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)

1.

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…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.