Marble skull is lost Bernini masterpiece for Pope Alexander VII, research reveals

For many years, a life-sized, anatomically accurate and skilfully carved skull of white Carrara marble was on display at Schloss Pillnitz, a castle in Germany - its artist unknown.

A life-like marble skull is a lost masterpiece of the famed Italian sculptor Bernini, often credited as the inventor of the Baroque style, archival research has revealed.

For many years, a life-sized, anatomically accurate and skilfully carved skull of white Carrara marble was on display at Schloss Pillnitz, a castle in Germany – its artist was unknown.

Claudia Kryza-Gersch, curator at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD), was searching for artworks to include in a Caravaggio exhibition when she spied the mysterious skull. She then had it sent to Dresden State Art Collections’ restoration workshop.

The marble skull, crafted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1655, is on display as part of the exhibition about the life of Baroque-artist Bernini and his relationships with eight different popes. © SKD, Photo: Oliver Killig.

According to the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, the cranium is so ‘realistically sculpted’, from the ‘delicately sinuous sutures connecting the cranial bones, to the jutting cheekbone or the paper-thin nasal septum’, that it could ‘almost be mistaken for a genuine human skull.’

‘Everybody had the same reaction to it,’ said Kryza-Gersch. ‘The question of course was—who made it? And since it has Roman provenance, someone jokingly said “maybe it’s a Bernini?”’

To shed light on its origins, Kryza-Gersch delved into the Dresden archives. The skull was part of a collection owned by the Chigi family in Rome. In 1728, Friedrich August I of Saxony, also known as August the Strong, purchased the collection of 164 sculptures and four contemporary works.

Whilst combing the archives, Kryza-Gersh came across the papers of Raymond Le Plat, art advisor to Friedrich August I, which referred to a skull crafted by Bernini. It had been described in literature but was long considered lost.

Further investigation revealed it was commissioned by Pope Alexander VII in 1665, three days after his ascension to the Papal seat in Rome. He had kept the skull on his desk, and a sarcophagus – also a work by Bernini – under his bed.

Oil painting of Pope Alexander VII with his hand resting on top of Bernini’s skull, which he had kept on his desk. Painted c. 1655/56 by Bernini’s pupil, Guido Ubaldo Abbatini, the artwork is on loan from the Sovereign Order of Malta in Rome for the exhibition in Dresden © Art Collection of the Sovereign Order of Malta, Rome/ Photo: Nicusor Floroaica.

These morbid curiosities acted as ‘memento mori’, literally translating as ‘remember you must die’, and were physical reminders of the transience of earthly life. The art form was popularised in the Renaissance in response to incessant outbreaks of plague, and thus the increased awareness of mortality and the need to prepare one’s soul for salvation.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was the leading sculptor of his age. His buildings, fountains, city squares, and paintings are part of the fabric of Rome. His work included sculptures, such as ‘Apollo and Daphne’, the tomb of Pope Alexander VII in St Peter’s Basilica, and the grand stairway entrance to the Vatican.

To mark this significant discovery, an exhibition, ‘Bernini, the Pope and Death’, at the Semperbau am Zwinger in Dresden will be running until 5 September. Free virtual tours of the exhibit are also available online.