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Bend it like Bernini: The grand Parisian design that became a Roman staple

Bernini’s visit to Paris at the behest of Louis XIV ended in rejection. The unwanted Louvre designs, however, sowed the seeds for his later Roman commissions

In 1664 Gian Lorenzo Bernini finally travelled to Paris after having been goaded and flattered by the Sun King and his court into making the trip, in what was to be his only extended stay outside of Rome.

The great artist. The world famous architect. The apogee of an Italian genius that started with Giotto and had reached its final, glittering consummation. A figure who wore his lineage lightly, like linen vests on young shoulders. Virile and easy.

Alberti, Brunelleschi, Bramante, Cellini, Reni, Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, Romano, and on and on and like all great family trees its results were manifest in the confidence of his every gesture, a certainty in the sweep of each facade, an assurance that each of the marks he made were of unimpeachable, incomparable extraction.

Marble statues as supple as a sleeping baby’s thighs. Altars over which the sun gently set all day. Crowds clogged the streets when it was rumoured he was to be passing through. Paris was electrified. France had taken receipt of the age’s greatest hands.

The sophistication of Rome was to grace the dishevelled and disorderly streets of a northern town. The new Roman architecture was to triumph in its crowning of the French royal palace.
Facades that curved in, bulged out, in great sweeping ranges of windows, columns, attics and plinth. Powerfully energetic, sculpturally coherent, unified in the precise balance of opposing forces. Four designs and two masterpieces. A commission for the face of a great public building of a kind that had eluded him back in Rome.

But in squalid Paris. For nouveau-riche France. The great artist was faced with his greatest work being an orphan. Far away from civilisation, far from his peers, from his predecessors, from its heritage. He was not happy.

The master architect’s millennial dilemma: to build compromises in your cherished home, or to build wonders for foreign dictators in places you hate.

He stumbled upon the work of a compatriot: ‘This Annunciation by Guido Reni is worth half of your Paris’, but he immediately corrected himself: ‘No, it’s worth more.’

Bernini’s sourness and disdain for his hosts soon preceded him as he moved around the city. The crowds thinned and then disappeared altogether. The court no longer courted him. The alien complexity of his designs for the Louvre lost their sheen of novelty and became simply strange, foreign, arrogant.

France was powerful, intellectual, austere and on the up. Bernini was too instinctive, too flamboyant, too multi-disciplinary, disordered. France could construct its own great lineage, construct its own architecture. An ordered architecture, an austere architecture.

To keep their guest sweet as his star faded, he was commissioned for and completed a bust of the Sun King. It went down well. He returned to Rome a failed export. Genius is temperamental. It is not a reliable commodity. Despite their vigour and charm, Bernini’s great convex, concave, in and out and sweeping Louvre facades were infertile, they bore no fruit and sowed no French seeds. They however found their way back to Rome. They made it home.

There they entered the city’s bloodstream and so remain, hidden in every building, carried dormant in the genes of every Roman palazzina, each office tower, every petrol station. Bernini’s Parisian dream shows itself partially realised everywhere in the city, in every period, it is continuously built in parts on almost every street, in the arc of a 1950s balcony, the tower of a 19th-century church, the entrance to an underground station, the counter of a bar, a collection of ceramics on sale in Porta Portese…

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