Gian Lorenzo Bernini

The Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) almost singlehandedly created high baroque sculpture. His work in architecture, although more conservative, ranks him among the three or four major architects of the 17th century.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born in Naples on Dec. 7, 1598. His mother was Neapolitan. He was trained as a sculptor by his father, Pietro, who came from Florence. But Bernini was Roman: he was brought to Rome as a child; he remained there almost all his life; and he absorbed completely Rome's dual heritage of empire and papacy.

Not long after Pietro Bernini moved from Naples to Rome, he began work on the sculpture of the Pauline Chapel, the enormous addition to S. Maria Maggiore built for the reigning pope, Paul V. This commission gave the elder Bernini an opportunity to introduce his son, who was a child prodigy, to the Pope and the Pope's favorite nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese. The cardinal, a man of vast wealth with a real passion for art, was to become Bernini's first important patron.

In his youth Bernini made the customary studies of the work of Raphael and Michelangelo. But Hellenistic sculpture and Roman sculpture in the Hellenistic tradition were to influence his development far more, and it was largely from these ancient sources that he drew the powerfully dynamic and fluid style that was to characterize his mature work. Contemporary painting as well, by Caravaggio, the Carracci, and Guido Reni, was to play a role in his stylistic formation.

Under the rule of the Barberini pope, Urban VIII (1623-1644), Bernini dominated the artistic scene in Rome. His commissions were so large that he had to draw into his studio most of the sculptors then working in Rome. From this time on, Bernini's bigger works were usually executed by assistants, working from his designs and under his close supervision.

With Urban's successor, Innocent X, Bernini's fortunes changed. Finding the papal treasury empty and the purses of his predecessor's family filled beyond their wildest dreams, the new pope drove the Barberini from Rome and rejected everyone, Bernini included, who had belonged to their circle. At the same time sculptors and architects who had been envious of Bernini's fabulous success rushed to attack him on trumped-up charges that the lofty bell tower Bernini had erected on the facade of St. Peter's was pulled down. But Bernini's trials were short-lived. He was soon back in favor, hard at work for Innocent X, who had found it impossible to find another artist with half Bernini's talent. For the rest of his life each succeeding pope sought his services.

During Bernini's later years the spiritual content of his art deepened. Under the guidance of his close friend and religious counselor Father Gian Paolo Oliva, the head of the Jesuit order, he made intensive studies of the writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola and carried out the spiritual exercises the saint prescribed. He attended mass daily.

In 1665, when he was an old man, Bernini was called to France. The idea was to have the world's most famous artist, Bernini, serve the world's most powerful monarch, Louis XIV. The architect was to build a royal palace, a new and grander Louvre, for the King. Bernini's trip from Rome to Paris was like the triumphal procession of a great lord. But less than 6 months after he arrived, he was ready to go home, disillusioned by court intrigue and his lack of sympathy for almost anything French. (In Paris he considered himself surrounded by cultural barbarians.) His designs for the Louvre were never carried out.

Back in Rome, Bernini's creative imagination remained undiminished even into old age, though as his strength failed him he depended more and more on assistants to carry out his designs. He died in Rome on Nov. 28, 1680.

Sculptural Style

Of Bernini's early work for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the most spectacular is the life-size marble group Apollo and Daphne (1622-1624). Bernini was totally baroque in his choice of the monument of maximum drama: a split second of climax in the midst of movement and change. The story, told by Ovid, is that Cupid's arrows inflamed Apollo with love for the wood nymph Daphne, who was predestined to reject the love of all men. She fled with Apollo in pursuit, and at the moment he was about to overtake her she was transformed into a laurel tree. In Bernini's sculpture the metamorphosis is happening before our eyes. As Apollo reaches out to touch her side, Daphne leaps into the air. Branches filled with leaves sprout from her fingers, roots from her toes, bark from her thigh. Nothing like it had ever been done in sculpture before. The whole group, including the many fragile leaves on slender stems, was carved from one block of marble. From this single block Bernini created the wide range of textures with which he convincingly differentiated earth, bark, skin, cloth, leaves, and hair.

For Pope Urban VIII Bernini created the Triton Fountain (1642-1643) in the square where the Barberini had their palace. Its design is sheer fantasy. Four sinuous dolphins turn up their tails to support a giant two-sided sea-shell on which is seated a triton blowing a conch. Though the fountain is architectural in scale, it remains sculptural in concept. Throughout the whole mass there is not a straight line or a right angle. There is no division between the parts that are organic and those that are inorganic: all are equally undulant, equally alive. Water is an integral part of the composition. Rising in a great jet that spurts up from the triton's conch, it splashes down into the basins formed by the double shell and, spilling over the edges, falls into the surrounding pool. In all Bernini's fountains the movement of the water increases the sense of movement inherent in the sculpture. It contributes a still further dimension with its sound: water falling, splashing, breaking, dripping, and gurgling as it drains away. Bernini created the baroque fountain. It was one of his most brilliant achievements. His examples inspired a host of imitations throughout Rome and all of Europe.

During the reign of Innocent X, when Bernini was temporarily in disgrace, he created the Cornaro Chapel in the small Roman church of S. Maria della Vittoria (1644-1655). The central group in the chapel depicts the mystical vision of St. Theresa. The saint herself described how once, when she floated on air in ecstatic rapture, an angel appeared before her and plunged the golden arrow of Divine Love repeatedly into her heart.

In Bernini's concept of the vision, the saint and the angel, both of white marble, seem to float in a niche above the altar. They are bathed in divine light in the form of gilded rays from above but also by natural daylight that comes mysteriously and without explanation from a hidden window. The scene is set within a complex architectural niche that bows outward as if impelled by the force of the miraculous vision. The ceiling of the chapel is painted to give the illusion that part of the roof has melted away. Into the open space overhead floats a vision of heaven with angels on cloud banks who circle round the dove of the Holy Ghost. Below, along the side walls of the chapel, there are marble reliefs representing members of the Cornaro family, who kneel in prayer. Bernini's statue of St. Theresa, at the center of the chapel, is the most famous representation of ecstasy in art. The swooning saint sustained on a cloud appears in a void, removed from direct contact with earthly things. Overcome by her vision, she lies limp, head fallen back, eyes closed, arms and legs dangling. In sharp contrast, the violent agitation of her garments serves to reveal the agitation of her soul.

The high baroque portrait, which Bernini invented, is exemplified in the bust of Francesco d'Este (1650-1651). Always the mood is momentary, here conveyed by the sharply turned head and focused eyes. Often the lips are slightly parted, as if the sitter were about to speak. Elements surrounding the face serve to indicate social position. Here the magnificent wig with its cascade of curls sets up patterns of light and shadow, while the great, deeply cut drapery whose billowing folds engulf the torso makes the sitter appear larger than life.

The large marble Angel with Crown of Thorns that Bernini carved in the years 1667-1669 shows his late style. The statue was conceived as part of a large group of figures, each holding a symbol of the Passion of Christ. The angel's face is pained, but in these late works it is the drapery that becomes the major vehicle for the emotions. No longer is there any interest, as there was with the Apollo and Daphne, in realistic textures. Instead, the robe is transformed into a series of thin ridges whose sharp, insistent rhythms lick around the body like flames. The expressive intensity of works such as this reflects Bernini's own deepening mysticism at the end of his life.

Architectural Works

As an architect, Bernini was less radical than as a sculptor and more concerned with the monumental heritage of imperial Rome. For the plan of S. Andrea al Quirinale in Rome (1658-1670) he went back to the Pantheon with its alternating chapels that ring a circular dome. But Bernini changed the circular plan to an oval one to make the space more active, and he added an enclosed area for the high altar where the light pours down from a window. The interior is inlaid with the richest colored marbles and is accented with architectural ornament of such refinement that the effect is often compared to a jewel box.

Bernini's crowning achievement in architecture was St. Peter's Square in Rome (1656-1667). The section nearest the church is a trapezoid, but the main part of the square is an enormous oval partially enclosed by two semicircular colonnades. The square provides a monumental entrance to St. Peter's and a place where crowds, up to half a million at a time, gather to receive the pope's blessing. Bernini is known to have visualized the square symbolically as arms reaching out to embrace a multitude of the faithful. Architecturally the idea of freestanding colonnades that contain the space of a circular square was Bernini's invention, but the inspiration went back to imperial Rome. Apart from the row of statues on the balustrade, Bernini's square has little ornament. The travertine columns are severely simple, unfluted Tuscan Doric. Individually they speak softly, but when hundreds are massed together the effect is amplified, like waves of the sea.

Universal Man

Bernini is the last of the so-called universal men in the world of art. Primarily a sculptor, the greatest since Michelangelo, he was also one of the great architects of the age. He was once widely famed as a painter, though few of his canvases can be identified today. He also created designs for an endless series of temporary objects—funeral decorations, processional chariots, intricate torches, portable thrones—all the paraphernalia of pageantry so dear to the hearts of the baroque age.

Bernini won fabulous acclaim for his theater spectaculars. He wrote plays and staged those by others in the vast theater of the Barberini Palace. For these he invented stage machinery to produce effects that amazed his audiences: rising platforms filled with people, sheets of water that seemed about to flood the theater, flames that seemed about to destroy it. John Evelyn, an Englishman in Rome in 1644, wrote in his diary: "Bernini … gave a public opera wherein he painted the scenes, cut the statues, invented the engines, composed the music, writ the comedy, and built the theatre."

Further Reading on Gian Lorenzo Bernini

The best book on Bernini's sculpture is Rudolf Wittkower, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the Sculptor of the Roman Baroque (1955; 2d ed. 1966). Wittkower's Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600-1750 (1958; rev. ed. 1965), includes a section on Bernini as an architect. Howard Hibbard, Bernini (1966), is a good, popular study based on Wittkower. A contemporary view of Bernini is Filippo Baldinucci, The Life of Bernini (1682; trans. 1966). For the 17th-century Italian and European background see David Ogg, Europe in the Seventeenth Century (1925; 8th ed. 1961), and Carl J. Friedrich, The Age of the Baroque, 1610-1660 (1952).

Additional Biography Sources

Bernini in perspective, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976.

Borsi, Franco, Bernini, New York: Rizzoli, 1984, 1980.

Scribner, Charles, Gianlorenzo Bernini, New York: H.N. Abrams, Publishers, 1991.