The arrival of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s 17th century masterpiece Medusa from Italy’s Musei Capitolini marks a unique opportunity to view an important piece of Roman Baroque art during its first-ever tour in the United States.

The stunning single-piece exhibition is wrapped in myth and mystery. Believed to be dated sometime between 1638 and 1648, the provocative sculpture captures the tragic moment of Medusa’s dramatic and painful transformation from gorgeous Gorgon sister to murderous vixen. Unlike many ubiquitous depictions of Medusa that portray her as angry, spiteful and full of revenge, Bernini approaches the misunderstood subject with a sensitivity that reveals his true mastery and skill.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was a child prodigy, taught how to sculpt by his father who worked for prestigious families throughout Rome in the early 1600s. Later Bernini became known as one of the greatest artistic innovators of his time. For half a century, he lead the creative scene in Rome as a globally acclaimed architect, painter, playwright and theatrical designer.

Although Medusa is clearly inspired by Ovid’s classic mythological take Metamorphosis, the emotional sculpture’s origins are still shrouded in mystery. There is virtually no documentation about the existence of this piece before its arrival at the Musei Capitolini in the 1730s, but many art historians agree that Bernini must have created this sculpture based on the unlikelihood of there being other sculptors as proficient or masterly as he was.

The work of art itself is a beautiful bust that was artfully crafted from a single block of marble. Bernini captures snakes mid-slither as delicately-detailed strands of Medusa’s hair painfully narrate the ancient myth its rooted in. Her face is overwhelmed by emotion as seen in her deeply furrowed brow and barely-parted lips that look as if a cry has or is about to escape. From one perspective her expression is full of anguish. Yet from another she seems to be baffled, astonished at her own cursed fate. Bernini gives genius attention to this masterpiece that breathes life into a slab of marble and multiplies its breadth emotion depending on where the light strikes the carefully-crafted angles.

Medusa will be on display at the Legion of Honor in the Baroque Gallery from November 17 through February 19, 2012.

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