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United States exclusive: Bernini's Medusa at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Medusa, 1640s. Carrara marble. Musei Capitolini, Rome. Photo: Andrew Fox/FAMSF.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- The Musei Capitolini in Rome are lending San Francisco one of their greatest treasures, the Baroque masterpiece The Medusa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, one of history’s finest sculptors and a leading figure in 17th-century Italian art and architecture. This loan is part of The Dream of Rome, a project initiated by the mayor of Rome to exhibit timeless masterpieces in the United States from 2011 through 2013. The Medusa represents the inaugural object loaned as part of a joint venture signed recently between the Musei Capitolini and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco designed to share exhibitions, collections, curatorial and conservation knowledge and to collaborate on educational programs. The loan of Medusa is the first time that the sculpture has ever traveled to the United States and is only the third time it has left Rome in nearly 400 years.

Bernini’s Medusa
Recent conservation efforts have restored the Medusa to its full glory and revealed previously hidden polish and patina. Believed to date from between1638 and 1648, this extraordinary work takes its subject from classical mythology, as cited in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It shows the beautiful Medusa, one of the Gorgon sisters, caught in the terrible process of transformation into a monster. Her hair is turning into writhing snakes, which, according to Ovid, was a punishment from Minerva for having had an affair with Neptune, god of the sea. The punishment also made Medusa an instrument of death by turning anyone who looked upon her to stone. Famously, Perseus overcame Medusa’s curse by looking at her reflection in a shield to behead her.

Bernini’s depiction does not describe this incident but rather the agony of Medusa’s initial dramatic transformation. Her face is contorted with pain and anxiety and her mouth is open as if crying out.

What is remarkable about Bernini’s interpretation of this ancient mythological creature is that it conveys passion, emotion and the humanity of the moment, rather than the monstrous and horrific aspects of Medusa treated by artists and sculptors hitherto. Created during a bleak period when the artist was out of favor at the papal court, the figure is thought to represent for Bernini the power of sculpture and the value of the sculptor.

The Medusa is displayed in the Legion of Honor’s Baroque gallery where it can be seen in context with the Museums’ great collections of paintings and sculpture from the era of Bernini.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) was a virtuosic genius of the Roman Baroque in the 17th century. Not only the greatest sculptor of the age, he was also an internationally renowned architect, painter, playwright and theatrical designer. Living and working mainly in Rome until his death, he was the leader of that city’s artistic scene for more than 50 years, far outshining his contemporaries as the major exponent of the Italian Baroque. Serving six popes, he left a permanent mark on the city of Rome with his designs for the colonnade and interior of Saint Peter’s Basilica and with his famous public fountains. His ability to synthesize sculpture, architecture and painting into a conceptual entity was recognized by scholar Irving Lavin as a “unity of the visual arts.”

Born the son of a Tuscan sculptor in Naples in 1598, Bernini was a child prodigy and learned sculpting skills from his father, who worked for the great families in Rome starting in 1605. Even in his first works, the artist attempted to represent subjects and moods never before attempted, such as portraying the human soul.

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