Gian Lorenzo Bernini – The Man and the Artist
Bernini was born in Naples to a Mannerist sculptor, Pietro Bernini, originally from Florence and a respected artist in his own right. No one was to know that this child was to grow into the towering figure that ruled the Baroque period of art in the 17th century. He turned his hand to architecture, painting, stage design and his preferred sculpture and dominated the European stage in all these areas. He was truly the first multi-media artist with an ego to match. A megalomaniac of the highest order with the technical and creative skills to match such an ego!
At the age of seven he accompanied his father to Rome, where Pietro Bernini became involved in several high profile projects. There as a boy, fiddling about in his father’s studio, the precocious child was soon noticed by the painter Annibale Carracci whose patron was Pope Paul V. Both saw in the boy a prodigy who worked diligently to earn the praise that was bestowed upon him. Bernini’s early works attracted the attention of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a member of the reigning papal family and the Pope’s nephew. Such an important patron was to set the tone for the rest of the artists life, where he lived like a Prince in his adopted Rome, surrounding himself with its most powerful and important citizens.
Rome gave him the opportunity to study with his surgical eye and substantial intellect, the best sculptural pieces from antiquity. He was strongly influenced by his close study of the antique Greek and Roman marbles in the Vatican, and he also had an intimate knowledge of High Renaissance painting of the early 16th century. His study of Michelangelo Buonarroti is revealed in the St Sebastian (c.1617), carved for Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who was later Pope Urban VIII and Bernini’s greatest patron.
Cardinal Borghese’s early patronage of Bernini helped to establish him as the leading Italian sculptor and architect of the seventeenth century. The young artist was able to explore and develop his sculptural ideas and techniques in complete freedom, having won over the support and affection of this most refined and important nobleman. Between 1618 and 1624, Bernini worked primarily for the Cardinal, creating for him innovative pieces that served to define Baroque principles in sculpture. For the decoration of the Villa Borghese, Bernini produced a life-sized statue of David (1623), originally displayed to create the impression that he was hurling a stone directly at the spectator, and three sculptural groups with mythological themes, including his mesmerising Apollo and Daphne, sculptured between 1622–25. In 1632, Bernini executed two marble portrait busts of Cardinal Borghese (both in the Galleria Borghese in Rome). These works capture the exuberance that the Cardinal’s friends admired and which his critics decried as frivolity inappropriate to his office.
It certainly helps to have friends in high places and Bernini certainly had those. By the age of 25, he was an intimate of Pope Urban VIII, dining with him frequently, and that friendship continued for the full 20 years that the Pope remained on his throne. The Pope had been eager to find a second Michelangelo to glorify his papacy and further beautify the Eternal City. Bernini was his man, from first to last. He is “a rare man,” wrote the Pope, “a sublime artificer, born by divine Disposition and for the glory of Rome to illuminate the century”. It was Urban VIII who perhaps fearing that his beloved artist might be tempted to live permanently in France, as a guest of the King, issued a Papal Bull that in part read “Rome was created for Bernini and Bernini was created for Rome.” Needless to say the artist lived out his adult life mostly in Rome, dying there a rich, respected and much revered artist on November 28, 1680. A discreet floor tomb in Santa Maria Maggiore marks his grave, but very close to the high alter of that important church.
Rome became the drawing room of Bernini, filled with his sculpture, architecture and town planning. From the master sculptures in the Borghese Gallery, his swooning Santa Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria, the almost overpowering Piazza of St.Peters and the massive production of sculptures, light-shows and decorations within. The dominating presence of the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, Palazzo Barberini (from 1630 on which he worked with Borromini); Palazzo Ludovisi (now Palazzo Montecitorio); and Palazzo Chigi. He helped design the Ponte Sant’Angelo, sculpting two of the angels, soon replaced by copies by his own hand, while the others were made by his pupils based on his designs. Rome was his canvas and upon it he created one masterpiece after another.
Bernini’s universal genius dominated Italian art in the seventeenth century much as the brooding, intense Michelangelo had dominated the sixteenth. It was Bernini who created, virtually single-handed, our very perception of the Rome of the Baroque era. Fortunately for us, it is all still there to see today.