This article argues that Bernini orchestrated the relief surfaces of his sculptures through an exacting science of optical perception. For the first time, it connects Bernini's understanding of the relief structure of his sculptural work to Galileo’s contemporaneous discovery of the cratered surface of the moon. For Galileo’s understanding of what he saw through his telescope depended on his training as a draughtsman in the Florentine Academy of Art, which enabled him to translate the optical perception of light and shadow into the realisation that the surface of the moon was marked by hills and valleys just like Earth. The article contends that early modern art and science shared similar concerns in the power of visual analysis as a means to knowledge, alongside craft-based techniques for realising it. Through a full contextualisation of Bernini's story of the white-faced man, the article demonstrates the scientific, art-theoretical, and practice-based considerations that informed his understanding of optics in the sculptural rendering of resemblance by means of relief carving in the colourless medium of white marble.
This article was given as a lecture at conferences including the Zentral Institut für Kunstgeschichte Munich, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Gallery of Scotland and Harvard University. The research was funded by the AHRC (2008-9, £32,762.50) as part of a larger project on Bernini's sculpture. Published Gold OA, it has attracted over 2000 readers to date.