At the Mortimer, Mr. Deacon tells Nick, “I have come to this gin palace primarily to inspect an object of virtu — a classical group in some unspecified material, to be precise. I shall buy it, if its beauty satisfies me. Truth Unveiled by Time —in the Villa Borghese, you remember. I must say in the original marble Bernini has made the wench look as unpalatable as the heartless equality she represents.” [CCR 18/13]
Mr. Deacon has come to buy a small reproduction of an apparently unfinished masterpiece by the architect, sculptor, and painter Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Born in Naples but known for his work in Rome, Bernini achieved the patronage of Popes Urban VII, Urban X, and Alexander VII, for whom he served as principle designer of St. Peter’s Basilica and Piazza San Pietro. Almost equally admired are his sculptures of The Four Rivers in Piazza Navona and the The Ecstacy of Saint Teresa, as well as countless other sculptural groups, church facades, and altarpieces that have come to define the Baroque character of the Eternal City.
Bernini’s Truth Unveiled by Time is embodied by a nude female figure holding the sun in her hand, confident and beautiful, Mr. Deacon’s misogynistic wisecrack notwithstanding. The radiantly naked Truth has just shed drapery that appears to be leaving her body by virtue of an unseen hand, presumably that of Time. The group is traditionally judged to be unfinished because of Time’s absence; Bernini is said to have wanted to add it to the grouping, but Time seems to have got to Bernini as well, as he never managed to complete his plan.
The motif of Bernini’s sculpture is said to be his response to allegations of malfeasance that dogged his reputation after a dangerously faulty bell tower at Saint Peter’s Basilica had to be taken down. In fact, Bernini had inherited a flawed design for the bell tower and was forced to persist with it as a result of papal ignorance, politics, vanity and indifference. Though acclaim for Bernini’s work trumped these assaults upon his reputation they never were forgotten, and he went to his grave convinced that eventually his Truth would be unveiled by Time.
Bernini’s prodigy as an architect and sculptor sometimes eclipse his reputation as a painter and draughtsman, but this self-portrait drawing from 1625 reveals something of his brilliance in these fields as well.
Mr. Deacon is considering buying a small replica of Bernini’s work, fashioned perhaps from plaster or carved alabaster to feed the art-loving tourist trade. Judging from what we find for sale online, today’s art-lovers must settle for a digital printout of a photograph of Bernini’s sublime marble sculpture. In either case, the pitiful degradation of the experience of Bernini’s original masterpiece in its many commercial avatars would surely be considered by the artist to be a case of Truth Obscured by Time.