Bernini’s Genius

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

Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers(Dale Halbur /
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In his sculpture of the mythological Daphne, who was transformed into a laurel tree by her father to elude the unwanted attentions of Apollo, Bernini showed Daphne's skin changing to bark, her toes elongating into root tendrils and her fingers sprouting leaves, just as the lustful Apollo, his prize in his grasp, begins to realize what is happening. The Apollo and Daphne is a jaw-dropping feat of virtuosity. "In my opinion, not even the ancients did anything to equal it," Bacchi says. The roughness of the bark, the translucence of the leaves, the nymph's flying tresses—all are carved with such exquisite specificity that, once again, it is easy to overlook the audacity of the concetto. The process of metamorphosis was a subject for painters, not something to show by chiseling and drilling hard stone. And yet, wasn't metamorphosis a sculptor's task? Carving a block of stone into a lifelike form could be seen as a supernatural—even divine—feat.

When he finished the sculpture, according to his first biographer, Filippo Baldinucci, Bernini "attracted everyone's eye" and was pointed out in public. Yet he wasn't, in truth, personally responsible for the work's most acclaimed features. As Jennifer Montagu, a co-curator of the exhibition, has written, Bernini focused his efforts on the main figures—and the concetto. The execution of the roots, branches and hair tresses in this sculpture was largely the work of his assistant, Giuliano Finelli, who bitterly resented the lack of credit and went on to have a successful independent career. (Finelli's own work is also on display in the Getty show.) Finelli maintained a lifelong attention to minute detail. Bernini's work, however, was about to enter a new phase.

In 1623, Barberini, his friend and patron, was elected Pope Urban VIII. As Bernini's son Domenico relates, the new pope summoned the young artist to his side. "Your luck is great to see Cardinal Maffeo Barberini Pope, Cavaliere," he said, "but ours is much greater to have Cavalier Bernini alive in our pontificate." For the 20 years of Urban VIII's tenure, Bernini enjoyed unparalleled access to Urban and an abundance of papal commissions—not only sculptures, but entire architectural environments.

His most ambitious project was for St. Peter's interior. From 1624 to 1633, he designed and oversaw the construction of a massive bronze baldacchino, or canopy, above St. Peter's tomb. Traditionally, a tomb of this importance would have been covered with a small temple-like structure. Instead, Bernini fashioned four twisting columns as posts, which he topped with something that resembled a bed or processional canopy. Slender, leafy branches climb the columns, and from the roof, clothlike panels and tassels hang—all in bronze. "People at that time used to make ephemeral decorations out of paper and have them look monumental," Bacchi observes. "Bernini did monumental works that look like ephemeral works."

The imposing piazza that Bernini laid out in front of St. Peter's about a quarter of a century later, at the direction of Pope Alexander VII, is bordered by a free-standing, grandly curved double colonnade that he said was meant to represent the motherly arms of the church. Within the basilica, the contemporaneous Cathedra Petri, or throne of St. Peter, rivals the artist's earlier baldacchino—both for the elaborate gilded bronze sculptures produced by his studio and for its drama, provided in part by the golden light that pours through a yellow stained-glass window above it.

Bernini spent his entire adult life in Rome and, not surprisingly, he was chauvinistically Roman. His only known absence from the city was a trip to France in 1665, when he was invited by King Louis XIV to design an addition—ultimately rejected—to the Louvre royal palace. Throughout his time in France, he complained. All of Paris, he said, was worth less than a painting by the Italian artist Guido Reni. He compared the chimney-dotted city skyline to a wool-carding comb and characterized the royal palace in the Tuileries as "a big little thing." He complimented the architect François Mansart but noted how much greater he might have been had he lived in Rome.

Having rendered the grand-scale illusions of the Borghese statues and the Vatican commissions, Bernini was after something subtler when he returned in the 1630s to doing the portrait busts that he had first undertaken as a youth. "When Bernini came back to sculpture, it was not so virtuosic, not so many fireworks," says Bacchi. "He tried to capture life in a more synthesizing way—not to capture every detail but to give the impression of life."

A prime example is the bust he made of Scipione Borghese in 1632, generally considered one of the great portraits in art history. The sculptor portrayed the prelate's fat jowls and neck, the pockets around his eyes and the quizzically raised eyebrows (below) in such a lifelike fashion that one comes away with a palpable sense of what it would have been like to be in the prelate's presence. His head turned slightly to the side, his lips apart—is he about to share some titillating gossip?

Even more extraordinary is the bust that Bernini completed in 1638 of Costanza Bonarelli, the wife of one of the sculptor's assistants and also Bernini's lover. When he discovered she was also having an affair with his younger brother, Bernini—known for an explosive temper—reacted violently, attacking his brother and sending a servant to slash Costanza's face with a razor. What ultimately happened remains unclear, but Bernini was fined 3,000 scudi (a huge sum at a time when a sizable house in Rome could be rented for 50 scudi a year). The scandal caused Urban VIII to intervene and more or less command Bernini to settle down and marry, which he soon did, at age 40, in May of 1639. His wife, Caterina Tezio, the daughter of a prominent lawyer, would bear him 11 children, 9 of whom survived. Now ultra-respectable, he attended daily Mass for the last 40 years of his life.

Bernini's bust of Costanza is a work with few precedents. For one thing, women were not usually sculpted in marble unless they were nobility or the statues were for their tombs. And in those sculptures, they were typically portrayed in elaborate hairdos and rich dresses—not depicted informally, as Bernini had Costanza, clad in a skimpy chemise with her hair unstyled. "He takes out all the ornaments that were important to the 17th-century portrait and focuses on the person," says Bacchi. "You see a little of her breast, to think she is breathing, the crease of her neck, so that she seems to be moving." The portrait engages the viewer so intensely, Bacchi adds, "because it is just her expression, there is nothing to distract you." With her mouth slightly open and her head turned, Costanza is radiantly alive. In another way, too, the bust is exceptional. Marble was expensive. Bernini's portrait of Costanza is thought to be the first uncommissioned bust in art history made by the sculptor for his own enjoyment.


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