Portraits of the Soul
Barocco a Roma: La Meraviglia delle Arti [The Baroque in Rome: The Wonders of Art]
Milan: Skira, 445 pp., €42.00 (paper)
Bernini at Saint Peter’s: The Pilgrimage
In 1619, at the ripe age of twenty, Gian Lorenzo Bernini set himself the seemingly impossible challenge of carving the human soul in marble. Two souls, in fact: a blessed soul bound for Heaven and a wicked soul newly damned to Hell, the most insubstantial of beings portrayed in solid stone from the neck up. These two remarkable images, preserved since the seventeenth century in the Spanish embassy in Rome, recently provided the focus for a small but choice exhibition at the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
The Blessed Soul is female, with a classical profile and a classical coiffure, crowned with a garland of roses frozen forever. Between her parted lips we can just detect a row of perfect teeth, a feat of detailing that the ancient Greeks and Romans regarded as proof of a consummate sculptor—and Bernini had no intention of lagging behind the ancients, or anyone else. The blessed soul’s eyes are carved with irises and pupils upturned toward her heavenly reward, like the pearly-skinned damsels that the painter Guido Reni was churning out at the same moment. In her perfection, the Blessed Soul lacks every trace of personality, but perhaps this is the point; she has been purified of every fault.
The Damned Soul, by contrast, is male, and unmistakably individual, from his definite features—heavy brow, corrugated forehead, a wisp of mustache—to his wild expression and his crazy flamelike hair, bristling with horror at what he sees before him. He is a self-portrait of Bernini, making faces in a mirror as he envisions the torments of Hell, and we can see not only his full set of rather sharp teeth but also his tongue, so highly polished that it seems realistically wet. To suggest the infernal flames reflected in the Damned Soul’s dark, intent eyes, Bernini has hollowed out their irises, leaving a pinpoint of white marble in the center of each to capture a fiery gleam.
In making his imaginative leap into the Inferno, the young artist may have used the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, where Hell appeared on the fifth day of the first week of a month-long discipline. Loyola sounded the depths of perdition by appealing to the five earthly senses, and so does Bernini’s marble head. Loyola writes:
First Point. The first Point will be to see with the sight of the imagination the great fires, and the souls as in bodies of fire.
Second Point. The second, to hear with the ears wailings, howlings, cries, blasphemies against Christ our Lord and against all His Saints.
Third Point. The third, to smell with the smell smoke, sulphur, dregs and putrid things.
Fourth Point. The fourth, to taste with the taste bitter things, like tears, sadness and the worm of conscience.
Fifth Point. The…
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