In theory, early modern Italians regarded sculpture as a lower form of art, harsh physical labor unsuited to a gentleman. In fact, like their ancient forebears, they found something irresistibly magical about the people who could draw forth life and form from a block of stone, especially when that stone was the extraordinary marble of Carrara, famous since Roman times as one of Italy’s greatest natural resources. Composed primarily of calcium carbonate compressed from the bodies of countless ancient sea creatures, Carrara marble, gleaming white with veins of gray, has an unusually fine, compact grain that allows a sculptor to chip it away with an oblique blow of the chisel, carve it in sharp detail, polish it to a high sheen, and exploit its unusual tensile strength to project delicate shapes boldly into space: the tendrils of a Corinthian column, the curls of a lion’s mane, a fluttering mantle, the legs and tail of a prancing horse.

Nothing could seem so uncannily alive to viewers, ancient, medieval, and early modern, as a marble statue. The mythical Greek sculptor Pygmalion fell so in love with his carved Galatea that he transformed her into a living woman by force of prayer, just as his crusty Renaissance colleagues Donatello and Michelangelo reputedly challenged their own creations to speak, Donatello with a Tuscan imprecation, Michelangelo with a wistful “Why don’t you talk?”1 The spell cast by sculpture meant that a well-bred, well-educated woman like Properzia de’ Rossi of Bologna (circa 1490–1530) could progress from carving tiny figures in cherry pits to hewing full-scale projects in stone. (So, too, the contemporary sculptor Mother Praxedes Baxter O.S.B. puts her hands to marble, bronze, and steel in a full Benedictine habit.) Versatile artists like Michelangelo, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Antonio Canova based their immense artistic authority on their skill with the lowly chisel.

Michelangelo, Bernini, and Canova are sculptors so distinctive, and distinct from one another, that we rarely think of them in company. What could possibly connect the regal nudity of Michelangelo’s David to the ectoplasmic drapery that swathes Bernini’s Saint Theresa, or the deep emotions bodied forth in these statues to the saucy detachment of Canova’s Pauline Borghese, Napoleon’s handful of a sister, lounging on a sculpted cushion so lightly that she barely dents it, dressed for conquest in nothing but a bracelet and an artfully slipping wrap? For one thing, all three sculptors share a winning way with marmo statuario, the most precious grade of marble from Carrara. But the Roman art historian Livio Pestilli argues that they share a great deal more than that: all three emerge from an artistic tradition rooted as deeply in philosophy as in practice, as attentive to bodiless divinity as to the shaping of physical matter.

In Bernini and His World, Pestilli interprets “world” in a broad sense, to include the entire social and cultural universe of early modern artistry, a universe in which the links between these three epochal creative spirits are surprisingly direct. Bernini, a child prodigy, heard himself described from his earliest years as “the new Michelangelo” and cemented the comparison not by imitating the great master but by blazing his own path before he, in turn, set a course for the young Canova. (The book’s final chapter, on Bernini’s influence, breaks new ground in showing how closely Canova studied the Baroque master.) Each artist earned his authority, according to this perceptive study, by claiming the freedom to do things his own way. Their originality, as much as their technical skill, is what conferred on them the right, in the eyes of their contemporaries, to stand among the giants of the past.

Gian Lorenzo’s father, Pietro (1562–1629), was a Florentine sculptor trained in the immemorial Tuscan tradition that put drawing, disegno, at the heart of every artistic endeavor, even the art of living, for disegno could mean a strategy as well as a sketch. After apprenticeships as a sculptor in Florence and as a painter in Rome (in a studio that eventually included Caravaggio), Pietro moved to Naples in 1584, where he began an active career as a sculptor in his own right. In 1587, rather abruptly, he married a twelve-year-old Neapolitan girl named Angelica Galante, quite possibly because she was already pregnant with the first of their thirteen children. In rapid succession, the young couple produced five daughters, a matter of concern in an era when each would have to be provided with a dowry in adulthood, whether she married or entered a convent as a “bride of Christ.”

Gian Lorenzo broke that sequence on December 7, 1598, “in order to make two centuries illustrious by his life,” as his son and biographer Domenico asserts, but also to ease his parents’ worries about making ends meet in the future. In 1606 the still-growing family moved to Rome, where Pietro bought a five-story house near the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, his new workplace. Gian Lorenzo would live in that dynastic stronghold, now Via Liberiana 24, until 1642. For all practical purposes, then, the younger Bernini was a Roman, and would spend virtually all except the first seven of his eighty-one years in the Eternal City, but his volcanic temper and his preternatural energy linked him eternally in contemporaries’ minds to his birthplace. If Michelangelo swore that he drank in marble dust with his nursemaid’s milk, the infant Bernini had clearly downed the fires of Vesuvius.


For an aspiring New Michelangelo, that persistent connection with Naples was problematic. The north–south divide that still splits Italy reflected the seventeenth century’s political reality as well as differences of language and culture: the Kingdom of Naples, the southern half of the Italian peninsula, was ruled by a Spanish viceroy, Rome and the Papal States of central Italy by a pope with the power to command armies, and Tuscany by a grand duke—three radically different monarchs ruling radically different polities. With 250,000 inhabitants, Naples ranked as one of the world’s largest cities. Its mild climate permitted a huge population of indigents, called lazzaroni, to live on the streets, sustained by a wholesome diet of bread and fruit.

Pestilli traces Bernini’s repeated attempts to assume his father’s (and Michelangelo’s) Tuscan heritage, or at least to present himself as a scion of Rome, where the population of ancient statues proverbially equaled the number of living people, but those efforts never really convinced anyone. Bernini himself claimed that the only remnant of his childhood in Naples was his voracious love of fruit, but his contemporaries knew better. The man and his creations—his plays, his paintings, his statues, his drawings, his caricatures, his terra-cotta models, his tabletop miniatures—all of them were pure theater.

Even his sculpted animals bubble over with personality, from the ancient statue of a goat he supplied with a brand-new smiling head to his own inventions: the thirsty lion who bends to drink the waters of the Nile on his Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona (the king of Spain has a miniature replica of this beguiling cat in gilded bronze, standing on a little chip of porphyry); the same fountain’s curly-lipped giant armadillo, the portrait of a real stuffed creature imported by the Jesuits from Argentina; and the sturdy elephant in the Piazza della Minerva who balances an ancient Egyptian obelisk on his back as if it were the easiest feat in the world, smirking as he shows his posterior to the Dominican convent that commissioned him.

Bernini used every trick, from steel bars to stucco to a sculpted smile, to make granite seem weightless, and marble as ductile as bronze. Pestilli, adapting Milan Kundera, playfully calls the result “the bearable lightness of being.” The artist’s personality was another matter. Nothing could contain Bernini’s hot-blooded exuberance; when he was thirty-eight, his mother complained in a letter to Pope Urban VIII’s cardinal nephew Francesco Barberini that her son acted as if he were “master of the world,” and she begged Barberini, the second most powerful man in Rome, for assistance in bringing him to heel.

So bottomless was Bernini’s energy that everyone believed the story about his swift recovery from a near disaster in the studio: he had almost completed a bust of his great patron Cardinal Scipione Borghese when a hairline crack appeared along its forehead. His biographer Filippo Baldinucci claims that Bernini carved a whole new version in only fifteen days, chiseling away in his bedroom by night. Pestilli refutes the tall tale with gusto, reminding readers that elite sculptors, familiar with marble’s vagaries, were almost always prepared for this kind of mishap (and indeed Bernini faced the same problem a decade later with a bust of Pope Innocent X). Long before its execution in stone, the bust had begun as a series of preparatory drawings that led to the creation of a full-size clay model. Assistants would have prepared the marble block for the master’s final detailing, and only then would he have intervened to give the work its definitive personality. The fifteen-day miracle was not a creation from scratch.

Furthermore, as Pestilli points out, the design, the drawings, and the model were just as much a part of the master’s artistry as the final product. In Bernini’s studio, on occasion, the assistants might also do the detailing: the leaves and roots that spring from Daphne’s fingers and toes in Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, for instance, were done by Giuliano Finelli, and not all of them are made of marble. Rather than run the risk of shattering stone, Finelli used stucco to complete the laurel leaves and the finest roots. For all his phenomenal skill, Bernini recognized that Finelli had the most delicate hand of all, and for seven years, from 1622 to 1629, the younger man was Bernini’s most valued associate before striking out on his own.


In the case of Cardinal Scipione’s bust, a spare block had probably been prepared long before the crack appeared in the original. Marble, even marmo statuario, is an uneven medium; traces of primordial silt and sand in the calcium carbonate create characteristic veins in varying shades of gray or weak points and natural fissures in the stone. Michelangelo was well along with a statue of the Risen Christ when a dark gray vein appeared at eye level in the center of the figure’s face. He tried to limit the damage, and thanks to his skill Jesus exhibits nothing more than a dark stripe alongside his nose, but Michelangelo, unable to unsee the flaw, carved a whole new statue, fine-tuning its pose in the process.

Cardinal Scipione, to his immense credit both as a friend of Bernini and as a connoisseur of the artistic process, kept both his portrait busts, the cracked and the whole, displaying them in different rooms of his suburban villa. Today they stand side by side in the same space at the Borghese Gallery, where we can compare them directly with each other. The cracked original is more finely finished—Bernini completed the bust despite the flaw in the marble and it shows the effect of more concentrated, meticulous work, but the second version, created more hastily and along simplified lines, radiates its own spontaneous charm. Both communicate the cardinal’s jovial spirit through his smile and the button that slips furtively out of its buttonhole, as if the portly prelate is bursting out of his cassock.

The fifteen-day bust is only one of the tall tales told of Bernini by his enthusiastic biographers, a yarn genuinely based on Bernini’s own experience—we can see the evidence for ourselves. Many of the other anecdotes, as Pestilli reveals, are drawn not from life but from literature, as a way of consecrating their Gian Lorenzo among the heroes of artistic legend and, in one case at least, among the very saints. According to Domenico Bernini, the sculptor, only eighteen,

wished to portray…Saint Lawrence in the act of being burned naked on the grill. In order to adequately reflect in the saint’s face the pain of his martyrdom and the effect that the fire must have had on his flesh, he placed his own leg and bare thigh against burning coals…. Even more meritoriously than the ancient Scaevola, who placed his hand in fire in order to punish himself for having erred, our Gian Lorenzo caused his own flesh to be burned out of a desire not to fall into error.

None of the artist’s other biographers tell the story, and Pestilli points out that the statue—now in the Uffizi in Florence—shows Lawrence with a body contorted by pain but a face already enraptured by visions of Heaven. But the anecdote allows the scholarly Domenico to invoke a series of statements about artists and verisimilitude from authors ancient and modern: Aristotle, Seneca, Quintilian, Dante, right up to the saintly seventeenth-century cardinal Federico Borromeo. Bernini clearly did make faces in a mirror to prepare for his screaming Damned Soul and the David who bites his lip in concentration, but grimacing for art’s sake can hardly compare with suffering the ordeal of burning coals to share in the martyrdom of one’s own patron saint.

It is no wonder that Domenico Bernini became such a scholar. His father amassed a library of four hundred books (their titles carefully cataloged and analyzed by Sarah McPhee2), a number surpassed in his own day only by his inveterate rival Francesco Borromini and by the supremely suave Peter Paul Rubens.

Bernini was distinctive among Rome’s courtiers for his resolute independence. With patrons that included kings, popes, and cardinals, he moved in society’s highest circles. He was never one of them, but in a society that so often turned upon flattery, he never stooped. When he walked in the Vatican gardens with Pope Alexander VII, who dressed down for the occasion in a doublet and hose of white satin, they concocted architectural plans together on the pages of the same sketchbook, which still survives in the Vatican Library as Manuscript Chigi a.I.18. Although the handwriting of the two is distinct, it is not always clear who drew which line, the record of an intimate collaboration. One day, another of Rome’s most colorful residents, Queen Christina of Sweden, knocked unannounced on Bernini’s door. Rather than dress to meet the queen, he appeared in the rough apron he wore when he was carving.

And yet Bernini was a careful and prudent dresser. Across the decades, his portraits show him consistently in black with a flat white linen collar: simple, elegant attire. Other artists, like his father’s (and Caravaggio’s) onetime master Giuseppe Cesari, the notoriously vain Cavalier of Arpino, wore flat collars trimmed in elaborate lace, and he never appeared without the gold chain of high knighthood. A dandy like the papal nephew Camillo Pamphilj would wear a ruff made of yard upon yard of expensive lace. Bernini, for all his colossal ego, never displayed that kind of vanity, but he also let people visit his studio only by appointment, so he could be seen working in gentlemanly gear. Queen Christina’s unannounced appearance was an annoying break of protocol, but Pestilli shows how masterfully Bernini handled the situation: appearing in his work clothes gave the queen a glimpse of his intimate life, a gesture of friendship to a woman as likely to dress in men’s clothing as a silken gown. In Rome’s elaborate social network, each of them had carved out a unique place.

Pestilli’s final chapter, on Bernini’s legacy, reveals the artist’s profound influence on Canova, who saw Apollo and Daphne in 1780 at the age of twenty-three. In his diary he declared that the statue had been “sculpted with such delicacy that it seems impossible [to achieve], there are laurel leaves [executed] with wonderful workmanship [and] the [rendition] of the beautiful nude is beyond expectation.”

Pestilli also documents Bernini’s lasting legacy to other artists with a staggering array of color photographs, many of which he took himself. He records late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century sculptural monuments preserved in some of Rome’s most inaccessible churches: overlooked gems like Bernardino Ludovisi’s pyramidal funerary monument to Cardinal Giorgio Spinola in San Salvatore alle Coppelle, or Lorenzo Ottoni’s theatrical balcony of a tomb for Antonio and Girolama Publicola in their family church, the intermittently accessible Santa Maria in Publicolis. How did Pestilli get through all those perpetually closed doors? Most of us are lucky if we manage to sneak into two or three of them over the decades. Above all, he trains his observant eye on works from an era that has received comparatively little attention from either art historians or tourists. After Bernini and His World, with its vast visual encyclopedia of Baroque sculpture in Rome, ignoring these visual riches will be much harder to do—and why would anyone want to? But the real value of the book is its magical mystery tour through the mind and art of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Rome’s very own Vesuvius.