Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s marble bust of Costanza Buonarelli is considered one of the artist’s most accomplished portrait sculptures. The strikingly realistic likeness of the Baroque artist’s lover gazes solemnly out in front of her, a serious expression on her brow, locks brushed back, lips parted just slightly. What its immaculate stone surface does not reveal, however, is the violence inflicted on Buonarelli when Bernini had her face slashed.
The bust is the centerpiece of a new and perhaps unexpected exhibition at the Uffizi Galleries in Florence. Best known for its unrivaled collection of Italian Renaissance masterpieces, the museum has chosen to pair Bernini’s bust of Buonarelli with a group of contemporary photographs by Ilaria Sagaria that speak to the timeless scourge of violence against women. Sagaria’s images, part of her series titled Pain is not a privilege (2018), depict female victims of acid attacks in the aftermath of the terrible assaults, their faces bandaged and blindfolded.
Titled Lo sfregio (“The scar”) and curated by Chiara Toti, the exhibition opened this month in advance of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, observed on November 25. It will be on view through December 19.
Today, Bernini is revered in art history books for his architectural and sculptural prowess, and he is often credited with the invention of the Baroque style. But Sagaria’s visuals serve as a haunting backdrop for the lesser-known story of Buonarelli, a noblewoman and merchant who was Bernini’s lover. When he learned that she was having an affair with his younger brother Luigi, Bernini had Buonarelli attacked, leaving a scar on the left side of her face. She was labeled a courtesans, or prostitute, and imprisoned in a monastery for four months, while Bernini’s act of violence went unpunished.
Despite her fate, Bonarelli persevered, helping advance the sculpture trade along with her husband, artist Matteo Bonarelli; like the subjects of Sagaria’s photographs, she was a survivor.
“Acid violence is a global phenomenon that is not dependent on race, religion, beliefs and even social and geographical position,” Sagaria says in a statement about the photographic series.
While there have been some reported cases against men, she says, acid attacks are a common form of gender violence. There are approximately 1,500 incidents a year, but the crime is notoriously underreported because its victims — primarily women and girls — fear retaliation from their perpetrators.
“The victims are forced to tolerate inconceivable torture: they are hit with jets of corrosive acid on the skin of their faces, they are blinded, deafened, annihilated,” Sagaria says. In addition to their physical, often permanent scarring, “there is a psychological trauma developed through the inability to recognize oneself, depression, and isolation.” The protagonists of her images are always portrayed alone, in sparsely decorated rooms that symbolize their seclusion and marginalization from society.
The bust is on loan from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, housed in the former headquarters of the Florence chief police, a building that later served as a prison in the 18th century. On the occasion of its exhibition, the sculpture underwent a restoration undertaken by the Uffizi Galleries.
The installation at Uffizi elucidates an episode from Bernini’s life that is rarely on display while educating viewers on the prevalence of gender violence. In 2012, art historian Sarah McPhee published a comprehensive biography of Buonarelli, Bernini’s Beloved, which includes an account of Bernini’s crime. But other discussions of the bust fail to mention the incident, focusing instead on the formal qualities of the work and praising Bernini’s ability to convey passion and emotion.
“In the display, we see [the bust] not only as a masterpiece by one of the greatest Baroque sculptors, but we are invited to reflect on the brutal violence of the strong against the weak,” said Uffizi Director Eike Schmidt in a press release. “And to meditate on the unspeakable pain of survival.”