanta, July 23, 2015


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