Tag Archive: Caravaggio

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.

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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.



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.