The Magazine

Bernini’s Progress

In and out of favor, in and out of fashion.

Mar 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 24 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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Facile cosa è farsi universale. (It is an easy thing to make oneself universal.) The statement in English has a blowhard’s windy obscurity. It sounds as though it came from the facile mouth of an exceedingly minor Transcendentalist. Some things are best said in Italian, and by men who can back up such words. 

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, ca. 1623

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, ca. 1623

The quotation is, in fact, from just such a man: Leonardo da Vinci, un uomo universale above perhaps all other aspirants to the honorific, a master whose genius extended in all directions. Only someone like Leonardo is entitled to the swank irony of declaring that such excellence comes easy. 

A man can do all things if he will, Jacob Burckhardt quoted Leon Battista Alberti as saying, and he enshrined this sentiment as the sacred heart of the Italian Renaissance. But how many actually did such things—i.e., became what Burckhardt calls the all-sided men? Alberti, Leonardo, Michelangelo—and Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).

Bernini, strictly speaking, came a bit late to be a true Renaissance man, but he was the last Italian uomo universale, achieving the very highest in sculpture and architecture and producing rich and remarkable work in painting, playwriting, and scenography. He was the supreme talent of the Italian Baroque. Without him, Rome would have been a far different city; without him, the Counter-Reformation would have lacked some of its most vital spiritual monuments.  

Alberti, Leonardo, and, for most of his life, Michelangelo pursued worldly self-perfection and sought to make themselves the most impressive and renowned men in the known universe. Bernini, too, wanted to shine, but perhaps above all he wanted to serve: to serve the Roman Catholic church and to magnify the glory of the One True Faith. Of course, there was something more in it for him than a place among the ranks of the blessed; a man of worldly accomplishment wants his worth recognized in the coin of the realm, literally and figuratively. Bernini made a fortune, and he earned a lasting name. His vocation encompassed a tireless passion for artistic activity, consecration to a religious ideal, and ambition on a titanic scale. 

Bernini lived a long time, and he worked all his life. In his 70s, he would still spend unstinting days at labor and would put off his assistants who begged him to spare himself: “Let me be, for I am in love.”

In this excellent biography, Franco Mormando catches the full import of the artist’s prodigious yearning. 

In Bernini’s day, people would have unquestioningly accepted his obsessive creative drive not only as love but as yet another blessed case of divine furor. It was, in their eyes, his privileged share of the supernatural creative spark that God deigns to instill in a few chosen geniuses in each century. Similarly they would have applauded his incessant attempt to dazzle and amaze the world through his art—while outdoing his rivals—as a praiseworthy manifestation of the pursuit of worldly glory, honor, and immortality.

Mormando says straight-out that his book will skimp on the art itself—Howard Hibbard and Rudolf Wittkower have written superbly about it—and instead will concentrate on the man, who has never had a proper biography in English before. This is an eloquent portrait of a not-always-appealing character. 

Bernini was the kind of man who wanted the best of both worlds, this one and the next. It is not often easy to satisfy such disparate desires, but Bernini was fortunate in crucial respects. To begin with, he was fortunate in that his father, Pietro, was an artist of some note who came to specialize in sculpture. When Gian Lorenzo was 8, Pope Paul V called Pietro from Naples to Rome in order to work on the Pauline chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore. With the upsurge of Protestantism, the Catholic church had a lot to prove, and one way of preserving the faith was to overawe the faithful and the dubious with artistic magnificence. 

The church’s need provided Gian Lorenzo’s main chance. Youthful marvels of stonework caught the pope’s eye; Bernini would later claim he’d produced these at the age of 8, or even 6, but more disinterested accounts place the sculptures several years later. At any rate, by the time Gian Lorenzo was about 12, he and his father had enjoyed a private audience with the pope, arranged by Paul V’s aesthete nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese. The pope asked Gian Lorenzo to draw a head on the spot, and the boy tossed off a picture of Saint Paul. The winning command performance prompted the pontiff to hail the youth as the next Michelangelo. 

Henceforth, people on the street knew Gian Lorenzo by sight. Moreover, the Vatican opened its art collection to him, and he could not get enough of the masterworks there, particularly the classical sculpture, which he drew from morning till night for days on end. 

Seriousness about his art came early and never left him. Perhaps when he was 15, or more likely when he was 18, he carved an innovative St. Lawrence being roasted to death on the gridiron. Writes Mormando: 

Among its many distinctions, it represents the first time that any sculptor, much less a teenage one, dared to depict in cold, colorless marble such a challenging, intricate scene involving the contrasting elements of fire, flesh, hair, wood, and metal, at the same time capturing the inexpressibly subtle emotional state of the martyr.

According to legend, it was not inexpressible subtlety the artist originally looked for, but expressive horror: Bernini was said to have burned his own thigh so that he could note in a mirror the agony on his face. Se non è vero, è ben trovato. (If it’s not true, it’s a good story.) Mormando points out, parenthetically, that St. Lawrence doesn’t appear to be in agony, but approaches transcendent bliss.

By his early 20s, Bernini was already established as the leading sculptor in Rome, with such works as Aeneas and Anchises, The Rape of Proserpina, Apollo and Daphne, David, and portrait busts of Pope Paul V and Monsignor Pedro de Foix Montoya. Paul’s successor, Gregory XV, honored Bernini in 1621 with the title of Cavaliere, or Knight, in the Order of the Cross of Christ. When Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, whom Paul had entrusted with the young Bernini’s tutelage, became Pope Urban VII in 1623, he singled out his protégé as the man who was to make Rome resplendent, for the glory of God and the Barberini. 

Civic appointments and distinctions were showered upon Bernini: He oversaw the papal art gallery and foundry, the fountains, the major aqueducts. Making St. Peter’s Basilica the most luxurious church in Christendom became his principal occupation under Urban. He designed the spectacularly beautiful Baldacchino, the canopy over the main altar and St. Peter’s tomb, set on 60-foot-tall spiral bronze columns. He supervised the decoration of the four immense piers undergirding the dome. He sculpted a monumental St. Longinus, the Roman centurion who pierced Christ’s side with a spear and then realized, “Truly, he was the son of God.” (The sinner, converted on the spot, stands with his arms extended virtually cruciform, his awe and his guilty suffering of a piece.) On the side, Bernini produced masterly portrait busts of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, Cardinal Richelieu of France, and King Charles I of England.  

And this was not all Bernini did on the side. He began an affair, in 1636 or 1637, with Costanza Bonarelli, the wife of a sculptor colleague. Bernini’s portrait bust of Costanza shows an inelegant but desirable woman. Mormando says that she looks “full of vitality and self-possession.” To me, she looks frightened, and she certainly had reason to be: She was sleeping with Bernini’s brother, Luigi, and when Bernini found out, he chased Luigi around town trying to kill him. He also ordered a servant to slash Costanza’s face. Tumultuous scandal ensued. The servant was exiled; Bernini was initially fined. But Urban wound up giving him a free pass: The writ of exoneration hailed Bernini as “an exceptional human being, a sublime genius, born by directive of Divine Providence, in order to bring illumination to this century for the glory of Rome.” Bernini did change his ways afterward, marrying and becoming a devoted husband and the father of 11 children. He also took to practicing his faith with exceptional fervor.

With the accession of Innocent X in 1644, Bernini fell out of papal favor for a spell. It was mostly family politics: Innocent’s Pamphilj clan envied the wealth and power of the Barberini, while the former’s Spanish sympathies clashed with the latter’s French leanings. The new pope did not entirely cut Bernini out of the action: He retained his position as architect of St. Peter’s and was commissioned by Innocent to finish decorating its still-mostly-empty nave and side chapels. 

Nevertheless, the architect Francesco Borromini and the sculptor Alessandro Algardi started to impinge on Bernini’s territory. And when cracks began to appear in the façade of St. Peter’s Benediction Loggia, Borromini led the public cry that Bernini’s botched job on the still-unfinished bell towers was to blame. Innocent insisted that the bell towers come down, and Bernini’s politic courting and outright bribery of Innocent’s influential sister-in-law Donna Olimpia (the pope’s former lover) failed to keep his work from being demolished.  

Throughout this disgrace, and amid sudden family deaths and successive births, Bernini preserved his equanimity and kept on working hard. For the rest of his life, he attended Mass daily and received Communion twice a week.

Sometimes living right pays off, especially if you can come through with the goods. The Pamphilj family had an elegant residence on the Piazza Navona, and Innocent was having a family church, Sant’Agnese in Agone, built there. A fountain was needed to complete the effect, and competitors lined up with their designs. Bernini, on the outs with Innocent, secretly prepared a model, aware that if Innocent knew that it was his it wouldn’t stand a chance. According to Mormando, Olimpia arranged for the pope to see the unattributed silver model after a family dinner, and the pontiff did backflips: He praised the design for half-an-hour, declared that only Bernini could have done it—and that whatever he had against a man of such gifts must be forgotten. The Fontana dei Quattro Fiume, Fountain of the Four Rivers—with heroic figures representing the Nile, the Plate, the Ganges, and the Danube, and an obelisk standing in the middle—was finished in 1651 and remains a prime Roman landmark.  

Works done during the papacy of Innocent’s successor, Alexander VII, were more satisfactory to the artist. The colonnade of St. Peter’s Square, according to Bernini, embodies the church, “with maternally open arms, [receiving] Catholics to confirm them in their faith, heretics to reunite them with the Church, and infidels to illuminate them into the true faith.” The Cathedra Petri, the Chair of St. Peter, in the apse of the Vatican Basilica, is a wonder of scenic design and iconography in the service of a towering righteousness. For the Jesuits, Bernini built the Church of St. Andrea al Quirinale. 

Under trying political circumstances for the pope, who had run afoul of the superior and overweening power of France’s Louis XIV, Bernini was put on loan to Louis in 1665. As architect, he was to prepare designs for the new Louvre; as sculptor, he was to do the king’s portrait in marble. At the latter he succeeded better than at the former: His Louvre designs displeased everyone but himself, while his flamboyant portrait bust hit the mark of regal vanity. “In this kind of head one must bring out the qualities of the hero as well as make a good likeness,” Bernini explained.  

His return to Rome came as a relief, but Bernini’s old age would be full of trials. The commission from the new pope, Clement IX, an old Bernini friend, for his tomb monument in Santa Maggiore encountered exorbitant cost overruns, and Romans smelled corruption. In 1670, Bernini was sacked. Then things got worse: His equestrian statue for St. Peter’s, The Vision of Constantine, was received with indifference, and his brother Luigi, ever the reprobate, raped a young man as they stood in the vicinity of Constantine. The statutory punishment was burning at the stake, but Bernini begged the pope for a pardon and got Sweden’s Queen Christina, who revered him, to intercede as well. As part of the price for his brother’s pardon and return from exile, Bernini agreed to do a large marble statue for free. He was 77 when he carved the brilliant Death of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. It was his last major work. In 1680, Bernini died after a stroke.

Bernini could perform all manner of wonders in stone, but his supreme—and daring—artistry was with faces. He did not spare even his most important patrons: The 1623 bust of Paul V portrays a man concerned with the affairs of this world, and this world alone. The cannonball head and triple chin lapped in frou-frou bespeak luxury, gluttony, and pride. Of the pope’s infamous nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, there was no reputation for rectitude to undermine. The Venetian ambassador described him as “utterly given over to pleasures and pastimes,” including sport that went so far as the murder by his servants of a beautiful young man who had left the cardinal’s bed after a quarrel. In Bernini’s 1632 bust, the cardinal has dissolution written all over his corpulent mug.

But while Bernini rendered the moral rot of the hearts of men—and so beautifully, and so carefully, that they did not appear to mind—he also honored spiritual beauty where he found it. His bust of Monsignor Pedro de Foix Montoya (1621-22) represents noble happiness within severe discipline. Montoya’s visage radiates ascetic contentment. In the David (1623-24), Bernini turns his skill to divinely appointed heroism in the throes of action. His young athlete twists and strains ferociously to ready his sling for a mighty heave. The violent torsion of Bernini’s figure could not be more different from the beauty in repose of Michelangelo’s David: Michelangelo shows heroism that has been won and perfected; Bernini shows heroism proving itself. In Michelangelo’s version, physical magnificence is an object of aesthetic rapture; in Bernini’s, it is a model for martial valor. 

But Bernini’s most renowned sculpture, the one he called his most beautiful, is Saint Teresa in Ecstasy (1645-52), in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria, a small Carmelite church. Against a stunningly elaborate mise en scène, an angel prepares to plunge a golden spear into the heart of the saint, who, as evidenced by her convulsed features, has plainly been transfixed. In the saint’s autobiography, she describes the mystical ravishing: 

When he pulled [the spear] out, I felt he took [my entrails] with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God. This is not a physical, but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it—even a considerable share.

Bernini’s Teresa looks to be melting away. The shape of her body is lost, enfolded in liquid drapery; only her face, one hand, and one bare foot are visible. Teresa’s expression is famously, and notoriously, orgasmic. Writes Mormando: “The statue titillates our senses as it provokes our wonder, if not our shock, about this blatant melding of the spiritual and sexual, within a Catholic church in the city of the popes during supposedly morally vigilant times of the Counter-Reformation.”

Algis Valiunas is a writer in Florida.