Tag Archive: Baroque


Piazza Navona lies in the heart of old Rome, surrounded by stunning Baroque buildings. It still follows the elongated horseshoe shape of Emperor Domitian’s Stadium in Ancient Rome, and has been a public space since the 1500s. It’s where Caravaggio killed a rival artist supposedly in a dispute over a tennis game. Pope Innocent X, who was Pope from 1644-1655, had a family residence on the Piazza, so he made sure the very best architects and artists of the time went to work there. This includes buildings by Bernini and his arch rival, Borromini. At its center of the piazza is yet another Bernini masterpiece from 1651, the “Fountain of Four Rivers”. As we’ve seen with Bernini’s previous work, baroque sculpture is really all about pushing the figure to its most dynamic position. Often, Bernini’s sculptures are like high-action snapshots, the figure frozen in a moment of intense action movement.

Commissioned by Pope Innocent X, the huge fountain depicts 4 mythological figures, representing what were known as the 4 major rivers in the world in the 1600s: the Ganges in Asia, the Danube in Europe, the Nile in Africa, and the Plate in the Americas. Each figure is surrounded by animals and plants that fit these locations, and function as allegories to the rivers. GANGES is large and relaxed, holding a large oar to represent the navigability of the river, which is broad and deep. DANUBE reaches back and touches a papal crest (which includes the keys of St. Peter), because the Danube is the closest of the great rivers to Rome. NILE has a piece of cloth covering his head, which symbolizes the unknown origins of the Nile ate the time. Finally, the PLATE is seen sitting on a pile of coins, symbolizing the riches that the Americas would bring Europe. The name Plate, or Rio del la Plata, is Spainish for  River of Silver. The entire fountain supports a large ancient Egyptian obelisk, brought to Rome in ancient times and reassembled to fit here.

I tried to find an interesting Youtube video to show the fountain, and there are hundreds of horrible quality tourist videos. I did find this one though, an HD video from a guy savvy enough to film the entire Piazza early in the morning before the hoards arrive. It’s a little jittery and there’s some loud street sweepers in the background, but the visuals are wonderful. The video looks at the entire Piazza, including the 2 other fountains (also with designs by Bernini) and the historic buildings.

If you haven’t already done so, be sure to read the other posting on Bernini here and watch Simon Schama’s amazing “Power of Art” film. Much more to come on Bernini-

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.

Enjoy-

Caravaggio

When you walk through the old neighborhoods of Rome within blocks of Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and the convent where we are staying, you’re walking the turf of arguably the greatest painter who ever lived. Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio is a true master of painting who lived and worked in Baroque Rome when it was a very seedy and dangerous place. His style of chiaroscuro (or dramatic dark and light)and in-your-face style of painting was revolutionary when he burst onto the scene in 1600. His works are intense and overly dramatic, often brutal, but undeniably powerful. They are also scattered all around Rome waiting to be found, hanging in little side churches where you have to insert a coin to turn on the lights for a few minutes.

As if Caravaggio’s paintings weren’t fascinating enough, he possesses perhaps the most wild biographical story of any artist. It wasn’t enough for Caravaggio to be a revolutionary painter. He was a tortured person who lived for trouble, painting controversial paintings by day and picking sword duels and bar fights by night. He was arrested by the Roman authorities many times and the prison records still exist. Eventually, he killed a rival artist in a sword duel just off of Piazza Navona, and fled south to Naples to save his skin. Not surprisingly, he died young and under mysterious circumstances. His works remain a direct result of his violent nature. There is a fantastic documentary on Caravaggio as part of Simon Schama’s POWER of ART series. It’s in 4 parts- part 1 is here:

This is the best film on Caravaggio. Like his work, it’s in your face and brutal, but you should absolutely watch it before you go to Rome. Enjoy.