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How Great Art Was Made

Gian Lorenzo Bernini: Sketches in Clay Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, opened February 28, 1998

an installation from the permanent collection at the Fogg Art

Bernini’s Rome: Italian Baroque Terracottas from the State Hermitage, St. Petersburg 1998; Philadelphia Museum of Art, May 16-August 2, 1998

an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, February 28-May 3,

From the Sculptor’s Hand: Italian Baroque Terracottas from the State Hermitage Museum

catalog of the Chicago exhibition organized by Ian Wardropper
Art Institute of Chicago, 120 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Bernini: Genius of the Baroque

by Charles Avery, special photography by David Finn
Bulfinch Press, 287 pp., $75.00

Bernini’s Scala Regia at the Vatican Palace: Architecture, Sculpture, and Ritual

by T.A. Marder
Cambridge University Press, 320 pp., $90.00

Italian Baroque Sculpture

by Bruce Boucher
Thames and Hudson, 320 pp., $14.95 (paper)


Gian Lorenzo Bernini was not an entirely nice man, and neither was his little brother, Luigi. One morning in 1638 Bernini saw Luigi leaving the house of his, Bernini’s, mistress, who accompanied him to the door, Charles Avery tells us, “in a suggestively dishevelled state.” Bernini, like most sculptors, was a strong man. He chased his little brother to their work place at St. Peter’s, and went at him with a crowbar, breaking a couple of his ribs. Then he pursued him home, sword in hand. When his mother closed the door against him, Bernini broke it down. Meanwhile Luigi had taken refuge in Santa Maria Maggiore. Once again Bernini pursued him, but finally gave up beating on the door.

While all this was going on, Bernini had sent a servant to the house of his mistress, the beautiful Costanza Bonarelli, with instructions to disfigure her. The servant found Costanza in bed and slashed her with a razor. Bernini, who had painted a double portrait of himself and his mistress, went home and cut her face out of the painting. He had been, we are told, fiercely in love with her (she was the wife of one of his employees), and one can well believe this from the beautiful bust he had carved of her, which he proceeded to send into exile (it is now in the Bargello). Bernini was fined 3,000 scudi, the price of one of his busts, for disfiguring Costanza, but the Pope waived the fine; the servant took the rap, and went into exile. Luigi meanwhile prudently sloped off to Bologna, where he worked on a Bernini project for an altar.

Theirs was a family firm, and as a family firm they stood or fell together. Bernini’s father was a Florentine sculptor who had worked in Naples. Bernini thought of himself as a Florentine, while those who took a dim view of him called him Neapolitan. Years later, Luigi was working alongside his brother again, overseeing the reconstruction of the Scala Regia, the ceremonial staircase which leads from the narthex of St. Peter’s up into the Vatican. At the foot of these stairs is Bernini’s statue of Constantine experiencing his vision of the Cross. Behind this statue is another, darker, staircase. Here Luigi took a boy who was working on the site and brutally sodomized him, leaving him with sixteen broken bones. Once again, the family name was in disgrace. Bernini had to pay 2,000 scudi to the boy’s father, and 24,000 scudi to the public treasury.

He clearly pulled out all the stops in his defense of Luigi, for he persuaded Queen Christina of Sweden (in Rome having renounced her throne and embraced the Catholic faith) to speak on his behalf. T.A. Marder, from whose account of the Scala Regia we learn all these details, has his doubts about whether the Queen’s defense of sodomy can have been correctly reported in the contemporary documents he quotes. She argued that “since sodomy today is no longer a Florentine delicacy but well nigh universal, and especially a dish of princes, so the sodomites particularly in Rome have protectors and defenders of high standing, it being a delicacy enjoyed in Rome by great and small alike.”

This somewhat startling frankness cannot have put the matter entirely to rest, since we also learn, turning back to Avery’s book (the best and only up-to-date introduction to Bernini in print), that Bernini, as a result of this scandal, agreed to carve his statue of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni free of charge. He was a pious man (the statue in question is a depiction of a pious woman’s death), and one might guess that piety was associated in Bernini’s mind with proximity to power. He was ruthless, competitive, and ambitious; and his ambition led him straight into the orbit of the popes. There his reputation, though always preeminent, was never entirely secure. Among the sculptors of the day, Alessandro Algardi, born in the same year, 1598, was often considered Bernini’s equal. It was in architecture that his abilities were most often criticized and doubted, and Marder discusses at length a set of drawings for the piazza of St. Peter’s in which a contemporary architect criticized Bernini’s plans, step by step, and (it would seem) cogently enough for Bernini to take note of some criticisms. He suffered some notable professional setbacks. His equestrian statues of Constantine and of Louis XIV were both considered failures. His plans for the Louvre were scrapped. Most humiliatingly, his projected bell towers for the façade of St. Peter’s turned out to be too taxing for their foundations, and construction had to be stopped when cracks appeared in the walls. The marble statue called Time Unveiling Truth (only Truth herself was completed) was intended as the sculptor’s great act of self-justification.

Bernini knew what it was like to fall from grace. When we read a contemporary judgment on him by one of his enemies, we should bear this in mind. “That dragon who ceaselessly guards the orchards of the Hesperides,” wrote one contemporary, Giovanni Battista Passeri, “made sure that no one else should snatch the golden apples of papal favour, and spat poison everywhere, and was always planting prickly thorns of slander along the path that led to rich rewards.” Jennifer Montagu, who quotes this passage in her monograph on Algardi, says that it would have been hard, even at the time, to say whether it was true.1 It is hard to prove malice when a judgment might have been made out of ingrained aesthetic prejudice.

Rome was a snakepit, anyway. So too was Paris, the only other city in which Bernini worked. For the months he was there, we have an almost daily record of his conversation, set down in the diary of the royal steward Paul Fréart de Chantelou.2 Bernini was a great man, and his opinion was continually sought. Often he expressed himself tactfully, but when he didn’t it was quite certain that what he had said would be used against him. One could imagine exactly the same familiar process taking place in Rome. If we say that Bernini, for most of his life, effortlessly dominated the artistic scene, that is not how it would have seemed to Bernini. He dominated, but by great effort. No doubt he felt he could never relax his guard.

It is astonishing to me that no one since Stanislao Fraschetti in 1900 has written a biography of Bernini. Fine scholars have done great work on the subject. His drawings and sculptures (but not his terracotta sketch models) have been cataloged. The great ensembles, such as the Cornaro Chapel in Rome with the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, have been carefully examined. Marder’s study of the Scala Regia is the latest of such studies; most of its amazing detail is aimed at the specialist architectural historian, although the last three chapters, about the Constantine statue and the iconography of the ensemble, have a broader interest. But no one seems to have thought it worthwhile to accord the artist a full-dress biography.

A great deal is known about him. He lived mainly on fruit and was much feared for his anger. The sight of water—the Seine at evening—calmed him. He was not quite the first caricaturist, but he was perhaps the first to caricature such elevated figures as cardinals and popes. Great princes “enjoyed the joke with him, even regarding their own faces, and showed the drawings to others of equal rank.”3 When this was mentioned in Paris, the term caricature had itself to be explained to the court, the genre being unknown in France.

He wrote plays, one of which has survived, and acted in them. He designed sets and stage machinery and special effects. One night, Milton was in the audience. Bernini was well known for spectacular theatrical stunts, such as a play in which the swollen waters of the Tiber flooded its banks and seemed about to drench the audience, before disappearing down a concealed sluice. In another, a set caught fire, apparently through the inadvertence of an actor; but the burnt backdrop revealed a further set behind it, and the action of the play continued.

Such pyrotechnics were famous in their time and capture the imagination today, but Bernini was also, in his pronouncements on theater, a critic of stage machinery, its complication and inefficiency. The plays he put on at his own house, he would say, cost him no more than a few cents. He wanted to mount a play about stage machinery. There was a great deal of this kind of self-reference in his theater. In one production, the curtain fell (we are told that in his theater the curtain fell rather than rose on the scene—a trick which always works well in modern theater too: the released curtain drops swiftly to the ground and is whisked away to the side) on a stage beyond which the audience could see a fictive audience watching another play; eventually the real audience would be permitted to learn something of what the fictive audience was witnessing.

In his work as an artist-impresario, Bernini much resembles Inigo Jones, but unlike Jones’s stage designs none of Bernini’s work for the theater has survived. A short intermezzo called La Fiera di Farfa, which became famous, depicted a small-town fair. The music exists. It is much like Monteverdi. The text interweaves all the sounds of the fair, like the English settings of the Cries of London. Bernini’s spectacle brought the sights of the fair together with those sounds. 4

Bernini loved the psychology of perception, as it is now called, and many of his pronouncements fall into this category. He said that a portrait of a man wearing clothes all of one color would seem larger than a portrait of the same man wearing clothes of different colors. He said that if one were to make a figure of a man holding one hand to his chest and the other raised in the air, the hand held in the air would have to be made larger than the hand held to the chest, because the surrounding air would eat into the dimensions of the hand. When he produced a series of sketches, he would always, through vanity, tend to prefer the last sketch he had completed. In order to counteract this, he would do something to make the sketches look strange, such as examining them upside down or through tinted spectacles.

He pointed out that, in ordinary life, if someone suddenly turned white, one would say that he was not himself. It is hard to recognize someone who has had a bag of flour poured over him. In consequence, when one is making a portrait in marble, one has to resort to various compensatory measures in order to adjust for the alienating effect of the loss of color.

  1. 1

    Jennifer Montagu, Alessandro Algardi (Yale University Press, 1985), pp. 9-10.

  2. 2

    Paul Fréart de Chantelou, Diary of the Cavaliere Bernini’s Visit to France, edited and introduced by Anthony Blunt (Princeton University Press, 1985).

  3. 3

    Irving Lavin, “Bernini and the Art of Social Satire,” in Drawings by Gianlorenzo Bernini from the Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig, German Democratic Republic (The Art Museum/ Princeton University Press, 1981).

  4. 4

    Records of this music, and the score, were included with Gianlorenzo Bernini: New Aspects of His Art and Thought, edited by Irving Lavin (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985). This volume also prints the text of Bernini’s surviving comedy, and an essay on his theatrical work by Frederick Hammond.

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