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.