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Ecstasy

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 weightlessness. 1 The pure white marble of the sculptural group contrasts with the elaborate polychrome of the framework to suggest an action taking place in another sphere.

Frescoes spilling over from the vault across the window and inlaid designs on the floor reinforce the religious theme—a new life and a new death in Christ—which animates the central sculpture. The saint’s languorous attitude points to no fewer than three miraculous moments of her life: levitation, transverberation, and an extraordinary love-death. Riding high above the complex is a scroll bearing an amazingly audacious motto spoken to Teresa in one of her visions by the Lord Himself: “Nisi coelum creassem ob te solam crearem” (“If I hadn’t already created Heaven, I would create it for you alone.”) Very few women can have received so courtly a compliment from so high an authority; it is a compliment that Bernini in his chapel—which catches in a single ecstatic instant death, life, love, violence, and surrender, to make of them a world—does not hesitate to repeat.

Mr. Lavin is particularly skillful at illustrating the literary, i.e., nonvisual, sources on which Bernini drew for his complex. The sculptor, it seems, was a man of considerable learning and subtlety as well as devotional fervor; he made use not only of Teresa’s own poems and autobiography, but of a pious life by Alessio Maria della Passione (with a title page, clumsy but suggestive, engraved by Jacob Honervogt), and of poems written by Urban VIII for the liturgy of Saint Teresa. He seems also to have explored the record of the canonization proceedings, which had come to a successful conclusion as recently as 1622. These readings may well have left their trace on Bernini’s figures of the Cornaro family, seated in loges or boxes beside the central altar figures, as if assembled to act as witnesses and confessors of the ecstatic moment.

In fact, the literary sources for the Saint Teresa chapel are so many and so crucially important to the peculiar effect the chapel creates that they encroach on the story of consecutive chapel-design development that Mr. Lavin tries to trace in the first part of his book. That Bernini was a practiced and experienced designer of chapels when he undertook the Cornaro commission admits of no doubt. He had employed (whether “experimentally” or not, we’re in no position to say) many of the elements of which the Cornaro complex would be woven. But what caused his imagination to take fire in the particular instance was evidently a coincidence between his own strain of feeling and something he found in Saint Teresa, her temperament and her legend. Bernini’s artistic unities, like Teresa’s mystic visions, were achieved by an act of transcendence, through contrapposti or opposing energies overcome by an act of imaginary or creative vision, and demanding the same sort of energy from the viewer. So it is with the mixture of erotic and mystical feelings which makes for such troubled and contradictory responses to the Cornaro chapel. Being unified in so many different ways (as we are indebted to Mr. Lavin for demonstrating), it remains disturbingly incongruous at its center.

The problem is less with Teresa than with her partner in that turbulent fantasy of love and death which floats before us in the semi-obscurity of the chapel. She is the bride-victim in a mystic marriage which promises bliss through death, Christian annihilation, and ingression into the divine shadow. Into that chasm of mystery she flings herself with absolute heroic abandon. But the baby-faced seraph, with his curls and smiles, fluttering draperies, and fingertip gestures, stands utterly outside the range of her feelings and ours. “That fair-cheeked fallacy of fire,” Richard Crashaw called him; apart from the barely submerged pun, “fallacy” suggests that he is a cupid masquerading as a seraph, and indicates more generally that he is no match for the heroic heart of Teresa.2 Mr. Lavin calls his expression “a benign smile that might well be described as congratulatory.” Precisely: the woman is dying, as Mr. Lavin acutely puts it, not for love but of love; and the angel, as he repeatedly stabs her to the entrails, seems to murmur softly, “Congratulations!”

A mordantly witty French novelist once described a devotee who by prayer, fasting, and contemplation achieved to the Divine Vision itself; but all it would say to him was, “There is no God.” Bernini is not ironic in that way or to that degree; but as he represents her here, Teresa is strikingly alone in her ecstatic experience. Even the “witnesses” in the boxes flanking the alter-piece pay little attention to her (from their position in the shallow chapel, it is physically impossible for them to see her), and the angel evidently has little conception of what she is experiencing.

Her aloneness is striking, but not idiosyncratic. After all, the seventeenth was a century of spiritual exercises, of solitary meditation pursued to an O altitudo! Apart from the Spanish mystics, there is St. Francis de Sales, with whose Introduction to the Devout Life and Treatise on the Love of God Bernini was well acquainted—not to mention the pervasive influence of Saint Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises. Yet at the same time “Bernini’s Rome” exists to remind us of his passion for strong visual rhetoric, bold façades, and deliberate theatricality in the sense of contrived public effects. When the two worlds come in direct contrast, we are bound to feel an incongruity. What formal rules the chapel departed from without violating, I’m still not completely sure; but the feelings Bernini scraped are strong and on the surface. Rather than trying to reconcile these different aspects of an extraordinary man in a divided age, we may be better off appreciating the complex discords between them—which yields unity of a sort, though distanced and reflexive.

Mr. Lavin’s book touches on these and many other notions to which meditation on the Cornaro chapel gives rise; it doesn’t always apply them as gracefully or helpfully to Bernini’s work as it might. The book’s main problem is a lack of fluency and coherent organization. It’s too fragmentary. For example, discussion of Bernini’s work in the theater is segregated in an appendix, where it can have little influence on the more general concept of “theatricality” in the artist’s sculpture and architecture. One can’t quarrel with a scholar’s preference for precise and documentable details; but a more generous and imaginative discussion of the concept might have enabled it to blossom rather than wilt.

Apart from an occasional unhappy venture at metaphorical elevation (“alter ego” on page 58, “ectoplastic osmosis” on page 129), the prose of the text is clear and precise. Inevitably in a work of this character, the author uses a great many technical architectural terms, which, when they come thick and heavy, an unprofessional reader may have trouble digesting. But he will be aided immeasurably by the volume of accompanying plates, which is a model. Mr. Lavin has procured a set of superb photographs which show what is to be shown with a minimum of hoked-up camera angles or flamboyant lighting effects. The plates are not only many, they are closely tied to the text; there is very little one feels curious to see that the volume of plates doesn’t provide.

Physically, too, Oxford has produced a splendid pair of volumes; and while the primacy of Wittkower’s general book on Bernini of 1955 is not threatened (though professedly introductory, it has proved seminal), this new book should be of interest not only to professed partisans of Bernini, but to architectural historians, students of the baroque and the counter-reformation, and those less defined readers over whom the restless seventeenth century exercises a special and continuing fascination.

Letters

Desegregation April 15, 1982

Baroque Reading March 4, 1982

  1. 1

    Bernini’s light plan is thrown into disarray by the strong electric lighting currently available to illuminate the Cornaro chapel. Even the frontal lighting necessary to take good photographs destroys the original balance. Our best evidence of how things should be is apparently a seventeenth-century painting in the Staatliches Museum at Schwerin (Lavin, fig. 197).

  2. 2

    Dates are a little edgy here; Crashaw first published “The Flaming Heart” in 1648, when he had been in Rome only a year or so; on the other hand, many of the poems in the volume are judged to be “recent.” Crashaw might just possibly have seen an early form of Bernini’s work; more likely, he wrote about a previous representation, engraved or painted, of the transverberation. Some though by no means all of these previous representations show the seraph as infantile.

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