How did the artists/sculptors of the Baroque period practice their profession? For the first time, researchers have performed a forensic anthropological analysis of a marble skull sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Analysis of this rediscovered sculpture in Dresden, Germany may help capture details about the working methods of great artists of the past, including unrecorded details about their artistic approaches.
“The skull is so detailed that it includes many precise anatomical features that could be examined in the same way as a real skull. It appears that Bernini used a real biological skull as a model, as he captured details that represented an adult male of European ancestry,” says corresponding author James T. Pokines, associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology at Boston University School of Medicine.
Pokines used standard forensic anthropological techniques as one would with a biological skull. These include scoring morphological traits for sex and ancestry and performing standard cranial measurements with calipers.
They found that the skull was so detailed that it included many precise anatomical features that could be examined in the same way as a real skull. Bernini even depicted irregularities common to real skulls such as left/right asymmetry, common variations such as the shape of a suture, and loss of teeth before and after death.
By applying new analytical techniques to historical objects of art, Pokines believes we can potentially learn more about the actual artistic means used by Bernini and other Renaissance and Baroque artists that are otherwise lost to us. “In particular, it reinforces our understanding of Bernini’s technical mastery and the skill and attention to anatomical detail that went into producing this work of art,” he says.
According to the researchers, there are more skull sculptures from the Renaissance, Baroque and other periods to which these analyzes could be applied, and in some cases to paintings. “There is another skull which is part of a funerary sculpture in Rome by Bernini or his workshop which we wish to study; it is not as detailed, but we want to see if it is also the most consistent with the fact to have been sculpted using a biological skull as a model as opposed to a more generalized depiction of the skull,” Pokines adds.
These results are published online in the journal The seventeenth century.