March 29, 2004

Fellowship trifecta honors McPhee's research

By Eric Rangus

Sarah McPhee has had a good year. Her research into the life of Costanza Bonarelli, mistress and muse of 17th century artist Gianlorenzo Bernini and the subject of one of the most innovative portrait busts of the 1600s, has netted McPhee three coveted fellowships.

One is a residential grant from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.; the second is a residential fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and the third is a Guggenheim Fellowship.

"These grants give me an incredible opportunity to pursue my research," said McPhee, associate professor of art history. She is spending the 2003-04 academic year as a visiting professor at Columbia University.

McPhee's larger research project is a biography of Bernini, perhaps the most well-known and well-respected artist of 17th century Italy (he designed St. Peter's Square and Piazza Navona, among others). Her first book, Bernini and the Bell Towers (Yale University Press, 2002), explores in great detail how the bell towers of St. Peter's Cathedral came to be.

McPhee's current research, which will culminate in a book-length study of Costanza, is an offshoot of her Bernini work. Bernini's portrait of Costanza is one of his most famous portrait sculptures, and while it was outside the scope of McPhee's Bell Towers book, encounters with Costanza were unavoidable. "Biography and portraiture are interests that developed while I worked on my first book," McPhee said. "And researching Costanza yielded such extraordinary results that she cried out for a book of her own."

The woman known as Costanza Bonarelli has been a mystery for centuries. That she was a mistress, model and muse of Bernini's around 1636-37, when her remarkable portrait was sculpted, is agreed upon by historians, art and otherwise.   After that, though, she disappears.

As a muse, however, she was a good one. Her portrait, according to art historians, is 100 years ahead of its time (McPhee said it is revolutionary in the history of female portraiture). It's informal; during a period when other portraits sought greater heights of stateliness. The bust of Costanza is of woman in her mid-20s, head turned to the left, her nightshirt blown open to reveal a hint of cleavage.

"It's a very arresting image of a rather beautiful woman," McPhee said. The bust currently is the Bargello Museum in Florence, Italy.

"You take a bust like this and consider it from an art-historical point of view, and you'll only get so far," McPhee said. "But once you delve into the archives and ask questions about biography and identity, you come up with something different."

Like Costanza's identity. Historians believe she was the wife of one of Bernini's assistants. While researching Bernini, McPhee found evidence that Costanza could have been of noble birth. Turns out it was true.

McPhee spent the 2001-02 academic year on sabbatical in Rome, combing through archives for information about Costanza, and she came away with a treasure trove. McPhee found her house, her art collections, her career accomplishments, the name of her daughter, where she was buried, what she owned--and her real name (which is not Bonarelli).

"The book is an experiment in portraiture, visual and verbal," McPhee said. "I want to discuss the bust as an art historian and then reconstruct this woman's life and her ties to the institutions of 17th century Rome.

"The extraordinary thing about working in 17th century Italian archives is that if you have a question, you can--if you are good at it and patient--find the answer almost all the time," McPhee continued, adding that the archives are meticulously detailed. "You're like a hunter and keep following it, then you sense other trails and go down them."

One trail McPhee has yet to fully explore is the possibility is that more works of art bear Costanza's likeness. The bust is the only one identified as Costanza, but last summer McPhee found evidence of eight painted portraits of her. To date, they have been untraceable. "She was clearly someone," McPhee said. "This evidence confirms that her image was owned by others."

McPhee said she plans to use the fellowships for final research trips to Europe as well as to complete the writing of her Costanza book. She hasn't had much time for research this year because of a full teaching load with her visiting professorship.

McPhee earned her master's and her doctorate at Columbia, so this year has been somewhat of a homecoming for her. "It's a wonderful experience for faculty members," McPhee said about her visiting professorship.

"If you go out of your own context--I've been at Emory eight years--you learn a lot about the way different institutions handle things, and you can bring home a wealth of new ideas," McPhee said. "It's a very tonic idea to trade faculty because it can enrich the home institution."