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.