Bernini and the Unity of the Visual Arts

by Irving Lavin
Oxford University Press, 486, 299 plates, two volumes pp., $89.00 the set

Professor Lavin’s large, meticulous, expensive study of Gian Lorenzo Bernini combines to curious effect several different characters. It is a study for specialists, rich in documentation and encyclopedic in its command of the materials; it reposes majestically on stratum after stratum of footnotes, citing materials in at least five languages. Yet the main thesis it advances has been a commonplace of Bernini discussion for at least three centuries. The center of the book’s attention is one of Bernini’s best known works, the Cornaro chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, with its famous group representing Saint Teresa in ecstasy. Yet the first seventy-four pages of text (out of a total of 145, not counting appendices, checklists, catalogues, and three indexes) are devoted to other, less remarkable chapels and ecclesiastical constructs designed by Bernini.

The book touches only tangentially on the range of Bernini’s work apart from chapel designs; it disregards the various free-standing sculptures like those in the Galleria Borghese, the fountains, papal tombs, portrait busts, the paintings, the churches, Bernini’s work on the colonnade of St. Peter’s and on the great Louvre-renovation project, the equestrian statues, and everything produced by Bernini during the last thirty years of his life. Mr. Lavin is concerned with the Cornaro chapel (1647-1652) and with the series of earlier works in the same vein that led to that masterpiece. A reader whose interest in Bernini is less than professional might profit by reading Part II, about the chapel, first, and Part I, about the several preliminary ventures pointing toward the chapel, second.

The thesis that Mr. Lavin has worked to define and deepen is that Bernini consciously combined the visual arts in new and striking ways—“by departing from the rules occasionally without actually violating them,” as the formula was expressed by the artist’s son in 1682, just two years after his father’s death. Combining the arts in a “bel composto,” a harmonious ensemble, is of course almost inherent in the idea of memorial or devotional chapels; and there are very few artists in any medium of whom it can’t be said that they combined or tried to combine familiar themes into new and individual forms of unity. Still, though the abstract idea is commonplace, few works of art make us more conscious of the principle in operation than the Cornaro chapel. So much has been written about this decorative complex that Mr. Lavin has had inevitably to repeat much familiar material. No matter: he has “read” the chapel in rich and convincing detail from floor to vault; and as he demonstrates the extent to which the chapel is a unified and focused “composto,” he also shows why, in looking at it, we are so conscious of that fact. The several arts cooperate, indeed; the space outside and around the sculpture group is dominated by its energies, into which the viewer is absorbed. The architecture frames the sculpture, and by pouring light on it from a calculated direction creates a powerful illusion of…

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