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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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.