No single artist has left a more prominent fingerprint on a city that Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Rome. His work is everywhere- his breathtaking statues are in museums and churches, his architectural designs in plazas and church facades, his designs in the grand fountains of old Rome, and endless jaw-dropping works adorn the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. He’s pretty much unavoidable, not that you would want to avoid such work. Bernini (1598-1680) is the greatest sculptor of the Italian Baroque, and he worked most of his life at the commission of church officials in Rome and at the Vatican. Baroque artists pushed the ideas of Renaissance artists to their breaking point, creating works with dynamic energy. Caravaggio, arguably the greatest of Baroque painters, used intense theatrical light, dynamic body positioning and in-your-face subject matter. Bernini created astounding sculptures that push the limit of stone, sculpting his figures at the moment of high-action. Consider his take on “David” in comparison with Michelangelo’s “David” from 120 years earlier.
Michelangelo’s “David” is at a moment of quiet confidence and strength. He is grounded and stoic, a perfect hero who is just about to kill Goliath or already has. Bernini’s “David” is actually in the act of throwing the stone, his body twisted like a big spring ready to release all of its energy. The rope sling is pulled taut, as are the visible muscles and tendons beneath his skin. His eyes are focused on the target, and he bites his lip in total concentration. Bernini’s incredible skill as a sculptor earned him every grand commission that there was during his lifetime, and he was lucky enough to live long enough to tackle all the work. His attention to detail and ability to push his work to unprecedented levels of intensity is a common trait.
Another amazing early work of Bernini’s is his “Apollo and Daphne”, which depicts the very moment in the mythological tale that Daphne turns into a tree after she is captured by Apollo, the result of a spell cast by her father the river god. Her fingers turn into leaves and her legs to bark and the trunk of the tree. She cries in terror as she is transformed. What Bernini is doing here is absolutely crazy: there’s a reason why stone sculpture figures from previous times are stoic and still, and it’s because stone can’t be manipulated to tell an action narrative, to actually show a transformation. Yet, that’s what his piece does.
When you move around it, you can actually see her changing and it feels active. Apollo is also in motion, with a huge billowing piece of drapery that must weigh hundred of pounds extending off of his back into the wind, as if he is jumping into the air to grab her. The very fact that Bernini even tackled such an impossible subject in stone is mighty impressive. What’s even more impressive is that Bernini was only 25 when he made “David” and “Apollo and Daphne”.
There are lots of great resources on Bernini and I’ll devote later posts to his work inside St. Peter’s Basilica, his architectural designs for the Vatican and his famous fountains in Piazza Navona. For now, I highly recommend another episode of Simon Schama’s “Power of Art” on Bernini, which includes some stunning video of the sculptures that moves around them and gives a real sense of how amazing they are. The video centers around one of Bernini’s most famous works, “The Ecstasy of St. Theresa” and is one of the great art documentaries. You’ll discover pretty quickly in watching it that Simon Schama’s take is raw and uncut, but then again, so is Bernini. The film doesn’t at all shy away from the motivation of Bernini’s work, which has all the makings of a scandalous baroque soap opera. It’s raw but it is real, and you will have a much better grasp on Bernini after watching it.