Heralded as the next Michaelangelo by the age of eight, Bernini was a man around whom a powerful mythology has been sculpted
It was his son who described Gian Lorenzo Bernini as ‘stern by nature, rock steady in work, warm in anger’. Born in Naples in 1598 and heralded as the next Michelangelo by the age of eight, by all accounts Bernini embodied the stereotypical haughty hot-headedness of the south. He was a man around whom a powerful mythology has been sculpted. His reputation, at least among his immediate predecessors, is easily discernible to us from the lengthy eulogising accounts by his primary biographers: amateur artist and gossipy raconteur Filippo Baldinucci and scholar Domenico Bernini, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s last, 11th, child.
Knighted at the age of 23, Bernini won the moniker ‘il Cavaliere’ as well as friends in high places, including the future pope Urban VIII, Maffeo Barberini. Through these channels he became accustomed to the sycophantic rhetoric of the age; especially from his influential friend, who is recorded to have said: ‘It is your great good luck, Cavaliere, to see Maffeo Barberini pope. But we are even luckier in that the Cavaliere Bernini lives at the time of our pontificate.’ This friendship spanned over two decades and is one of art history’s greatest ever love-ins between artist and patron, and certainly the most influential on the fabrications of 17th-century Rome. A portrait bust of Barberini sculpted during his pre-papal days is testimony to both their friendship and Bernini’s wit. The ‘speaking likeness’, despite drawing on the classical tradition and being sculpted from inanimate marble, still manages to convey a filmy patina on the cardinal’s complexion, and the straining buttons over his robust chest exhibit a fondness for life lived as if it were one long, good lunch.
Bernini had a predilection for extremes of the flesh, ranging from the masochistic to the sadistic. He is reported to have experimented on his own body to guarantee an authenticity of expression in his sculpture, whether burning his leg to understand the contortions of torture suffered by St Lawrence, the Christian martyr roasted on a grill, or plunging his hand into flames in front of a mirror to render the silent scream of a damned soul in hell. Both acts might seem too thespian were he not also predisposed to inflicting grievous bodily harm when enraged; Bernini broke his brother’s ribs for conducting an affair with the lovely Costanza Bonucelli (Bonarelli) before sending a servant to slash his unfaithful paramour’s face to ribbons.
Despite this taste for violence he lived his daily life in an odour of piety, visiting mass every evening at the church of Il Gesù alongside the suitably militant Jesuit order. But while his focus on the inner life is reflected in his devotion to St Ignatius Loyola’s ‘Spiritual Exercises’, as a sculptor he is known for his rendering of marble into flesh so tantalising it’s palpably uncomfortable. Who can easily forget the robust hand of Pluto sinking into the pearly cushion of Proserpina’s thigh, a scene of base sexual assault turned into sublime admiration for the sculptor’s craft, not to mention the provocative jouissance that ripples through ‘St Teresa of Avila’?
Perhaps it is easy to suggest that this irrepressible preoccupation with the body extended to his architecture. The anthropomorphic colonnade arms of the piazza for St Peter’s became symbolic of an anxious Catholic church clinging to those in the fold, while the new use of the ovoid plan and interpenetrating spaces created a different three-dimensional experience for the body in architectural space, one that deviated from the strict Vitruvian geometry underpinning Renaissance architecture.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Baldacchino in St Peter’s, Rome (1624)
Cornaro Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome (1645-52)
Scala Regia, Vatican Palace, Rome (1663-66)
Four Rivers Fountain, Piazza Navona, Rome (1648-51)
Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, Rome (1658-70)
Palazzo Chigi, Rome (1664-66)
‘Three things are needed for success in painting and sculpture: to see beauty when young and accustom oneself to it, to work hard, and to obtain good advice’
If Bernini’s triumphant reworking of St Peter’s and his contributions to its interior − such as the gargantuan bronze baldacchino over St Peter’s tomb, the Cathedra Petri behind the high altar, and the staircase known as the Scala Regia, a masterclass in transforming an awkward site into a sublime aesthetic experience − can be seen as his greatest legacy, his work on the building also prompted his greatest misstep. Bernini designed two towers to flank Carlo Maderno’s facade, but no sooner had the foundations been set than they began to topple. Art history perpetuated the belief that this constituted a spectacular fall from grace for the architect, one that saw the brightest star being shut out of Eden, and freed the stage for Bernini’s main rival, Francesco Borromini, who, according to some sources, was the scorned and uncredited genius behind the twisting columns of the baldacchino. Truth is, despite the assumption that Bernini was relegated to the wings for the remainder of Innocent X’ s papacy, he still designed the Four Rivers Fountain during this period and enjoyed commissions from aristocratic and foreign patrons, including a spell at the French court of Louis XIV in the 1660s. He comfortably took centre stage again during Alexander VII’s papacy, involved in the large-scale architectural adaptations of Rome including the disembowelling and dilation of the medieval innards of the city to make way for the grand processional spaces such as Piazza San Pietro.
By far the luckiest thing for Cavaliere Bernini was that he lived within the period of great ‘builder Popes’, hell-bent on restoring Rome’s cultural capital through architectural projects and magisterial urban planning, all the while anxiously attempting to avert the threat of Martin Luther’s Protestantism by casting the Catholic faith triumphant in the masonry of the city. Rome became a stage set for processional pomp and sensual stimulation, and Bernini delivered designs that implemented the dramatic contortions, undulations and elevations characteristic of the Roman Baroque style. These aimed for something of an intoxicating embodied ecstasy in the beholder as a reminder of Catholicism and Rome’s supremacy when it came to souls. In this regard Bernini’s work as a sculptor gave him an advantage when designing buildings which heightened the perception of space as lived through the body, the power of negative space, and his experiments in combining painting and sculpture to complement architectural form. It is for this, the bel composto of elements, that he is revered; the later conception of the Gesamtkunstwerk, that breaks the aesthetic borders between real and imagined space, seems made for his works. This is best embodied in his little church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale. Inside is a symphony of sculpture, painting and architecture, which culminates with a sculpted St Andrew bursting through the aedicule around the altar like a champagne cork from its bottle.
Bernini’s burial in Santa Maria Maggiore was his ultimate rendering of the Baroque conceit and self-styled personal mythology. In tucking his tomb just under the high altar, close to the relics of the Holy Crib and the portrait of the Virgin by the hand of St Luke, Bernini laid claim to the posthumous function of his body and bones in making Rome holy, as well as aligning his hand with that of the first Christian artist, St Luke. But Bernini’s supreme skill for crafting philosophical encounters with mysticism and illusionism was disregarded by the 18th century with its rationalism and distaste for Baroque excess − Joshua Reynolds dismissed him as a cheap sorcerer − and it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that he was restored to his rightful position in art history.
Illustration by Isabel Wilkinson