Gianlorenzo Bernini images and biography
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Gianlorenzo Bernini

See also: Baroque Art;  Sculptors;  Artchive Sculpture Garden


"Bernini was a sculptor, painter and architect and a formative influence as an outstanding exponent of the Italian Baroque. He was an exceptional portrait artist and owes to his father his accomplished techniques in the handling of marble and also an impressive list of patrons that included the Borghese and the Barbarini families. Bernini originally worked in the Late Mannerist tradition but rejected the contrived tendencies of this style. By 1624 he had adopted an expression that was passionate and full of emotional and psychological energy. His figures are caught in a transient moment from a single viewpoint, bursting into the spectator's space. In 1644 such interpretation reaches maturity in his rendition of the vision and Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. The Spanish nun swoons in heavenly rapture at the point of an angel's arrow. The work is a prime example of Bernini's vision of a decorative whole combining different materials and colours within an architectural space. A succession of powerful patrons in Rome and in Paris assured his reputation as an entrepreneurial artist who captured the spirit of the Counter-Reformation. His extreme and intense characterizations have fallen in and out of favor but his Baroque legacy remains intact."

- From "The A-Z of Art: The World's Greatest and Most Popular Artists and Their Works", by Nicola Hodge and Libby Anson

Bernini, Gianlorenzo (1598-1680): Italian sculptor, architect and painter. He was the son of a sculptor and studied with his father who also helped him gain early patronage. Extensive patronage from the powerful Borghese and Barberini families contributed to his notoriety, but, from the beginning, Bernini was a virtuosic sculptor. For Cardinal Scipione Borghese, he produced a series of sculptures of subjects from Ovid's Metamorphoses and from the Bible (1618-25). These works show Bernini's ability to use the observer's space to expand the possibilities of sculpture beyond the medium itself. Apollo and Daphne, for instance, shows Daphne trying to escape from the pursuing Apollo and turning into a laurel tree as she does so. The observer must walk around the sculpture to witness Daphne's transformation, thus denying a unitary viewpoint. This type of multiple viewpoint was common in Mannerist sculpture, but in works such as David (also produced for Borghese), Bernini goes a step further and shows David in the process of slinging a stone at the imaginary Goliath, who seemingly occupies a place behind the observer of the sculpture.

Virtuosity of design and conception was complemented by a willingness to use different sorts of marble, as well as both painting and architecture to enhance sculptural form. Bernini's facility drew him to the attention of Pope Urban VIII (Barberini), who made him the principal architect for St. Peter's in 1629. In this capacity, he contributed both the Baldacchino (1624-33), with its mingling of architectural and sculptural features, the Cathedra Petri (Throne of St. Peter) (1657-65) and the oval colonnade surrounding the forecourt. He also produced for St. Peter's the tomb of Urban VIII, with its rich mixture of materials. Bernini also contributed fountains and churches (e.g. S. Andrea al Quirinale) to Rome, and with Borromini, Cortona and others, he helped give Rome a Baroque aspect.

Urban VIII's successor, Innocent X, was less impressed with Bernini's ability; but Bernini was not short of commissions and during this time, he produced the Ecstasy of St. Theresa for the Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria (1645-52). He also produced a number of portrait busts, which revealed his facility for capturing character. In 1665-6 he went to Paris following the invitation of Louis XIV, who wished to make use of his skills as an architect. However, the trip was not very successful and resulted in little but an elaborate portrait bust of Louis XIV. Bernini was best known for his blending of media, which gave his sculpture the fluidity of painting and his architecture the plasticity of sculpture. His popularity declined after his death and he was an anathema to generations of academic artists who favoured a more classical style.

- From The Bulfinch Guide to Art History

[O]ne of the greatest artists of all time was Gianlorenzo Bernini. He was supremely fortunate in his gifts and in his times. He was born in Naples but his father, Pietro, was a Florentine sculptor who taught his gifted son all he knew at the earliest age. When the boy was seven the family moved to Rome, to work for the powerful Borghese and Barberini families; and at eight he was already hard at it with his chisel. At ten he produced his first authenticated work, The Goat Amalthea with the Infant Jupiter and a Faun (Rome, Borghese), an astonishingly accomplished work for anyone, let alone a child of his age. In Rome, he was able to absorb not only the new realism of Caravaggio, which remained the basis of all his work whatever the nature of his designs, he always sought to achieve total verisimilitude in their parts but the revived classicism of the Carracci. He later paid tribute to their example and said that, as a boy, he had done endless drawings of the Greek and Roman statues then to be seen in Rome. Indeed, his feeling for Greek art was such that, until recently, one of his works was classified as Hellenistic from 300 BC.

Bernini's character and methods of work were formed early and remained constant until his death in his eighty-second year. He was deeply religious and a fanatic for work and duty. He believed that God had endowed him with unusual gifts and that, in return, he must make exemplary use of them to glorify his Maker and to make the world share his faith. No artist in history ever worked harder and longer. In addition to his genius with a chisel, which has never been equalled, he was an accomplished draughtsman, who also produced over a hundred oil paintings, some of which are now beginning to re-emerge. A superb self portrait in chalk, now at Windsor Castle, shows his long, lean face, huge, penetrating eyes, and unrelenting gaze. Of his eleven children, his sculptor son Domenico summed him up best: 'Aspro di natura, fisso nell'operazione, ardente nell'ira' - 'stern by nature, rock steady in work, warm in anger'.

Bernini demanded and expected the highest standards of everyone, particularly of himself. Until old age, he would work with his chisel for seven hours virtually without pause, throughout a long, hot day. His much younger assistants could not keep up. He attended Mass every morning, early, took communion twice a week, and in the evening would go to the Gesu, the Jesuit church, to say his prayers. He followed the Spiritual Exercises of the Jesuit founder, St Ignatius, about the most demanding in existence, and his favourite book was St Thomas A Kempis's Imitation of Christ. He was not perfect. He had a passionate affair, before his marriage, with the wife of another artist, Constanza Bonarelli, and the magnificent life size portrait bust he did of her (Florence, Bargello) gives the marble reason why. But Bernini, though properly aware of the magnitude of his skills and achievements, always competitive and ready to fight for the honour and profit of his firm his family studio and its many assistants was a humble man. His only recorded praise of any of his works was 'it is the least bad'.

Bernini's early work shows a level of virtuosity in the ability to carve marble, and to assemble it together (from several blocks) to produce an effect of total realism, which has never been equalled. Like Michelangelo, he thought in terms of settings and intended his work to be seen only from one viewpoint, a stipulation often ignored by galleries today. Seen thus, he made his marble speak, laugh, sigh, even scream. His Damned Soul in the Palazzo di Spagna, Rome, a three dimensional horror emerging from a Caravaggio scene of terror, seems to emit a blood curdling shout of fear. His David (Rome, Borghese), unlike the images created by Donatello, Verrocchio and Michelangelo, is in the very act of using each muscle in his body to slay the giant, as the grim set of his jaw confirms: one can feel the sweat and strain in his whole frame. This is realism in sculpture taken to its ultimate. But it is exceeded, in the context of a miracle, by his even more extraordinary Apollo and Daphne, also in the Borghese, which shows the woman actually in the process of being turned into a laurel tree. Not even Bernini himself surpassed this combination of audacity and delicacy in the working of marble. What he did do, however, in his St Theresa in the Cornaro, Chapel, in St Maria della Vittoria, Rome, was to produce a central marble duo for the altar showing the power and ecstasy of the Christian faith in a way it has never been demonstrated before or since. The power is in the design, of total heartstopping, lung gasping surrender to God. Cynical moderns have produced Freudian explanations of this unique work. But devout Christians saw it then, and see it now, as Bernini intended: as a premonition of the intensity of happiness which Heaven provides. It is the culmination of the Counter Reformation in art.

Bernini was made a papal knight at the age of twenty three. A year later his chief patron, Maffeo Barberini, was made Pope Urban VIII, and immediately summoned the sculptor: 'It is your great good luck, Cavaliere, to see Maffeo Barberini pope. But we are even luckier in that the Cavaliere Bernini lives at the time of our pontificate.' Urban reigned for nearly twenty-one years, during which Bernini was the most grandly employed, and richly rewarded, artist in the world. In the mid 1640s, under the new pope, Innocent X, Bernini was (probably unfairly) blamed for cracks in St Peter's bell towers, which had to be pulled down. But he was soon back in favour and continued to serve the papacy under Innocent and his four successors, for another thirty-five years, making fifty-six in all.

During this long and intensive service, Bernini effectively completed the setting and interior of St Peter's. Indeed his contribution to the church as we see it today is greater than that of any other artist, including Michelangelo. He did three principal things. The main fabric was completed in 1626 and Bernini was charged with ennobling its interior. He did this first by constructing (1623-24) an enormous baldacchino over the high altar. He placed four immense marble bases at each corner, and on them constructed colossal gilt bronze columns, wrought into spirals and joined by a cornice, with angels, each twice life-size, guarding its crowned superstructure. It is a work of complete originality, for nothing like it has been built before or since (apart from smaller copies). There are those who believe that Bernini's contemporary and (at times) rival, Francesco Borromini (1599-1667), provided some ideas. Maybe he did, but the work as it stands has the impress of Bernini's artistic character all over it. While working in and around the Vatican, Bernini also provided, as a setting for his wonderful St Teresa, the architectural and painted embellishments of the Cornaro Chapel (1644-55). This too was completely original, for no one before had combined together, in a single artistic design, and on the largest possible scale, marble and stone, brass and gilt, gold and silver, plain and stained glass, all wrought together to produce a single emotional spasm. The divine dove descends, skeletons arise from the pavement, angels swirl around and crown the scene with flowers, while all the time, in the centre, Teresa writhes with joy. It is an amazing composition which drew admirers from all over Europe, and was imitated by all who had the means.

It inspired the papacy to demand from Bernini a similar artefact, on an even larger scale, to complete the main decoration of the interior of St Peter's. This is the famous Cathedra Petri, or Peter's throne, in effect a gigantic reliquary, which forms the climax of the view along the nave, and is framed by the baldacchino columns. It is a complex piece of sculptural architectural confectionery, made up of red jasper, black Sicilian marble, masses of bronze, some gilt, stone, iron, marble statuary, a yellow glass eye, through which the light pours, and golden stucco clouds. The size is staggering but is perfectly in scale with the huge dimensions of the building. Bernini continued his work inside the church by shifting around various papal tombs, and designing new ones, and creating a suitably grandiose setting for the spectacular papal collection of relics - for most visitors their main object in coming to St Peter's. Finally, he put into the Vatican Palace, adjoining the church, a regal staircase, the Scala Regia, through which princes progressed upwards to the papal apartments. In an ideal world, he would have pulled down the entire palace, externally an eyesore which remains to this day and spoils the total prospect. But this could not be done, at any rate in those days, without demolishing the magnificent frescoes, by Raphael and others, on its internal walls. So Bernini was left with an awkward site for his stairs, a problem he solved by a brilliant piece of trompe l'oeil foreshortening which makes the stairs seem longer, grander and steeper than they actually are, and has to be seen to be believed. It is even more ingenious than Michelangelo's stairs in the Laurentian Library, if not as beautiful.

Finally, Bernini transformed the small existing piazza in front of St Peter's into the largest and grandest square in the world, or rather a key shaped device of colonnades, which branch out from the church in a narrowing stem, then form into two halves of a circle, which encompasses an obelisk and two fountains. The circle was intended by Bernini to be closed by a third colonnade, which screened the whole from the visitor approaching from the Tiber. But this was never built, and in 1939 Mussolini hacked through an avenue which spoils the surprise. Even so, there is nothing like it anywhere in the world, for the colonnades, despite their grandeur, are low by comparison with St Peter's facade, which thus continues to dominate the whole and appears to stretch out arms to gather in the faithful - clearly Bernini's master idea.

It is important to realise that, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, architect-designers thought in terms of settings for ceremonies, especially magisterial arrivals. What Bernini had done was to provide the greatest processional route in the history of art. The prince, coming to pay his respects to the pope, rode into the piazza at the bottom, took in all its extent and grandeur including nearly a hundred statues all around him - then dismounted, ascended the steps, and went into the church, his first, breathtaking view being up the nave, through the baldacchino and into the Cathedra Petri which it framed, its blazing yellow eye fixing his own. Then he moved through the church into the palace and up the Scala Regia, at which point Bernini bowed himself out and earlier artists, notably Raphael and Michelangelo, took over.

Bernini's work on St Peter's, thus brought to a triumphant conclusion, would have occupied the entire lifetimes of half a dozen lesser men. But it was not all. He worked on many other churches, including that jewel, S. Maria del Popolo. He loved fountains, of which he said Rome could never have enough. So he produced, of travertine stone and in the Piazza Navona, a miracle of invention, strength and elegance, which everyone loves and regards as his outstanding work. indeed, this wonderful piazza, as we see it today, is essentially Bernini's concept. He established other parts of Rome too. Rome is the work of countless hands over 3,000 years, directed by a score of the greatest artists, but the man who contributed most to its visual appeal is Bernini. His work is to be seen inside many of its secular buildings too, for if he did not invent the portrait-bust, he brought it to perfection, and examples of the master's work adorn many a Roman palace.

These busts are typical of his artistic character. He believed in total realism, so the likeness had to be exact. But he wanted the truthful face to emerge from a swirl of hair and upper garments, to give dynamism and movement to what is otherwise a static form of art. He was always thinking of how to make marble live and speak. In 1665, Louis XIV, who had set himself up as the greatest king in Europe, and wanted the assistance of Europe's greatest artist, summoned him to France, as Francis I had once summoned Leonardo da Vinci. Louis was lucky, for Bernini, after his usual thoroughness of testing ideas in sketches and models, produced the finest portrait bust in marble ever done, the king's undoubted likeness framed in a mass of wig curls and armour, and cut off from its stand by a flashing display of drapery, a brilliant invention of the sculptor's which rapidly became a cliche. Bernini was less lucky, for his design for a new Louvre, the ostensible reason for his visit, was discarded and his great equestrian statue of the king, eventually delivered at the end of Bernini's life, was dishonoured. Louis did not like it, got one of his hack sculptors to turn it into Marcus Curtius Hurling Himself into the Flames, and relegated it to the garden. There it slowly deteriorated until, in 1980, vandals damaged it so badly that it took eight years to restore. Three copies were made, one for the garden, one for the Louvre, and one for Jackson, Mississippi. The original is so weak it is stored away. Happily, Bernini knew nothing of these insults, dying in an odour of sanctity, having just sketched a projected Christ, which he did not live to sculpt. His chisel had not been idle for seventy five years.

- From Art: A New History, by Paul Johnson.

Gianlorenzo Bernini Images

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1618-19 Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius
1618-19 Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius (view from side)
1619 Anima dannata
1621-22 The rape of Proserpina
1621-22 The rape of Proserpina (view with Cerberus)
1621-22 The rape of Proserpina (view of Pluto's hands)
1622-25 Apollo and Daphne
1622-25 Apollo and Daphne (left side view)
1623-24 David
1623-24 David (view from side)
1623-24 David (view from rear)
1623-24 Bust of Urban VIII
1624-33 Baldachin over the High Altar of St. Peter's
c. 1630-35 Self-portrait as a mature man
1632 Bust of Scipione Borghese
c. 1636-37 Bust of Costanza Bonarelli
1646-52 Truth
1647-52 Ecstasy of St. Teresa
1648-51 Fountain of the Four Rivers
1648-51 Fountain of the Four Rivers (second view)
1648-51 Fountain of the Four Rivers (third view)
1653-55 Fontana del Moro
1672-78 Tomb of Alexander VII

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