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Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers(Dale Halbur / iStockphoto.com)

Bernini's Genius

The Baroque master animated 17th-century Rome with his astonishing sculpture and architecture

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Gian Lorenzo Bernini was said to have been only 8 when he carved a stone head that "was the marvel of everyone" who saw it, according to a contemporary biographer. He was not much older when he dazzled Pope Paul V, who reportedly declared, "We hope that this youth will become the Michelangelo of his century." Prophetic words: over a long lifetime, Bernini undertook commissions for eight popes, transforming the look of 17th-century Rome as Michelangelo had helped shape Florence and Rome a century before. Much of the Baroque grandeur of the Eternal City—its churches, fountains, piazzas and monuments—can be credited to Bernini and his followers.

Yet, despite his artistic stature, Bernini is only now receiving his first major American exhibition—at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (through October 26) and then at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (November 28, 2008-March 8, 2009). One explanation for the oversight is obvious, says Catherine Hess, associate curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the Getty and a co-curator of the exhibition. "How do you move Piazza San Pietro?" Like that grand piazza, which Bernini designed in front of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, the enormous marble sculptures for which the artist is best known are for all practical purposes untransportable. What does that leave? As it happens, a significant body of work: especially the portrait busts, a genre in which the young Bernini demonstrated that he was head and shoulders above the competition. "All the things that make Bernini great can be found in his portrait busts," says Hess.

By mid-career, as he became busier with large-scale ventures, Bernini did fewer busts—"only popes and kings, people you couldn't say no to," says exhibition co-curator Andrea Bacchi, professor at the University of Trento in Italy. But Bacchi believes one reason that the sculptor stopped doing busts after he got successful is that he valued them too highly to allow his assistants to take over the carving. By focusing this exhibition on portrait busts—including rare Italian loans that come as implicit thanks for the Getty's agreement last year to return some 40 antiquities said to have been excavated and exported illegally—the curators present a Bernini retrospective that is both intimate and revealing.

Bernini's prodigious output was the result of his skill at organization and his tireless self-discipline. He said that if he put together all the hours he spent on meals and sleep in his lifetime, he doubted whether they would add up to a full month. (A slim, dark-complexioned man who avoided the sun for fear of migraine headaches, Bernini typically ate only a small plate of meat and a large quantity of fruit each day.) At a young age, he was already managing a supporting cast of talented assistants. And he himself would labor for seven hours without interruption on a block of marble. According to a friend's description, the sculptor could carry on a lively conversation about the topics of the day, all the while "crouching, stretching...marking the marble with charcoal in a hundred places, and striking with the hammer in a hundred others; that is, striking in one place, and looking in the opposite place." Often Bernini proceeded without a terra-cotta model and sometimes even without a subject in front of him, realizing a vision that resided in his mind.

Indeed, he was a highly original thinker, not merely a consummate craftsman. In the many different arts he pursued—sculpture, architecture, painting, even playwriting—his works expressed ideas. Behind every Bernini masterpiece there lies a concetto, its governing concept or conceit. One concetto that fascinated the sculptor throughout his career was the attempt to overcome the limitations of his materials. When he was carving white marble, for example, he tried to suggest color: fashioning the eyes in his portrait busts, he would incise the irises deeply so that they lay in shadow and appeared dark. Even more ambitiously, he sought to imbue cold, inanimate stone with warmth, movement and life. Instead of positioning the subject of his busts straight on, he might have the head turning to the side or the fabric of the garment askew. In a number of his best sculptures, he pioneered what has been called a "speaking likeness," capturing a person in action or at the point of uttering words. He explained to an associate that "to make a successful portrait, one should choose an action and attempt to represent it well; that the best time to render the mouth is when [the subject] has just spoken or is just about to begin speaking; that one should try to catch this moment."

Cardinal Maffeo Barberini (later Pope Urban VIII) was once part of a group admiring a new Bernini bust (above left) of Monsignor Pedro de Foix Montoya—sharp-cheeked, furrow-browed and thick-mustached—when the monsignor himself entered the room. Barberini went up and touched the priest and said, "This is the portrait of Monsignor Montoya," then faced the marble bust and declared, "And this is Monsignor Montoya."

In his long career, no modeling job was more important to Bernini than fashioning his own image. "He wanted to create a legend around himself," Bacchi says. Recent scholarship reveals that the two seminal and supposedly independent biographies of the artist, begun toward the end of his life (one by his son Domenico), relied on information that Bernini himself supplied. And much of that he may have doctored. Many historians, for instance, believe that Bernini shaved a few years off his age when recounting the tale of the marvelous stone bust he claimed to have carved at age 8; he was probably in his early teens. Pope Paul V's comparison of Bernini to Michelangelo was another notion that the sculptor vigorously promoted. "If it isn't something that he invented, which he may have, it is something that he fostered very much in the later years of his life," says Tod Marder, professor of art history at Rutgers University. "Bernini was very familiar with the accounts of Michelangelo. He used that familiarity in cobbling together an account of his own life and career." Consequently, as Bacchi observes, "it is a strange fact that you know so much about the life of the artist from the artist himself, but you have to double-check everything."

At the time of Bernini's birth, in 1598, painting was the exciting art form in Rome—especially the new and startling realism of Caravaggio. Sculpture had become the domain of a worn-out Mannerism, replete with formulaic affectations and exaggerations. Bernini's father, Pietro, was such a sculptor. Of Tuscan origins, he had moved to Rome from Naples with his Neapolitan wife, Angelica Galante, when Gian Lorenzo was about 8. Ruled by the popes, who were constructing lavish churches and monuments, Rome was the place for a sculptor to find work.

Pietro encouraged his gifted son. When a visitor to his studio asked if he felt threatened by the prospect of his child surpassing him, Pietro replied, "It doesn't bother me, for as you know, in that case the loser wins." Among the powerful and well-connected art connoisseurs who recognized the boy's talent was Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who commis-sioned four colossal marble statues from him—Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius Fleeing Troy; David; The Rape of Persephone; and Apollo and Daphne. These established Bernini, in his early to mid-20s at the time, as the city's pre-eminent sculptor, and they continue to dazzle present-day visitors to the Villa Borghese, the cardinal's palatial Roman residence, now a museum.

With his David, Bernini took a subject that other great sculptors had tackled before him and made it his own. Instead of depicting the victorious warrior with the head of Goliath (as Florentine sculptor Donatello had done), or (like Michelangelo) showing the coolly confident youth before the battle, Bernini chose the most dramatic moment—when David is about to let fly the stone from his taut slingshot. Bernini's method was to seize and freeze the revelatory moment; he positioned his statues against walls, so that a spectator would take in the work from a prescribed perspective. With the David, you were meant to stand facing the young warrior, as Goliath did.

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