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 a career that continued until paralysis stilled his hand shortly before his death, at 81, in 1680, Bernini enjoyed almost uninterrupted success. His only serious setback came in the 1640s, when the death of Urban VIII brought in a new pope, Innocent X, who favored Bernini's rivals, including the architect Francesco Borromini and the sculptor Alessandro Algardi. A high-profile architectural project for Bernini to add two bell towers to St. Peter's was canceled, requiring an already constructed tower to be torn down. But even Innocent X could not gainsay Bernini's talent. When the pope was commissioning a new fountain for the Piazza Navona, Bernini, uninvited, composed a model for it. Innocent X was brought into a room that contained the model and he was smitten. "The only way to resist executing his works is not to see them," he reportedly said. Featuring an obelisk, which seems to rise unsupported from a rough outcrop of travertine, around which real flowing water and muscular figures of marble disport, the Fountain of the Four Rivers is a city landmark to this day.

Bernini was always after the maximum theatrical impact. Indeed, along with his other talents, he was also a professional dramatist. In one of the plays that he wrote, he made a wall of water rush at his audience, diverting it through sluices at the last gasp-inducing moment. Another one of his offerings combined two plays proceeding simultaneously on a stage divided by a scrim and watched by two separate audiences; the stories cleverly interlocked, and each side was expected to overhear the other.

To a modern sensibility, Bernini the sculptor at times can seem too much the showman, rummaging through a bag of tricks to please his audience. He lived long enough to hear such criticisms. Notwithstanding his enormous celebrity (crowds gathered along his route to France in 1665, as if, the artist said, he were an elephant), he correctly predicted that his reputation would wane over time.

This pessimism may explain why Bernini was so intent upon stage-managing his biographies. It could also shed some light on one of his most renowned achievements, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, which he executed for a side chapel in Rome's Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria from 1645 to 1652, and which he called his most beautiful creation. At its center is the white marble sculpture in which Teresa, convulsed in ecstatic pain, yields to an angel about to pierce her with the golden arrow of divine love. On either side of Teresa, Bernini placed a box with seats, of the kind found in theaters, containing four men. But in each box, only the man closest to Teresa looks at her. The others are chatting or, in one case, reading a book. Could Bernini have been anticipating a future in which his achievements would be similarly ignored? If so, he would be heartened to see his exuberant genius once again receiving its due.

A frequent contributor, Arthur Lubow is based in New York City. He wrote about the arts and culture of Bhutan in March 2008.


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