Tag Archive: Bernini


Gian Lorenzo Bernini was a true master of the Baroque, and his mark is everywhere on Rome. His tremendously real and impossibly difficult action sculptures of “David”, “Apollo and Daphne”, and “the Rape of Persephone” are found at the Borghese, and his statues and fountains are all over the place, most famously his “Fountain of the Four Rivers” in Piazza Navona. As if that weren’t enough, he forever altered and enhanced the visual experience of St. Peter’s Basilica. He spent decades in service of the Catholic Church, and was the logical choice when it came to commissioning the creation of art works to fill such an enormous place.

Let’s start with Bernini’s Baldacchino. St. Peter’s Basilica is shaped like a cross, with the very center positioned over the tomb of St. Peter. This is where the high altar of St. Peter’s is, the literal center of Catholicism. Above the tomb and towering over the main floor of the interior is a huge cloth-looking canopy with shimmering angels supported by 4 spiral pillars 60 feet high. The entire work is made entirely out of cast bronze, and was finished in 1634 after 11 years of work. Traditionally, a cloth canopy called a Baldacchino was carried over the head of the Pope on holy days, so the form goes back long before Bernini. Bernini masterfully designed his canopy to appear both powerful and grounded, yet also intricate and delicate. Decorative tassels hang off of the draped cloth, yet it is all metal. The peak of the cloth supports a towering cross on a sphere, which represents the world saved by Christianity. The spiral columns are called Solomonic columns. In the 4th century, the Christian emperor Constantine supposedly brought spiral columns back to Rome from Jerusalem, claiming they were part of Solomon’s temple. Those columns stood for a thousand years as part of Old St. Peters, and are seen today  built into the supports of the church across from Bernini’s Baldacchino. Bernini took the twisting form of the Solomonic column and enlarged it as the base. It is amazing form in bronze, with intricate leafing and designs from bottom to top. The Baldacchino was an enormous undertaking, and had to be cast in many pieces before being assembled and completed. At the time, it was a controversial. Supposedly, all the bronze, which is of unimaginable value, was stripped from the interior ceiling of the Pantheon and melted down. Of course, most of ancient Rome was pillaged for building material, and St. Peter’s uses a lot of it.

Directly past the Baldacchino at the far end of St. Peters is the “Cathedra Petri”, or “Throne of St. Peter”, completed in 1666. Bernini, along with other architects and artists at St. Peters envisioned a glorious work at the end of the Cathedral to enhance the experience of looking down the central nave past the Baldacchino. The work holds the relic of St. Peter’s throne (which is most likely a chair from the 12th century). Bernini’s design is a much larger symbolic chair that houses the relic, surrounded by large sculptures of the 4 doctors of the church and a towering cloud of bronze angels that bursts out of the columned architecture of the cathedral. The massive work, also in cast bronze, takes up the entire space in the front of St. Peter’s, and is based around a huge stained glass window with a white dove of peace. The dove is 6 feet wide, which is astounding to realize when you view the work. It really puts into perspective just how massive the entire work is. To accentuate the look of glorious light through the window and past the many hovering bronze angels, Bernini has added beams of light also made of bronze strips. The end effect is visually stunning. It is without question one of the most beautiful sculptures in the world. 

One of Bernini’s final masterpieces is his Monument to Alexander VII, which is a much smaller work above an exit door near his other great sculptures. It remains fascinating, among Bernini’s strangest works for what it depicts and the material Bernini uses. He was 80 at the time, and made the work with the help of assistants who completed the figures. Alexander VII, who commissioned the work but died before its completion, is depicted kneeling in prayer at the top. The elderly Bernini most likely worked on the statue of the Pope. 4 figures, personifying Justice, Truth, Prudence and Charity, were designed in drawings and a model and passed on to assistants.The figures are allegorical in their positioning. For example, the figure of Truth, seen to the far right, rests her foot on a globe, specifically on England, where the rise of the Anglican church was a thorn in the side of Pope Alexander VII. The strangest part of the monument is the figure of death, seen as a bronze skeleton emerging from the door. In his hand he holds an hourglass, a reminder that death comes to all and our time on earth is limited. His head and a large part of the upper door are obscured by a large cloth shroud made of precious colored stone. The entire work is really all about contrast. The Pope and the 4 figures are all in white marble, contrasted with the bronze skeleton and the amazingly intricate colored shroud, which has been carved in such a way that the natural pattern of the stone adds to the effect of folded cloth.

Bernini’s greatest contribution to the Vatican is his architectural design for the Piazza San Pietro. Bernini envisioned a huge open space that would enhance the grandness of St. Peters, bracketed on both sides by a curved open colonnade. The structure resembles 2 enormous arms, welcoming people to the Cathedral. The piazza is based around a huge oval, with an Egyptian obelisk at the center. The Obelisk was brought to Rome in ancient times and erected at Nero’s Circus, the huge chariot racing track that stood where St. Peter’s currently does. The obelisk was moved to its current location in 1586, a process which took 13 months. Bernini designed the piazza to surround it. Along the entire top of the cathedral are hundreds of statues of biblical figures saints and created by Bernini’s workshop. The piazza closest to the front of the Cathedral is not a square- rather, the colonnade is slightly narrower toward the oval, which gives the illusion that the church is even more massive from below. Everything about St. Peter’s square is designed to heighten the sense of awe that the viewer has in entering the Vatican. In more recent times, a neighborhood of dense houses stood in the way of St. Peters square, so that when a visitor came around the final corner and into the piazza, the effect was mind-blowing. Today, a huge open road runs all the way to the Castel St. Angelo and the river. Lost forever is the total surprise that visitors felt when they entered the Vatican for the first time.

The sheer amount of work by Bernini in and around Rome and the Vatican is staggering. He truly was among the most prolific and exceptional artists who ever lived. I would encourage you to watch Simon Schama’s Power of Art video on Bernini if you haven’t. Here’s a great little video on St. Peter’s Square- Enjoy.

Today in Rome, north of the Spanish Steps and the old city center is a large open park called the Borghese gardens. They at one time belonged to the Borghese family, who were at the top of Rome’s wealthy upper-class elites.They produced a Pope (Pope Paul V), who upon becoming Pope placed family members in areas of power throughout the church, further increasing their wealth and influence. The Pope’s nephew was Scipione Borghese, seen in this picture to the right in a portrait bust by Bernini. Scipione (pronounced Ship-eee-own) was a Cardinal in the church and a great patron of the arts. He built the family estate and the Borghese gardens, and set about commissioning great works of art to fill it. He was a key collector and patron of Caravaggio’s paintings, and discovered the young Bernini, who became his private sculptor from 1618 to 1624.

Bernini  was to become the greatest Baroque sculptor, redefining the limits of the medium. There’s a reason why sculptures often show figures in still, heroic poses: for the artist, it’s easier to carve a still figure than one in motion, and that’s just the way it had always been, with notable exceptions like the Laocoon, see here. Bernini pushed sculpture to levels of complexity that were unheard of. He saw his figures at moments of high action, in motion and in the act of transformation. It’s a common theme to his work. Consider this work of an amazingly expressive screaming man, called “The Damned Soul”. It’s actually a self portrait sculpture of Bernini, one he made by allegedly holding his hand over an open flame to study the facial distortions of his painful screams.

He was a young man in his years sculpting for Scipione, only in his 20s. Yet, he made some of his most enduring sculptures at that time. This includes his energetic “David”- who intently prepares to release the stone on Goliath, and his mythological “Apollo and Daphne”, depicting the very moment Daphne transforms into a tree. For analysis on those sculptures and a great film on Bernini, check out this earlier POST.

The other masterpiece Bernini made in the period is the “Rape of Persephone”, also called “Pluto and Proserpina”. The word rape is a strong word- to Bernini in this work, it meant “abduction”. What we see is Pluto(also called Hades), the powerful god of the underworld, kidnapping Persephone and carrying her away. In true Bernini fashion, the act is captured at a moment of intense motion and struggle.She twists her body to free herself, resisting Pluto by pushing against his forehead with her hand. Her other arm is outstretched for help. It’s hard to see her face, but she screams in agony as visible tears, carved into the marble, slide from her eyes and down her cheeks. An elaborate drapery flows in the wind and captures the movement of the struggle as Pluto reaches across his body and grabs onto her thigh. Bernini envisioned the sculpture as an unfolding event, one that could be read from 3 sides. From the left, seen here, we see the initial struggle and resistance of Persephone. From the front, Pluto is seen arriving in the underworld, and appears in command of his captured victim. From the right, we see the aftermath and the three-headed dog Cerberus (who guards the underworld) along with Persephone’s tears.

It’s a truly amazing sculpture that boasts one of the most remarkable detail images in all of sculpture. As Pluto grabs Persephone’s thigh, Bernini has carved the veins and tendons below the skin of hands, and the indentation of flesh on her leg. It’s one of those images that’s so astonishingly real, it is often mistaken for a photograph when you see reproductions. All this is made even more impressive when you consider it’s stone, carved nearly 400 years ago by a sculptor only 23 years old.

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-