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Baroque Reading

In response to:

Ecstasy from the September 24, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

Curiously, Mr. Adams in his review of Irving Lavin’s Bernini and the Unity of the Visual Arts [NYR, September 24] seems to have misunderstood the thrust of Lavin’s book and, above all, to have overlooked the major contributions Lavin made therein to Bernini studies. I would like to address a few of the issues Mr. Adams raised.

Though Mr. Adams writes that Lavin “disregarded” Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s oeuvre apart from funerary chapels, Lavin purposefully and logically, for the sake of his thesis, limited himself in this book to a discussion of visual forms and ideas which culminated in the St. Teresa chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. As historians of art will know, Lavin has treated in other publications many other commissions Bernini worked on, most notably the vast enterprise to transform the crossing of St. Peter’s under Urban VIII.

Mr. Adams believes that Lavin took a great deal of time and trouble to elucidate something that was a “commonplace of Bernini discussion for at least three centuries.” The concept Adams refers to is described by Bernini’s biographers, who write that in the Cornaro chapel the master “was the first to attempt to unify architecture with sculpture and painting…to make of them all a beautiful whole (‘un bel composto‘)” (Lavin, p. 6). Unfortunately, until Lavin brought historical method to what had heretofore been considered a facile cliché, the convergence of the visual arts, no one knew what the biographers meant, nor what Bernini had accomplished. Lavin gives us specific instances how Bernini unified chapels through architecture, for example, in a discernably new way from previous funerary chapel design (p. 22). He also discusses at length the astonishing intermingling of the media we recognize as characteristic of Bernini’s work—always pointing out the significant changes from past chapel designs—and gives us a reason why Bernini should be able to create this new kind of unification of the arts. To do this, Bernini departed from the rules without violating them, say the biographers, and Lavin makes clear, through an analysis of Bernini’s comments about art, that Bernini perceived the three media (painting, sculpture, and architecture) differently than traditional art theory had permitted, and then demonstrates how seeing each medium anew allowed the master to treat it differently (p. 12 and for Bernini’s handling of stucco exemplifying his new vision of materials, p. 56). Assuredly, Lavin’s suggestion that Bernini had a whole new understanding of the very nature of the media was not a commonplace in art historical literature.

Another key notion Lavin introduces and Mr. Adams misunderstands is Bernini’s conception of theatricality in the Cornaro chapel. Rather than being an isolated appendix to the book, as Mr. Adams erroneously remarks, Lavin’s pages on Bernini and the theater are the culmination of the book. They form part of the Epilogue, clearly entitled “The Unity and Its Meaning,” so that even a casual reader knows Lavin’s discussion will deal with Bernini’s “general concept” of theatricality; its relevance was somehow overlooked by Mr. Adams. As opposed to Wittkower’s point in his 1966 monograph—that Bernini’s illusion is meant to fool and convince the visitor—Lavin daringly suggests that Bernini’s disconcerting “sham-fulness,” or theatricality in his fusion of the arts, was meant to be perceived by the viewer precisely in order for him to ask the question: who made all this? and, thus, to provoke an awareness of divine creation (p. 157).

Finally, Mr. Adams found Lavin “particularly skillful” at exploring the literary sources for the chapel, to which Mr. Adams, as a scholar of literature, then seemed to turn in relief in his review. It seems to me, however, that one of Lavin’s most profound contributions, with perhaps the most lasting effect on the discipline of art history, is in tracing visual forms and their meanings to provide a new understanding of Bernini’s work. Lavin, for example, gives a visual precedent for the architectural design of the Teresa chapel and then explains how the meaning of the source, which embodies sacramental imagery, was highly appropriate for the Teresa chapel, because the Eucharist was inextricably bound up with the saint’s experience: it was while she was receiving communion that she levitated (p. 120). It is precisely because of his incursions into new areas of observation and thought that Lavin’s extensive footnotes, snidely disparaged by Mr. Adams, are required. They are there not as scholarly bravado, but as essential, concrete support for the ideas Lavin illuminates, and offer important historical precedents and meaning for motifs Bernini uses. It must also be emphasized that Lavin’s excavation of documents revealed important additions to Bernini’s oeuvre: thanks to Lavin the design of the apse and high altar of Santa Maria in Via Lata, for example, is now securely given to Bernini, with valuable chronologies for all the chapels. Lavin’s research in the archives also brought to light evidence for firm attribution of works to other artists working on the commissions….

Nicola Courtright

Rome, Italy

Robert Adams replies:

Evidently my review has been attacked, but I’m not sure on what grounds.

1) Indeed, I pointed out that Professor Lavin’s book disregarded much of Bernini’s oeuvre. I did so, not for invidious reasons, but to make clear to a general reader, and potential purchaser, what a book titled Bernini and the Unity of the Visual Arts did and did not contain. It is not clear to me what Professor Lavin’s previous monograph on the crossing of St. Peter’s has to do with the particular focus of the book under review.

2) That I “snidely disparaged” Professor Lavin’s extensive footnotes is as malicious as it is untrue. I mentioned them as an aspect of a book “rich in documentation and encyclopedic in its command of the materials.” The phrase is not disparaging, least of all is it snide.

3) That the book centers on an elderly commonplace the meaning of which Professor Lavin has worked to define and deepen is what I said in the review and what my correspondent seems to concede. I am glad to have the point restated at length.

4) If Professor Lavin’s discussion of Bernini and the theater is indeed (as my correspondent declares) the culmination of the book, what an odd place to find it, in an appendix! But I did not derogate from the discussion of theatricality in the Cornaro chapel, or the value of the appendix (on Bernini’s actual work for the theater), in suggesting that reference to works like the façade of San Carlino, the statue of St. Longinus in St. Peter’s, and the bust of Louis XIV at Versailles would have added richness to the concept.

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