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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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.