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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680)

Gian Lorenzo Bernini dominated the Roman art world of the seventeenth century, flourishing under the patronage of its cardinals and popes while also challenging contemporary artistic traditions. His sculptural and architectural projects reveal an innovative interpretation of subjects, use of forms, and combination of media. Forging a path for future artists, he played an instrumental role in establishing the dramatic and eloquent vocabulary of the Baroque style.

Gian Lorenzo first trained in the Roman workshop of his father Pietro, assisting with such sculptures as a pair of terms representing Spring and Fall in the guise of Flora and Priapus (1990.53.1; 1990.53.2). The classically inspired Bacchanal: A Faun Teased by Children (1976.92), one of his first independent works, takes as its point of departure the Mannerist motif of interwoven figures.

A series of over-lifesize marble statues commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese for his villa in Rome announced Bernini’s novel style and established his role as the foremost sculptor in Italy. One of these works, the Apollo and Daphne (1622–24; Galleria Borghese, Rome), illustrates the typically Baroque theme of metamorphosis. Subtle variations in the texture of the marble create the illusion of soft human flesh transforming into the leaves and bark of a tree. The statue of David (1623; Galleria Borghese) captures the biblical hero in the climax of his action. Expanding upon Michelangelo’s fascination with the human body, Bernini added torsion to create a dynamic figure that extends into the viewer’s space.

One of his masterpieces, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647–52; Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome), presents a mystical figure who is physically overwhelmed by a miraculous vision. Functioning as a sort of tableau vivant with busts of members of the Cornaro family seeming to serve as witnesses, the composition reflects Bernini’s experience as a stage designer. The fusion of architecture, painting, and sculpture is further intensified by the combination of colored marbles.

Called to France by King Louis XIV to work on the Palace of the Louvre, Bernini left Rome for a brief period in 1665. Although his architectural plans were rejected, he completed a portrait bust of Louis XIV (Château, Versailles), a majestic representation of the monarch in a dramatically billowing costume.

Saint Peter’s
Under Pope Urban VIII, Bernini received the first of several commissions for Saint Peter’s—the enormous marble, bronze, and gilt baldacchino (1623–24) to stand over the papal altar. Soon after, he began a monument to Urban VIII (1627–47), a work that defined the iconography of future papal funerary monuments. In the later work of the Cathedra Petri (1657–66), placed in the apse to encase the ancient throne believed to be that of Saint Peter, natural light is intensified by scattered gilt rays to create a divine setting. Framed visually by the columns of the earlier baldacchino, the sacred work immediately captures the attention of the viewer. Bernini’s last work for Saint Peter’s, begun under Pope Alexander VII, was the design for the giant piazza leading to the church (1656–67). He himself likened the oval space defined by two freestanding colonnades as the mother church extending her arms to embrace the faithful.

Other Architectural Projects and Fountains
Bernini further demonstrated his ability as an architect in the Church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale (begun 1661, Rome), where the interplay of concave and convex surfaces in the interior guide the viewer’s eye around the centralized plan.

In 1642–43, Bernini worked on a fountain design for the Piazza Barberini. The resulting Triton Fountain, with its organic and natural motifs, honored the nearby Barberini Palace and exemplified Rome’s advance use of aqueducts. A sketch for the fountain (1973.265) shows the sea deity seated above four intertwined dolphins, raising a conch shell to his lips, creating a cascade of water. The later Fountain of the Four Rivers (1648–51, Piazza Navona, Rome) demonstrates Bernini’s knowledge of engineering principles. In this complex concetto (poetic invention), personifications of the Four Rivers lie around a basin of water. A naturalistic rock formation supports a monumental obelisk, creating the illusion of a magically suspended tower.

Working Method and Character
A bronze Saint Agnes (1978.202) cast after a model by Bernini shows the impulsive quality of his terracotta bozzetti. The figure’s sideward stance is typical of the figures crowning the colonnades of Saint Peter’s Square. As a highly sought after sculptor, Bernini relied increasingly on his assistants to complete sculptures based on his designs. Also a painter, he created several self-portraits in the 1620s–30s that recall Velázquez’s tenebrous style.

In contrast to his competitor Francesco Borromini, Bernini’s affable character allowed him to maintain good relations with his patrons. A man of great faith, he attended mass daily and practiced contemporary religious exercises. His abbreviated caricatures of prominent figures, including Pope Innocent X, expose a lighter side of his personality and a witty sense of humor.