BERNINI’S MEDUSA – Now at the Legion of Honor through February 12th

Sean Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

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.

MEDUSA. Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Recent conservation efforts have restored the Medusa to its full glory and revealed previously hidden polish and patina. Believed to date from between 1638 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.

SELF PORTRAIT, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. c. 1635
Oil on canvas, 24.4 in. x 18.1 in.

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.


The Musei Capitolini (Capitoline Museums) are a complex of buildings located on the Capitoline Hill, one of the traditional Seven Hills of Rome. In antiquity the hill was the religious and political heart of the city, the site of many temples, including the massive Temple of Capitoline Jupiter, which overlooked the Forum. During the Middle Ages, the ancient buildings fell into disrepair. Rising from their ruins were new municipal structures: the Palace of the Senators, which was built largely in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and which turned away from the Forum, toward Papal Rome and the Old Saint Peter’s Basilica; and the Palace of the Conservators (magistrates), constructed in the 15th century beside the Palace of the Senators.

A donation made in 1471 marked the beginning of a new function for the buildings on the Capitoline Hill, reflecting a rising interest in the artistic legacy of Roman antiquity. In that year Pope Sixtus IV transferred to the Capitoline four ancient bronze sculptures from the Lateran Palace, then the principal papal residence. In 1537 Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to relocate another sculpture from the Lateran to the plaza in front of the Palace of the Senators: the monumental bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, which had escaped destruction during the Middle Ages only because it was then believed to represent Constantine, the first Christian emperor.

Michelangelo was also charged with reorganizing the area, known as the Piazza del Campidoglio. For the Palaces of the Senators and Conservators he designed new facades, which were completed after his death in 1564. To balance the Palace of the Conservators, he conceived a matching building, the New Palace, which was finished in 1667. Together, these buildings constitute the Musei Capitolini. The last element of Michelangelo’s masterpiece of urban planning, the Piazza, was not completed until 1940 under Mussolini. Despite the centuries of construction, most of Michelangelo’s plans for the site were implemented.

In the 16th century the Capitoline collections increased dramatically through the acquisition of newly excavated works and donations such as the ancient works of art given by Pope Pius V with the intention of “purging the Vatican of pagan idols.” The Palace of the Conservators became so crowded with sculpture that the magistrates found it difficult to carry out their official duties. In the late 17th century, many of the works were transferred to the recently completed New Palace. Since then, the Musei Capitolini have continued to expand their holdings, bringing together one of the world’s great collections of Roman antiquities.

The Medusa projected onto the The Legion of Honor
Located at Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street
Open Tuesday — Sunday, 9:30 am–5:15 pm; closed Mondays
Click here for more information: LEGION OF HONOR


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