ROME — An art history professor, Giovan Battista Fidanza, was taking a group of students through the baroque Church of Santa Bibiana two weeks ago, when he made what he called a

“macabre discovery.”

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s oversized statue of St. Bibiana, the sculptor’s first public religious commission, dating to 1624, was missing the ring finger on the right hand.

The statue had been lent to a much-ballyhooed exhibition of Bernini sculptures at the Galleria Borghese, which ended on Feb. 20. The finger broke off when workers were returning the sculpture to its niche on the main altar of the Santa Bibiana church, on April 24. “At least it didn’t pulverize; it came off in one piece,” the Rev. Augusto Frateschi, the parish priest, said Friday in a telephone interview.

Restorers reaffixed the finger last week, but not before the Italian media got wind of the damaged digit, catapulting the statue into a terse moment of newspaper and television notoriety.

 

The incident also stirred an ongoing debate in the Italian art world on whether art works should be lent for exhibitions, given that the risks greatly outweigh the benefits, critics say.

“After this incident we have much to reflect on, as art historians, which you are becoming,” Professor Fidanza told students at a seminar on the damaged statue that he held Friday at University of Rome Tor Vergata, where he teaches. “We know that moving works of art is always a huge stress for them,” he said, noting that artworks suffered from shifts in temperature, humidity, and from the transportation itself.

When a work of art is damaged, even if later repaired, “the integrity of the work is lost forever,” he said. The broken finger “is a wound to the Baroque era.”

Before the exhibition, the statue had only been moved once before — in 1943 — to protect it while Rome was under attack during World War II. Last September it was transported to the loggia of the Borghese Gallery, where it was restored — in public — ahead of the exhibition, which opened in November. (Professor Fidanza questioned on Friday whether the statue — which had already been cleaned in 1997 — required a fresh makeover. “Restorations should be like surgical operations — you don’t operate for a cold,” he said.)

For some, the sculpture should never have been moved from its niche in Santa Bibiana at all.

“It is the first time where Bernini experimented with the unity of the visual arts, the fusion between architecture, painting and sculpture through the spectacular use of light,” Alessandro Valeriani, an expert in Baroque art who also teaches at Tor Vergata, said at the seminar. “To remove the sculpture from its context deprives it of the meaning that Bernini intended: a statue that interacts with the surrounding space.”

If nothing else, the uproar over the lost digit has lured visitors to the church, a little-known Baroque jewel off the normal tourist trail, that also includes frescoes by another Baroque master, Pietro da Cortona.

“Visitors to Rome should be lining up to get into the church” because of its artistic importance, Professor Fidanza said Friday.

Perhaps now they will.