Washington, 16 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- For more than 70 years, some 200 small terracotta statues collected dust in the storage vaults of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, little known to the global arts community and unappreciated by the museum's staff.
Thanks to events set in motion by a mid-1980s visit to the museum by an American art curator who saw the figures by chance, the statues known as the Bernini collection have now been seen by millions in Italy and the U.S. and are a new star in the global arts community.
Ian Wardropper, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, was startled to see the collection in a basement storage area of the Hermitage in 1985, but was turned down by Soviet authorities when he asked about an exhibition.
But his interest and knowledge apparently prompted Hermitage curators to begin taking a new look at the collection and 60 of the works were shown for the first time in the Museum's 225th anniversary in 1989. The same pieces were sent to Rome and Venice in 1991 and 1992 for special exhibitions there of the works that had originated in those Italian cities two centuries ago.
Wardropper says the figures, which average between 32 and 71 centimeters (12.5 to 28 inches) tall, were created out of clay in the 1700's by Italian sculptors who found the medium ideal to make models for monumental creations: Wardropper says not only does the clay show traces of the artists fingers and tools, but is inexpensive and allowed the sculptures to easily and quickly try new ideas in three dimensions. He says the statues were also used to show when seeking commissions from potential patrons.
Ironically, says Wardropper, the Russian curators didn't realize that one of the statues of a headless rider was in fact just such a model, created by an Italian sculptor in an unsuccessful bid to sell and erect a huge statue in St. Petersburg of Peter the Great:
Wardropper says Russian curators thought it was an unimportant equestrian statue and it was only in the process of researching the collection they discovered that it was an unaccepted project by the Roman sculptor Rusconi which he had sent to Russia in hope of getting the commission.
Officials around the Tsar rejected the proposed statue as inappropriate and Florentine sculptor Bartolomeo Rastrelli got the commission. His statue of Peter was cast in St. Petersburg in 1747.
But the little model didn't get to the Hermitage then. It went back to Italy and there was one of several hundred such statues collected by a Venetian diplomat named Filippo Farsetti posted to the Vatican in 1749. The statues were not prized by anyone then, so Farsetti put together a collection, which he took back to Venice and put on display in his family home, the Palazzo Farsetti.
It was there in 1782 they were seen by the heir to the Russian throne, Grand Prince Pavel Petrovich and his wife, Maria Fedorovna.
The prince was unable to buy the collection then -- the Venetian state wouldn't allow it -- but by 1800 the prince was Tsar Peter the First and the Venetian state was gone and a descendent of Filippo was ready to dispose of the collection.
The 250 statues were sent to St. Petersburg in two shipments -- ostensibly as gifts to the Tsar -- and Anton Farsetti arrived in 1804 to collect his expenses of 18,400 rubles for packing and shipping the collection. But by that point Peter had been assassinated and no one knew about the statues or the arrangements.
It took a year, but Tsar Alexander agreed to pay and approved a lifetime pension for Farsetti.
After Peter's death, the collection was moved to the Academy of Arts where it was used until the Russian revolution as models for art students. In 1919, the collection was moved to the Hermitage where it sat obscurely in storage until Wardropper's 1985 visit.
The exhibit has been shown in Chicago and Philadelphia this year and will remain on display in Washington until January 18, 1999. Then it is to return to St. Petersburg.
Wardropper says at least the Hermitage's officials now realize the value of the collection.
Wardropper says the sad part is the collection is going straight back into storage in the Hermitage. But on the positive side, he says, there is a new appreciation of the collection in St. Petersburg and even with the museum's broader problems of moving into the 21st century, he has hopes they'll be able to put at least part of it on public display.
The 60 works being shown in Washington are primarily by the great Roman sculptors Gian Bernini -- whose name is used in the show's name -- and Alessandro Algardi, along with the works of 12 other prominent masters from the Italian Baroque period.