The Catholic Church, faced with the stresses of the seventeenth century, responded with brilliant skill and energy. It marshaled its forces in defense of its own dogmas and powers, and the visual arts were one of the theaters in which such marshaling took place. This was part of the ideological and imaginative thrust known as the Counter-Reformation. Never, not even in the Middle Ages, had so much been expected of architects, sculptors, and painters in defense of Catholic belief. If one had to choose a single sculptor-architect who completely embodied, in his person and his work, the spirit of the Counter-Reformation, there could only be one candidate. He was Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680). Across a long and prodigiously fecund working life, Bernini epitomized what it could mean to be a Catholic artist in the fullest sense. “Inspired” is a word that should be used with caution, but there is no more fitting adjective for Bernini. Not only was there no angle between his beliefs and those of the royal personages and Catholic hierarchy for whom he worked; he drew an extreme stimulus from them, taking an unfeigned joy in satisfying their doctrinal requirements. He was the marble megaphone of papal orthodoxy in the seventeenth century. If you cut stone and worked in the seventeenth century in Italy (and elsewhere in Europe, too), you worked in the shadow of this Roman prodigy. It was really as simple (but as complex) as that, and there have been few artists in European history who defined their age and their spiritual environment as completely as Bernini did. If we look back on him from a century whose defining cultural characteristic is doubt, it seems hardly credible that a man of such skill and certezza could have existed. But he did, and he found the right patrons to match his genius.
The presence of Baroque art is so massive now, so powerful in our reading of European culture, that it might always have been there. But it was not. “Baroque” was a term of abuse, and the work it denoted was considered vulgar, hateful, and (despite its technical skill) inept, right through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Colen Campbell (1676–1729), the Scots protégé of Lord Burlington, whose Vitruvius Britannicus was such a strong influence on British architectural taste, saw the period as a descent from the heights of Palladian genius into “capricious ornaments, which must at last end in the Gothick”:
I appeal to the Productions of the last Century: How affected and licentious are the works of Bernini and Fontana? How wildly extravagant are the designs of Borromini, who has endeavoured to debauch Mankind with his odd and chimerical Beauties, where the parts are without Proportion, Solids without their true Bearing, heaps of Materials without Strength, excessive Ornaments without Grace, and the Whole without Symmetry?
Nor did the succeeding two centuries bring much change of heart or opinion. For indignant Ruskin, to whom Gothic was the sublime mode for religious architecture, Baroque was merely “the flourishes of vile paganism.” Charles Dickens, visiting Rome inPictures from Italy, found Bernini’s Baroque monuments “intolerable abortions,” “the most detestable class of productions in the whole wide world.” The 1911 edition of that style bible of English architectural history, Banister Fletcher’s History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, gave the whole seventeenth century thirty lines of text: writers on the Baroque were apt to content themselves with the mere exercise of stamping on its grave. It represented, wrote Fletcher,
an anarchical reaction [to Palladio]. Sinuous frontages and a strained originality in detail are characteristic.… Ornamentation is carried out to an extraordinary degree without regard to fitness or suitability, and consists of exaggerated and badly designed detail.… Ma-derno, Bernini and Borromini are among the more famous who practiced this debased form of art.
Such a picture of Baroque achievement, particularly in Rome, is unrecognizable today. Tastes change, as a matter of course; but in the case of seventeenth-century building and the reactions to it, we might be looking at a different world—and in a real sense, we are. Where the Ruskins and Campbells saw disordered heaps of ostentation, a gratification of the lust for pomp without reference to true religious feeling, we are more likely to see the last great universal language of spirituality. The reasons for this begin and end with Bernini (1598–1680).
Bernini had his training in the studio of his sculptor-father, Pietro Bernini, a Florentine Mannerist artist of some achievement who worked in Naples and settled in Rome, the art world’s center, around 1606 to work for Pope Paul V. His earliest known independent works belong to childhood: a small group of statues of the goat Amalthea suckling the infant Jupiter, done with the complex realism he must have learned from the Hellenistic marble carvings he saw in Rome, and from his father’s imitation of them—all those tangles of matted goat hair, done with such relish!—dates to about 1609, when he was eleven. He was hardly more than a boy when his work first came to the attention of Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who saw his carving of the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, being grilled to death over hot coals and rising marble flames but looking fairly composed about it. It is said (se non è vero, etc.) that the twenty-year-old sculptor arranged a mirror and then put his leg into a fire, the better to see the anguish on his own face—although the expression of this Lawrence does not look unduly agonized. Or was it just that Bernini was unusually stoic? Probably not.
It was through Barberini that one of Rome’s foremost art collectors became aware of young Bernini’s work. This was Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1576–1633), nephew of Pope Paul V, connoisseur of antiquities, bon vivant, and man of enormous wealth. He was the pope’s secretary, and, to all intents, he ran the Vatican government. He held a host of official positions, most of which returned him serious money; by 1612, his annual income was said to be a huge 140,000 scudi.
Pederasty in seventeenth-century Rome was a crime which, at least in theory, carried the death penalty. There is no doubt about Scipione Borghese’s homosexual proclivities, but he was protected—indeed, armor-plated—by birth and wealth. He surrounded himself with fanciulli or pretty boys, and there is little doubt that the homosexuality of the great realist Caravaggio, whom Borghese was one of the first to encourage, was a prime reason why early Caravaggios like the Sick Bacchus, the Boy Bitten by a Lizard,and other works entered Borghese’s collection. These pouting pieces of rough trade, with their lumberous dark eyes and hair like black ice cream, were clearly much to the cardinal’s taste.
His collection of ancient sculpture included some of the most admired pieces in Europe, such as the Borghese Gladiator (c. 100 B.C.E.), which Bernini strove to emulate. It was clear to Borghese that Bernini, hardly out of his teens, was a maestro in the making. And Borghese was not the kind of collector who would wait for, or be denied, anything that took his imperious fancy (one of his more odious actions was to confiscate more than a hundred pictures from the Cavaliere d’Arpino, a feeble Mannerist painter whose claim to distinction was to have taught Caravaggio for a while, for not paying his taxes). Borghese started amassing Berninis, and secured some of his best early works: among them, a life-sized figure group of Aeneas and his little son, Ascanius, fleeing the burning city of Troy, carrying his aged father, Anchises, who himself carries the penates (household gods) of their lost home. This is a transcription in stone of Virgil’s lines from the Aeneid:
“Then come, dear father. Arms around my neck:
I’ll take you on my shoulders, no great weight.
Whatever happens, both will face one danger,
Find one safety.…
Father, carry our hearth-gods, our Penates.
It would be wrong for me to handle them–
Just come from such hard fighting, bloody work–
Until I wash myself in running water.”
This sculpture, the spiraling movement of its bodies so strongly indebted to the great Mannerist sculptor Giambologna, was designed for Scipione Borghese’s new villa at the Porta Pinciana in Rome, where it still stands. So was the extraordinary Pluto and Persephone (1621–22), in which the imposingly muscular figure of the king of Hades is seen carrying off the helpless daughter of Zeus and Demeter to be his prisoner and bride in the Underworld: a girl snatched, in Milton’s lines, from
…that fair field
Of Enna,1 where Proserpin gathering flours
Herself a fairer Floure by gloomie Dis
Was gather’d, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the World.…
Persephone shrieks in vain; she struggles and wriggles helplessly, enticingly; we even see the marble tear on her cheek, and the yielding flesh of her thigh as Pluto’s fingers sink implacably into it. It is an extremely sexy sculpture, and should be, since its subject is a rape; Scipione Borghese possessed an unsurpassed collection of antique Roman erotica, with which the young sculptor must have been happily familiar. The extraordinary character of this sculpture lies in a mastery over carving which transcends the puritanical mantra of modernism about “truth to material,” as though there were only some things that could legitimately be done with wood or stone, and to go beyond them were a sin. Bernini leaves you in no doubt that stone can represent anything if the shaping hand is skilled enough. Is it wrong for it to look as though it were modeled rather than carved? Assuredly not, the marvelous surfaces and textures of Pluto’s and Persephone’s bodies tell us. Is the effect a lie? Of course, but art itself is a lie—a lie told in the service of truth.
The showpiece of Bernini’s early virtuosity is, however, the Apollo and Daphne, commissioned by Scipione Borghese after he gave the Pluto and Persephone to the pope’s nephew to curry favor with the pontiff. It is a sculptural illustration of one of the more beautiful and poignant moments in classical poetry, which occurs in book one of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Apollo has encountered the nymph Daphne, daughter of the river-god Peneus. The love-god Cupid, witnessing this, fires two arrows from his bow; one sharp and tipped with gold, which pierces Apollo’s vitals, and the other blunt and lead-tipped at Daphne, who at once becomes unreachable by love. Apollo is now compelled always to pursue Daphne, who is likewise doomed always to flee. “But the marriage torches/Were something hateful, criminal, to Daphne,” who entreats her father to “Let me be a virgin always.…” Apollo, of course, has other ideas. She runs,
Too young a god to waste his time in coaxing,
Came following fast. When a hound starts a rabbit
In an open field, one runs for game, one safety,
He has her, or thinks he has, and she is doubtful
Whether she’s caught or not, so close the margin,
So ran the god and girl, one swift in hope,
The other in terror, but he ran more swiftly,
Borne on the wings of love, gave her no rest,
Shadowed her shoulder, breathed on her streaming hair,
Her strength was gone, worn out by the long effort
Of the long flight; she was deathly pale, and seeing
The river of her father, cried “O help me,
If there is any power in the rivers,
Change and destroy the body which has given
Too much delight!” And hardly had she finished,
When her limbs grew numb and heavy, her soft breasts
Were closed with delicate bark, her hair was leaves,
Her arms were branches, and her speedy feet
Rooted and held, and her head became a tree top,
Everything gone except her grace, her shining.
Apollo loved her still. He placed his hand
Where he had hoped and felt the heart still beating
Under the bark; and he embraced the branches
As if they still were limbs, and kissed the wood,
And the wood shrank from his kisses, and the god
Exclaimed: “Since you can never be my bride,
My tree at least you shall be! Let the laurel
Adorn, henceforth, my hair, my lyre, my quiver:
Let Roman victors, in the long procession,
Wear laurel wreaths for triumph and ovation.…”
He said no more. The laurel,
Stirring, seemed to consent, to be saying Yes.
This, one might have thought, would have been an impossible thing to illustrate with sculpture. Sculpture—at least until Bernini—always depicted achieved actions and complete states. Nobody had tried to illustrate in sculpture things in transition, to convey what was incomplete or in the very process of change. Yet in Apollo and Daphne we do see the change from girl to tree happening before our eyes; the bark enveloping and encasing her lithe body; softness giving way to ligneous toughness; movement turning into rootedness. Moreover, the sculpture seems to defy what we know is a chief property of stone: its brittleness. How on earth (one wonders), through what preternatural skill, did Bernini manage to render those brittle stalks and thin, freestanding blades of laurel leaf in marble, without snapping them off? It must have been done with rasps, drills, and abrasive; a hammer blow, the touch of a chisel, would have ruined any of them. And once a leaf was broken, there were no adhesives like epoxy capable of mending it in the early seventeenth century. No sculpture, one feels, could be riskier. Of course, one’s admiration of Bernini’s technique is not confined to enjoying its Last-Supper-carved-on-a-peach-stone virtuosity, which has always been considered to go beyond mere skill. There is no feeling that he has achieved such effects by some sort of trickery or legerdemain. They are there, factual, and it was not magic that put them there. And the rendering of emotion and expression rivals the intensity of the work of the painter Guido Reni, the Italian artist whom, we know, Bernini greatly admired. In years to come, Bernini’s work would deepen and acquire a wider emotional resonance. It, and he, would mature. But already, in his twenties, he showed himself capable of producing one of those works of art that seem to enlarge the scope of human possibility. Anyone who thinks of the young Picasso as a prodigy should reflect on the young Bernini, and be admonished. There was no twentieth-century artist, and certainly none of the twenty-first century, who does not look rather small beside him.
He was a man of the utmost concentration and energy. Even in old age (and he lived to eighty-two), Bernini was quite capable of working on a marble block for seven or eight hours at a stretch. This vitality, which he never lost, combined with astonishing executive powers. He ran a very large studio, and had to, because of the number of commissions in sculpture and architecture, for the highest levels of government and religion, that he confidently undertook and completed. He was by far the most influential sculptor in Rome, or in the seventeenth-century world. Bernini was to become the supreme artist of the Counter-Reformation in sculpture and architecture, as Rubens was in painting.
And, like Rubens, he was a man of strong and deep religious conviction. It is not, of course, true that to create important works of religious art one must be pious. Still less is it true that an artist’s personal piety underwrites the quality of his art as art—much of the world’s vilest, most sugary religious kitsch has been deeply felt and produced by honest and morally impeccable people. But there have been cases, uncommon but real, when deep religious impulses lend an authentic intensity of spiritual feeling to depictions of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, one which detachment or agnosticism cannot provide. Bernini’s was such a case.
The event that set the seal on Bernini’s growing success came on August 6, 1623, with the election of Maffeo Barberini as Pope Urban VIII. Barberini (reigned 1623–44), a Florentine, was a man of the most unbridled political ambition. Indeed, his papacy reached the high-water mark of the extent and power of the Papal States within Italy. It would hardly have been possible for him to remain aloof from politics, not only because the Papacy ruled Rome but also because his reign coincided with twenty-one years of the Thirty Years’ War.
But the patronage of art was also, for him, as important as the prosecution of war. He built extensively in Rome, and some of the results were glorious in their extravagance—notably his own residence, Palazzo Barberini, on the Quirinal (Via delle Quattro Fontane 13). Its initial design—a villa with wings extending into the garden around it—was done by Carlo Maderno; later, the work, interrupted by Maderno’s death in 1629, was taken over by Bernini and Francesco Borromini. Its façade derives, in its essentials, from that mighty prototype of Roman Baroque palaces, the Palazzo Farnese. If he had built nothing else, Maffeo Barberini would deserve a place in architectural history for this private home, but of course he did much more. He was determined to leave a great indelible mark on Rome; like many before him, he chose to do so through its principal church, Saint Peter’s. The man who would do this for him was young Bernini. On the very day of his election, Urban is said to have summoned the sculptor and declared: “You have the great fortune to see Cardinal Maffeo Barberini Pope, Cavaliere; but ours is much greater to have Cavaliere Bernini alive in our pontificate.” Or words, at least, to that effect. Later, Urban would write of his artist, “Rare man, sublime artificer, born by Divine Disposition and for the glory of Rome to illuminate the century.”
Bernini was only twenty-three when he was made a cavaliere, a papal knight. This honor was merely a formal recognition of what everyone who had seen his early sculptures already knew: that, of all the stonecutters and bronze casters working in Europe, Bernini was the most skilled, the most inventive, not only in his technical mastery of materials, but in his astonishing ability to create a concetto or “concept” of sculpture. This gift went far beyond the ability to carve a strong Hercules or a desirable Venus, which was (relatively) easy. It had to do with inventing an entirely new kind of drama from posture, gesture, and expression. It ensured Bernini his first papal commissions, of which the principal ones had to do with Saint Peter’s. In fact, for the half-century after 1623, hardly a year would pass in which Bernini would not be involved in the decoration of this prodigious basilica, and it was Urban who brought him into it as the master of papal works, starting with an enormous monument right below the dome, over the (supposed) burial spot of the Apostle Peter.
This was the baldacchino, or altar canopy. It can never be overemphasized that the shared project of Bernini and Urban VIII was to display to the world the triumph of Catholicism over Protestant heresy, and give unforgettable visual form to the tenets of the Counter-Reformation. The canopy was the first icon of this: a huge, exuberant declaration of the belief that Saint Peter, Christ’s vicar on earth and first in an unbroken line of popes, lay buried here and nowhere else, that the only true version of Christianity washisfaith and that of his successors, not (perish the thought!) Martin Luther’s. It marks the foundation stone of the Church: “Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam,” Christ is recorded as saying, punningly, to Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” These words are inscribed around the drum of the crossing, above the baldacchino, in letters five feet high.
The baldachin would have to be huge. In the vast space of that nave, under such a dome, seen from the distance of the entrance (the nave is 218.7 meters long), anything less than huge would look as trivial and incongruous as a beach umbrella. Obviously, one could not use a real canopy, figured silk supported on poles. The size of the thing would have been too great for any kind of cloth, which would have perished anyway. So the canopy must be rigid, made of metal. The correct metal would be bronze. But a structure so large, with its superstructure of volutes and its twenty-meter-high twisted columns (of the type known as “solomonicas,” from the belief that spirally twisted columns were used in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem), would require enormous quantities of this metal. Where would it come from? Where, but another church? Urban VIII gave Bernini leave to strip the ancient bronze cladding from the portico of Santa Maria Rotonda, the new name of the Pantheon, which had been adopted and reconsecrated for Catholic rites and was the property of the Holy See. From this and other sources of recyclable bronze, Bernini got the metal to make the baldacchino, with enough left over to cast some cannon for the Castel Sant’Angelo. This made some Romans indignant, though in truth, even if it would obviously have been better to have both, it would be difficult to claim that the exchange of the Pantheon’s bronze for Bernini’s baldachin was anything but a net gain.
The baldacchino is the world’s first incontestably great Baroque monument. No wonder Bernini’s enemies derided it (behind his back, of course) as a “chimera”—it fell into no agreed category of décor, sculpture, or architecture. It still strikes the viewer with awe, through the richness and complexity of its detail no less than its astonishing size—the largest bronze sculpture in the world. But is it sculpture? Or metallic architecture? Manifestly, both. As a work of propaganda it has few rivals elsewhere in the fine arts. It is propaganda not only for Catholic doctrine and Catholic archaeology, but for Maffeo Barberini himself. The bronze bees that are crawling everywhere on it, giant insects the size of starlings, are the heraldic api of the Barberini family. The recurrent suns and the laurels that twine the massive corkscrew columns are, likewise, Barberini emblems. L’église, c’est moi.
Maffeo Barberini’s papacy had been a fairly long one—twenty-one years, from 1623 to 1644. It cannot be called a financial success; he practiced nepotism on too gigantic a scale. When he came to the throne, the papacy was sixteen million scudi in debt, and Urban took only two years to run that up to twenty-eight million. By 1640, the debt stood at thirty-five million, so that the interest payments on it alone consumed more than four-fifths of the annual papal income. His political adventures tended to be quite disastrous: Urban was the last pope to go to war in the hope of expanding papal territory, and he always lost his battles. Nor was his scientific sense much better. He vigorously opposed Galileo’s heliocentric theory of the universe, the belief that the earth went round the sun and not vice versa, and summoned him to Rome in 1633 to make him recant. He also—to descend from the serious to the absurd—issued a papal bull, in 1624, that made smoking tobacco punishable by excommunication. The reason was that when smokers sneezed their convulsion resembled orgasm, and this struck Urban as a mortal sin of the flesh.
Bernini far outlasted his patron in life, and glorified him after death in a tomb which occupies one of the most honored spots in the basilica, enthroned and wearing the papal tiara (bareheaded was more normal in tomb sculpture). Nobody can miss the encompassing gesture of benediction with which he faces the viewer, but people do not always notice Bernini’s attribution to him of eternal life: three bronze Barberini bees, which have flown out of the sarcophagus and are heading upward, in illustration of Virgil’s lines from the Georgics describing the immortality of those cooperative insects: “There is no room for death: alive they fly/To join the stars and mount aloft to heaven.”
Nowhere could Bernini’s diplomatic skills have been more evident than in his handling of the transition of power, after Urban VIII’s death, to the new pontiff, Giovanni Battista Pamphili, who succeeded to the Fisherman’s Chair in 1644 and reigned for eleven years under the name of Innocent X. Though Bernini would spend a few years out in the cold, he bided his time; his sheer talent and unrivaled ingenuity would ensure his return to favor. Innocent had a visceral loathing for his predecessor, who had left the Papacy heavily depleted—patronage of one’s own family, as Urban practiced it, was a most expensive hobby.2
Innocent’s acute dislike extended to the recipients of Urban’s largesse, of whom the most conspicuous was Bernini. The great sculptor was detested by most artists and architects in Rome, since nothing breeds envy more than extreme success. It was therefore with an overwhelming sense of relief and Schadenfreude (that useful German word that has no exact English equivalent but means roughly “pleasure in the misfortunes of others”) that the Roman cultural world not only saw him fail, but saw the pope do nothing to rescue him.
The stumbling block was a design he made in 1637 for bell towers on the façade of Saint Peter’s. Apparently, Bernini did not design a strong enough footing for them; the ground was more weakened by subterranean streams than the architect realized. Soon after it was built, cracks appeared in the left tower. To the unrestrained delight of his enemies, including his arch-rival Borromini, Bernini’s towers had to be demolished. Because of Innocent X, it was politically safe for anyone to be as nasty about Urban VIII’s once-omnipotent protégé as he liked. For the first time in his life, Bernini was out in the cold. From the point of view of his prosperity, this demotion from the exalted status of papal architect hardly mattered—there would be enough commissions from rich but lesser patrons to keep him busy through Doomsday. Still, losing the pope’s favor was a severe blow, one that the great man could not accept.
And Innocent meant business. Once his mind was made up, he did not easily relent. Urban was hardly cold in the magnificent tomb Bernini had made for him in Saint Peter’s when Innocent X brought suit against his relatives, the Cardinals Antonio and Francesco Barberini, for misappropriation of public funds. They fled to France and took refuge under the powerful wing of Cardinal Mazarin, leaving financial chaos behind them; Innocent promptly confiscated their property.
He was also as given to meddling in the affairs of other countries as his medieval namesake Innocent III: but this was still normal for a powerful sacro-secular state like the Papacy. One should not forget that the Papacy still ran the civil and political government of Rome. Its affairs were not only those of the Church, but of the state. The Church was the state. An extreme case of this meddling was Ireland. During the Civil War (1642–49) in England and Ireland, the pope dispatched a nuncio—an ecclesiastic diplomat—Archbishop Giovanni Rinuccini, to Kilkenny with a huge sum of money and ten tons of the best gunpowder. Though he declared, and with sincerity, that he meant to sustain the king, his purpose was to help the Irish Catholics throw off the Protestant yoke of England, restoring confiscated property to the Irish Church and the rights of Catholic worship to the Irish people. It went badly awry; instead of gaining its lost rights back, Ireland got the “accursed butcher” Oliver Cromwell, who invaded with his New Model Army and in what could euphemistically be called a “police action” mercilessly crushed the rebellion and ensured more than three further centuries of bloodshed between Catholics and Protestants within long-memoried Ireland—“much hatred, little room,” in W. B. Yeats’s pregnant words. Archbishop Rinuccini was recalled by Innocent in 1649, his gunpowder wasted.
Preoccupied with his political adventures, Innocent X had little or no time for Bernini, who bided his time and worked on more private commissions. The greatest of these was the Cornaro Chapel, in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, the work which signaled a new and audacious development in the sculptor’s thinking. This is the project which brought together sculpture, scenography, narrative, and architecture in a way which had never been done or even attempted before—a hinge point, not only in Bernini’s career, but in the history of seventeenth-century art.
It was a memorial, commissioned by the Venetian Cardinal Federigo Cornaro (1579–1653), patriarch of Venice, to commemorate both himself and his family. The saint it glorifies is Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515–82), the holy Spanish woman, founder of theCarmelite Order (to whom the church belongs) and teacher of Saint John of the Cross, whose copious writings include a vision of Divine Love, manifesting itself in the form of an angel with a spear. Her description of this vision has often been quoted, but it is worth repeating not only for its classical importance in the canon of mysticism but also because Bernini followed it to the very letter and clearly, as a most devout Catholic, believed every word of it, striving to make it as concrete as sculpture could be:
He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire. They must be of the kind called cherubim.… In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out, I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it—even a considerable share.… If anyone thinks I am lying, I pray God, in his goodness, to grant him some experience of it.
In Bernini’s sculpture, Saint Teresa is levitating, borne up on a marble cloud. Only three parts of her body are visible: her face, one bare foot, and a single nerveless hand. The rest of her is a mass of drapery, a near-chaos of folds and pleats, beneath which no sign of the body’s form is discernible. All is agitation, the swirls and crumples of marble cloth standing as signs of the intense emotion caused by the vision’s arrival. Her mouth is open, moaning; her heavy eyelids are lowered, stressing the internal power of her vision. Discreetly but without ambiguity, Bernini shows us a woman in orgasm—“If that is divine love, eh bien,” said a worldly French diplomat on catching sight of The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa for the first time in the 1780s, “I know it well.” (So, it should be added, did Bernini; he had an earthy-looking mistress named Costanza Bona-relli, whose bust he carved, voluptuously parted lips and all.) Compared with Saint Teresa, the angel is all unitary force, rising vertically beside her, his face a study in benign masculine sweetness, his eyes fixed on her as he draws back the spear to plunge it, once more, into her welcoming flesh. (His left hand, touching the saint’s disordered garment, is a superbly ambiguous touch: it could be seen as gently lifting the cloth to expose flesh which he can see but we cannot, or else as raising the whole body of the saint, weightlessly, upward—a reminder of the levitation Saint Teresa said she had undergone.)
The space of the chapel, which is in the left transept of Santa Maria della Vittoria, is quite shallow. Its focus is, of course, the marble group of Teresa and the angel. This is framed inside a niche, a sort of proscenium with a pediment that breaks forward on a curve and is framed on each side by a pair of darkish-green Breccia Africana columns. The dark surround makes the white figures of angel and saint even more apparitional, especially since they are lit from above by a source we cannot see. In a chimney or light well that is hidden from view, light cascades from a yellow glass window. (At least, it used to; the glass is now so dimmed by dust and pigeon droppings that the Carmelites had to install an electric bulb to replace the sun.) The “real” light falls on fictitious light—a burst of gilded sun rays, fanning down behind the figures.
On the side walls of the chapel are two symmetrical niches, designed in false perspective to give the illusion of deep space running back. In them are seated white marble effigies of eight members of the Cornaro family: Cardinal Federigo, the donor, with his father, the Doge Giovanni Cornaro, and six earlier Cornaros, all cardinals, too—a conclave of pious family power, spanning several generations. Leaning forward in fascination at the miracle before their eyes, they turn to one another, talking and arguing (or, since this is a church, whispering in awe) about it and its meaning; their astonishment parallels our own and increases it. This was the largest and most complicated essay in group sculptural portraiture (individual lifelike portraiture, not merely figure groups) ever done. And it reminds the viewer, as so much of Bernini’s work does, that he had a background in theater: he relished designing stage setups, theater sets, and special effects like floods and sunrises, though we have little idea of how realistically they might have worked. We do know that they impressed and likely fooled the audience.3 No wonder the Cornaro Chapel keeps its magic of illusion even in an age of photography and film, and retains its talismanic power as a mixed-media masterpiece, melding sculpture, theater, architecture, and colored marble surfaces in an inspired unity, a “total work of art” that Wagner might have dreamed of.
Nobody of Bernini’s genius can remain out in the cold in an age of public patronage for very long, and certainly Bernini did not. His restoration to papal favor came through the very pontiff who had revoked it: Innocent X Pamphili. No great Roman family was more bound up with an architectural feature of Rome than the Pamphili clan with Piazza Navona. It was “their” square—actually, an elongated horseshoe which almost exactly followed the track of the ancient Stadium of Domitian, which lay beneath it. Because footraces had been held in this stadium in ancient times (it was not a venue for either chariot races or the murderous rites of the gladiators), it was relatively short and lacked a central divider or spina. A place of intense physical striving, it had become known as the Circus Agonalis or platea in agone, which became changed by Roman dialect into “Piazza Navona.” A grand open space, ringed with palaces, closed at one end by the unwieldy bulk of Palazzo Doria, it had been distinguished by the pilgrimage church ofSant’Agnese in Agone, built on the presumed site of the holy child-virgin’s martyrdom, a Roman brothel. It was a modest church in its first form, but that would presently change by the orders of various members of the Pamphili family. In 1652, Innocent X decreed a total rebuilding of Agnes’s little shrine. This work was entrusted to Innocent’s architect Girolamo Rainaldi. He had designed the Pamphili Palace next door, and he would work on Sant’Agnese until 1653, shortly before his death, when the project was taken over by his son Carlo. But in 1653 the work on the commission was also joined by Francesco Borromini, the depressive genius who was Bernini’s chief rival. He redesigned the façade of Sant’Agnese as a concave oval curve between bell towers on either side. The church façade one sees from the piazza, therefore, is a palimpsest of three architects’ work: Borromini up to the cornice, then a classical pediment by Bernini (1666), and finally the dome and the upper parts of the campanili by Rainaldi. It is a horse made by committee.
Nevertheless, the piazza had evolved into one of the greatest festive precincts in Rome, frequented alike by the grandees taking their evening passeggiata, and every kind of jongleur, contortionist, pickpocket, pimp, tart, hawker, and gawker, whose descendants still throng the square as the day’s light is fading. In a superb demonstration of civic theater, there was until the end of the eighteenth century a custom of flooding the piazza with water, through which processions of horse-drawn carriages would festively parade round and round—a spectacle painted more than once by such artists as Hubert Robert. It must have been quite a sight, though prolonged immersion in water cannot have done much good to the wooden chassis and spoked wheels of the carrozze. But sometimes a Roman has no choice but to cut a bella figura, even when his carriage warps. Piazza Navona in the Baroque era was a center for street theater, replete with processions and ceremonies such as the Giostra del Saraceno, a jousting contest in which the target of the riders’ lances was an effigy of a Saracen mounted on a pole. But none of these delights of the effimero barocco (temporary Baroque) could compare to what Innocent X, through the ministrations of Bernini, made of the piazza.
At the beginning, the pope did not mean to use Bernini at all. Piazza Navona was the Pamphilis’ backyard, their family precinct, and Innocent X was determined to convert it into a permanent memorial to his reign—the greatest public square in Rome. He saw to it that every sculptor-architect of proven quality in Italy was invited to submit designs for the remodeling of Piazza Navona—with the single exception of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who, being so conspicuously the favorite of the detested Barberini, was disqualified.
At first it looked as though Borromini was going to win the commission: it was he who conceived the idea of a sculptural centerpiece for the square, a great fountain outside Sant’Agnese, with figures representing four rivers and, perhaps, symbolizing the four quarters of the known world. He also devised a scheme for a new aqueduct which would bring enough water for the fountain. Project models would be displayed to Innocent, and he would choose.
But, unknown to Borromini and everyone else, including the pope, Bernini’s friend Prince Niccolò Ludovisi had briefed the great sculptor on the situation and recommended that he make his own model, some say of silver; it would be secreted in a room where the pope would see it. Bernini chose the theme of the four rivers, too—no doubt Borromini never forgave him for this plagiarism—and proposed to add an Egyptian obelisk, which Innocent X had previously seen lying in five pieces on the spina of the Circus of Maxentius, out on the Via Appia. If Sixtus V could have his obelisks, so could Innocent X.
But it was necessary to give it a more grandiose and memorable setting than other obelisks, and Bernini proposed that it should be moved and reassembled to stand on the fictive mountain of travertine where the statues of the four rivers were ensconced. These rivers were the Nile, the Plate, the Ganges, and the Danube. Each of the rivers would represent one of the world’s four then known continents—Africa, America, India, and Europe—respectively, identified by allegorical figures and implications: a lion for the Nile, a pile of riches for the Plate (representing the promise of the New World), a man holding an oar for the Ganges, and a papal coat of arms for the Danube. The whole thing would be an astounding coup de théâtre: that giant spike borne up on a rough arch of rock, standing on a void above water—an image of the world, imago mundi, without parallel in earlier sculpture.
On top of the pyramidion would be a bronze dove, the stemma of the Pamphili as the bee was of the Barberini, proclaiming to the world the triumph of Christianity (the Holy Ghost, which a dove also symbolized) over Egyptian and all other paganism, and the happy identification of that same Holy Spirit with the Pamphilis in general and this pope in particular.
Then came a further level of meaning: the traditional form of Paradise contained, at its center, a fountain, and from it sprang the four rivers that irrigated the four quarters of the world—the Gihon, the Pison, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. Bernini’s design alluded to this, too, thus implying that the Pamphili pope was in charge of Paradise, and, in a theological sense, its actual gatekeeper.
The model was finished; Prince Ludovisi arranged for it to be set in a room in Palazzo Pamphili through which Innocent always passed on his way from dinner. He was on his way with his brother cardinal and his sister-in-law, Donna Olimpia, when it caught his eye.
On seeing such a noble creation and the sketch for so vast a monument, [he] stopped almost in ecstasy.… After admiring and praising it for more than half an hour, he burst forth, in the presence of the entire privy council, with the following words: “This is a trick of Prince Ludovisi. It will be necessary to employ Bernini in spite of those who do not wish it, for he who desires not to use Bernini’s designs must take care not to see them.” He sent for Bernini immediately.
And so Bernini’s design for the Fountain of the Four Rivers went ahead.4 Begun in 1648, it was finished in 1651, thanks to a cast of skilled assistants working to his designs—on a project like this, Bernini was more the master of works than the carver, although he reputedly did the horse, the palm tree, the lion, some of the rock, and possibly the bizarre hybrid creature next to Francesco Baratta’s figure of the river Plate, which looks like nothing that ever lived but was meant to be an armadillo, an animal so exotic that neither Bernini nor anyone else in Rome had ever seen one or even an engraving of one. Bizarreries and jokes were designed into the stone: Antonio Raggi’s figure of the Danube is holding up its hand, allegedly to shield its gaze from the unwelcome sight of Borromini’s façade of Sant’Agnese. Because the source of the Nile was unknown, the figure of it, carved by Giacomo Fancelli, has a head swathed in cloth—but this blindfold was also said (falsely) to protect the Nile against a glimpse of Borromini’s work.
The reassembly and erection of the obelisk was a major enterprise: not, perhaps, as monstrous as Fontana’s task in shifting the obelisk of Saint Peter’s for Sixtus V, but attended by great engineering problems. It is a gigantic spike balanced above a void. Bernini constructed the base from travertine, apparently solid rock but carved to simulate “natural” stone, an arch. One can see right under and through it, from one side of the piazza to the other. This was the new base of the obelisk. One can but guess a connection between the emotional effect that the collapse of the bell tower at Saint Peter’s must have had on Bernini, and the daring with which he set up the obelisk over the void at the center of the Four Rivers Fountain. Let the public and the papacy see, he in effect declared, what I can do! Let them know that the bell-tower fiasco was not of my own making! And then one realizes something else. This spike over a void within the “legs” of an arch—what is it but a prefiguring of the feat Gustave Eiffel would bring off two and a half centuries later, in steel and in Paris, with his celebratory tower? Was this where Eiffel got his first idea for the structure which, at the end of the nineteenth century, would be identified more than any other with modernity? Tantalizing, but impossible to know.
The Four Rivers was by far the most elaborate, ambitious, and delightful fountain Bernini contributed to Rome, but of course it was not the only one. His earliest was possibly the “Ship” or Barcaccia in Piazza di Spagna. It may have been designed by his father, Pietro, who was the official architect of the Acqua Vergine, the aqueduct through which its water came; but the son seems to be the more likely author. Created in 1627–29, it takes the low water pressure in that area and turns it to advantage: the motif is a marble ship half sunk in a pool, dribbling rather than exuberantly spouting water from its gun ports. It may be that it has a political reference, since the patron who commissioned it was Urban VIII, who at the time was conspiring with France and Spain to launch the seaborne invasion of Protestant Britain—the very attack that would end in the ignominious destruction of the Spanish Armada. With consummate hypocrisy, Urban penned a distich which was engraved on the fountain and, in translation, reads, “The ship of the Church does not pour forth fire, but sweet water, by which the flames of war are extinguished.”
Bernini had a hand in the original design of the Trevi Fountain, but it was not started by him, and it fell to Nicola Salvi (1697–1751) to build it in the mid-eighteenth century. The commissioning pope was Clement XII Corsini (reigned 1730–40). The fountain occupies one whole flank of Palazzo Poli. It is huge—twenty meters wide and twenty-six high. Its central figure, by Pietro Bracci, represents the sea god Neptune, riding on an enormous shell drawn by sea horses and guided by two Tritons. These in turn are flanked by allegorical figures of Abundance and Healthfulness, in praise of the benefits of papal government. It owes at least some of its popularity, not so much to its grandiose and congested design, as to that hardy perennial of 1950s sentiment, the movieThree Coins in the Fountain—that, plus the iconic sight of the young blonde bombshell Anita Ekberg wading stalwartly in it in Fellini’s La dolce vita. There is an urban myth which says that if you stand with your back to the fountain and toss a coin over your shoulder into the pool, your return to Rome will be guaranteed. The other, and perhaps more attractive, legend of the fountain holds that if a lover drinks a cup of its water in the presence of his beloved, he will never be able to get her out of his heart. Presumably this story is connected to the source of the fountain’s water, which used to be known as the Acqua Vergine because its upwelling, some miles away, was pointed out to ancient Roman water-seekers by a young girl.
The Bernini fountain that remains an outstanding favorite of the Romans themselves is the Triton Fountain, in Piazza Barberini (1642–43), outside the Barberini Palace, itself partially the work of Bernini. If the Trevi Fountain is the most grandiose in Rome, the Triton Fountain is surely the most graceful and, if one may use the term, the most epigrammatic. In the middle of a geometric pool, four head-down dolphins bear up, on their tails, a gigantic scallop shell which has opened its ribbed halves, like a book, to reveal a Triton blowing his conch. The “music” one expects to come from a conch is a vertical blast of water, glittering in the Roman sunlight. It is a fabulous concetto, scarcely diminished even by the parked cars that cluster around it, the avvocato Agnelli’s hogs at a trough.
Italy was the only country in which Bernini’s genius was able to spread its wings. The French King Louis XIV had him invited to Paris, and (cautioning His Majesty not to speak to him about small projects) the sixty-six-year-old culture hero actually made the long and arduous trip to discuss a possible rebuilding of the royal Palace of the Louvre. Nothing came of this except some drawings and a magnificent, complex marble portrait bust of Le Roi Soleil, which survives and remains in France. Bernini took a sardonic pleasure in seeing people flock to view him as though he were a traveling elephant.
The visit also gave rise to a tremendous display of the old maestro’s bad temper, when he heard the architect Claude Perrault, Bernini’s eventual successor as architecte du roi, commenting to Chantelou on a possible flaw in Bernini’s design for pavilions. The two men were speaking French, of which Bernini hardly spoke a word. Nevertheless, he thought he understood, and flew into a towering rage.
He wanted Perrault to know, Bernini said, that in the matter of design Perrault was not worthy to clean the soles of his shoes. That his work had pleased the king, who would be hearing about the insult personally. “That a man of my sort,” he fumed on, “I, whom the Pope treats with consideration and for whom he has respect, that I should be treated thus! I will complain of it to the King. I shall leave tomorrow. I do not know why I should not take a hammer to the bust after such an insult. I am going to see the Nuncio.” Eventually, the great man consented to be soothed with apologies, and he never listened to a French official again. The point was taken. He retired, victorious, to Rome.
The size of Bernini’s huge output in Rome defies short summary, and so does its “mood,” if that is the word. Bernini could be very funny in his unofficial work, as in his pen-and-ink caricatures of Vatican notables, which were not made for public display. The much-loved elephant of Piazza Minerva, bearing an obelisk on its back, shows his humorous fantasy at full stretch. In the seventeenth century, an elephant, in Italy, was a veritable apparition, a rarity seldom seen. The very name of the animal was a synonym for the bizarre, the unexpected, and (sometimes) the menacing—hadn’t Hannibal used the great beasts to crush the Roman armies at Cannae?
But apart from three other churches,5 the stairways, fountains, portrait busts, chapels, palaces, and tombs, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s enormous reshaping of Rome centers on the greatest basilica in Christianity, Saint Peter’s. You cannot imagine this complex without Bernini and his powers, not only of architecture, but of stagecraft—not that the two are readily distinguished. Bernini was responsible not only for much of the church and its contents but for its link to the Vatican palaces, in the form of the so-called Scala Regia (1663–66). Before he installed this staircase, the passage between church and palace had to be negotiated by a flight of cramped steps up and down which the pope was carried, at some risk, on a litter. Bernini had this steep and undignified incline demolished and replaced it with a new stair, which had a break near the bottom. This point, at which one turned through ninety degrees left to ascend the last and longest run of stairs, he marked with a huge sculpture of the Emperor Constantine on his rearing warhorse, stricken with his vision of the cross—“Conquer, in this sign,” promising victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge.
But now he had to resort to a perspective trick. The walls of the basilica and the palace were not parallel. They converged toward the top of the stairs. Bernini therefore introduced, on either side of the stairs, a run of columns which create a diminishing tunnel-vault, getting smaller as your gaze travels up, giving the impression that the walls do not converge.
Of all the Berninian features of Saint Peter’s—the altar that carries the Cathedra Petri or Apostolic Throne, the baldacchino, the numerous papal tombs and figures of saints, the nave decorations, the twin fountains on either size of the central obelisk6—the one that absolutely typifies Baroque grandeur, that “stands for” the size and inclusiveness of the seventeenth-century Church, is of course its piazza. Saint Peter’s Square, which is not a square but a colossal oval colonnade, “pulled apart” in the middle, has been known to hold the tens of thousands of people who flock there to receive the papal blessing, and is justly regarded, even by some Protestants, as the very epicenter of Christianity—a pair of immense arms, Bernini himself said, reaching out from the façade in a gesture of embrace to the world.
It is the greatest anthropomorphic gesture in the history of architecture.
It is also the stripped-down essence of Baroque, for it carries little of the elaborate detail and décor usually associated with Baroque design. Its columns—284 of them, in four rows—are austerely Tuscan, not the more florid Corinthian one might expect from Baroque. Its frieze is unbroken Ionic, without sculptural ornament, though there are some three hundred sculptures—more than a lifetime’s work, one might have thought, even for Bernini’s corps of assistants—along the edge of the roof. But in the vast spaces and distances of the piazza, these cause no visual congestion. Some critics have said, truthfully enough, that the piazza pays no compliment to the enormous façade of the basilica, by Carlo Maderno, that closes it off. The front of Saint Peter’s is too wide for its height—some 115 meters broad. The loss of Bernini’s bell towers caused this disproportion. It is a flaw, admittedly, but a small one in the context of a scheme so gigantic both spatially and conceptually.
Bernini’s rival architect in the formation of the Baroque style in Rome, his prodigious contemporary Borromini, did not build as much as Bernini, and he was not a sculptor; but his relatively small output of buildings is so concentrated, so inventive, as to set him alongside Bernini as one of the heroic figures in architectural history. Moreover, it should be recalled that Bernini was not an architect to begin with, and much of what he learned about the design of buildings was acquired, usually without acknowledgment, from Borromini. It would be hard to find two architects of comparable talent who were, psychologically and temperamentally, less like each other. Borromini’s life ended in a way utterly unlike the sense of fulfillment conveyed by Bernini’s death; at the age of sixty-eight, harried by jealousy and an irascible sense of failure, he wrote out his will by candlelight and then gave himself what he hoped to be a truly Roman exit, falling on his sword. Botched and painful, it was neither a quick nor an easy death, just a tragic one.
That he was a misfit genius of the first order cannot be doubted. Melancholic by nature, he went to extremes in admiring Michelangelo’s penchant for solitude and for terribilità. In a Rome where sexual morality among men was notoriously lax, he had a reputation for strict and extreme chastity, focusing only on his work and never indulging in stray affairs. He made a point of always dressing in funereal black, Hamlet-like, in the Spanish way. In another architect, this might have been a sign of dandyism; one may be fairly sure that in Borromini it was not. It was more like penance, or perhaps indifference, to fashion in an intensely fashion-conscious cultural capital. Borromini was never popular with everyone in his own lifetime. His contemporary Giovanni Baglione, a priggish but influential figure, denounced him as “a most ignorant Goth and corrupter of architecture, and the infamy of our century.”
The innovations of detail and planning he wrought into his buildings were paralleled in the way he presented their designs to clients. Thus Borromini was the first architect to use the graphite pencil rather than ink-and-wash in his presentation drawings. Moreover, he seems to have regarded these drawings as ends in themselves, finished works of art, rather than merely indications of what structures and finishes would be. He liked to call his drawings his “children” and often refused to be parted from them by sending them to competitions—“sent begging into the world” was his phrase for this.
Borromini’s origins were humble. He was the son of a builder, born in Bissone, on Lake Lugano. The apprenticeship of a manual worker started early, and when he was only nine years old, his father dispatched him to Milan to learn the basics of stonecutting on the decorative details of the city’s cathedral, then under construction. He was a thoroughly skilled scarpellino or stoneworker when, in 1619, he moved to Rome and found work on the construction site of Saint Peter’s, to whose official architect, Carlo Maderno, he was (very distantly) related. At first he carved decorative details; then Maderno and others saw that he had talent and facility as a draftsman.
He was developing a very wide knowledge—probably wider than that of anyone in his generation, including Bernini—of the history of architecture, both ancient and modern. He absorbed and venerated old Roman building, but also studied sixteenth-century masters, from Bramante and Raphael through to Palladio and Vignola—and, especially, Michelangelo, whom he called “Prince of Architects” and revered almost as a god.
This made him extremely valuable to the better-connected but perhaps somewhat less studious Bernini, who, only a year older than Borromini, was engaged in the first big project of his fast-track career, the baldacchino for Saint Peter’s. At that early stage, Bernini had no architectural experience, and he had to rely on Borromini, whom he hired to do all the working drawings for the baldachin, along with the designs for some of its details, such as the bronze vine leaves and the four marble column bases with their complex Barberini shields and heraldic bees. It is likely, too, but undocumented, that Borromini designed the baldachin’s dynamic top, the four bronze volutes that so successfully replaced Bernini’s original idea of semicircular ribs. If so, this could have been the seed of the painfully frustrating rivalry that Borromini felt toward Bernini for the rest of his life: the volutes are a much-admired stroke of architectural genius for which he got no credit.
Borromini’s relations with Carlo Maderno, however, remained good, and they led to his work on Palazzo Barberini (1628–32), one of the archetypes of the grand Roman Baroque palace. Maderno also hired Pietro da Cortona and Bernini as codesigners, and the questions of who designed what and when are too complicated and uncertain to resolve easily or briefly. Maderno died in 1629, leaving the job to the three younger architects—a troika which seems to have been plagued by disagreements, hardly a surprise given how strong-willed each member was. Before long, Borromini left.
His first solo, independent commission came in his mid-thirties, in 1634, through the good offices of Cardinal Francesco Barberini. This was a monastery and church for the Discalced (or Barefoot) Trinitarians, an offshoot of the well-established Trinitarian Order, which had originally been formed in 1198 with the object of rescuing Christian captives from the Muslim “infidels.” The Barefoot Trinitarians tried to set an example of reform through austerity—one might almost say that they stood in the same quasi-fanatical relation to the original order as Borromini did to Bernini. They had little money and few means of raising it. But their superior, Padre Giovanni della Annunziazione, became confessor to Barberini, who happened to be very rich.
This was just as well, since the austere Discalced Trinitarians badly needed funds and a strong contact with the papal court. The friars had been horrified when Borromini presented them with his first drawings for the church and monastery that became San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, and they complained that they had wanted something that cost about a fifth as much. Eventually, a compromise was reached, brokered by Cardinal Barberini, who presumably gave money for its construction—though it is not known how much.
What they got in return was one of the most radical and daring small buildings of the Roman Baroque. Despite the shortage of funds, Borromini was able to develop and keep the three key elements of his project: the plan, the dome, the façade.
The plan became almost immediately famous, and architectural visitors to Rome kept begging for copies of it (which they did not get, because Borromini did not trust them). It had begun as a central-dome church with four crossing piers. Because the site was long and narrow, that configuration was squeezed, and the circular dome became an oval. This produced the further sensation that the walls were going in and out, “breathing,” almost like a live creature with lungs.
The dome is coffered. Its interior is very deeply shaped, the pattern produced by a series of interlocking hexagons and crosses that seem to recede from your eye as your gaze travels toward the center of the dome, which is marked by an emblematic triangle representing the Trinity, after whom the order is named—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is an optical illusion: the geometrical figures are getting smaller, but the dome is not getting deeper. Nevertheless, the spatial effect is very powerful. Borromini delighted in such tricks of false perspective: there is another, smaller one in Palazzo Spada—the palace in Piazza Capodiferro, near Palazzo Farnese—which he redesigned for Cardinal Bernardino Spada in 1652, consisting of an illusory Doric colonnade which, because of the sharply decreasing size of its framing pillars and the slant of its floor, seems to be twenty meters long, though its actual length is only 8.6. This “Prospettiva,” as it was known, was (and is) one of the most charming minor sights of Rome. But when you catch sight of it and see how it works, it is immediately readable as a trick, and it may have had a deliberate allegorical meaning: just as its size is an illusion, so, too, is worldly grandeur. No such ironic meaning attaches to the dome of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane.
Then there is the façade. Borromini is said to have talked wistfully about creating a façade from a single molded sheet of terra-cotta, and the front of San Carlo suggests this unachieved idea. It ripples and bulges—in, out; in, out. Actually, not all of it is by Borromini. The lower half was done before he died, in 1667; the upper, posthumously, by followers of Bernini, whose ideas are somewhat passively applied in the oval medallion supported by angels above the entablature. What Borromini himself might have done with this upper façade, had he lived, is anyone’s guess.
Fortunately for the modern visitor, though, he was able to complete the cupola of the church that is generally regarded as his masterpiece, Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza (1642–60), the chapel of the University of Rome. This quite small building, whose walls appear, when one first sees them, to be almost fluid, in continuous motion, is one of the most inventive in Italy—or in the world. It is a marvel of space-shaping, based on a hexagonal plan with sharp cutouts and lobes that form a steep tent from which light pours into the nave below. In the words of the architectural historian Rudolf Wittkower, “Geometrical succinctness, and inexhaustible imagination, technical skill and religious symbolism, have rarely found such a reconciliation.” The geometry, imagination, and skill are self-evident; the religious symbolism of Borromini’s concetto is perhaps less so. It may be that the geometry of the plan refers to the Star of Solomon, the king whose proverbial wisdom chimes with the idea of the building as the church of sapienza (wisdom). The most striking feature of the church is its lantern, whose top Borromini designed as a spiral that corkscrews into three full turns counterclockwise—a wonderfully dramatic climax to the building, flamelike and aerial. Various interpretations of its symbolism have been made, none of them entirely convincing; but as an expression of sheer architectural brio, there is nothing quite like it in Rome.
An age of great and mobilized spiritual awakening stands a good chance of producing strong and effective religious art, impelled by remarkable personalities—remarkable not so much for their piety as for their intelligence and militancy. So it was with Baroque Rome; the energy of its art and architecture was equaled by that of its outward thrust in conversion and theology. The Protestant Reformation awoke the Roman Church and gave it a new, fiery raison d’être.
The most powerful force in the Roman Catholic recovery, the essential militant group produced by the Church in its fight against the Lutheran heresy, was the Society of Jesus—otherwise known as the Jesuits. This order of secular priests grew from a tiny nucleus—at first, two Basques, later to be canonized as Saint Francis Xavier and Saint Ignatius Loyola. Both were missionaries, one inside Europe, the other in the Far East. The one who took Europe as his field was the founder of the society, Ignatius Loyola. The nature of the Jesuits cannot be grasped without their shared conception of discipline, and that discipline depended on the military background of their founder, Ignatius, the thirteenth and last child of the lord of Onaz and Loyola, in the Basque province of Guipúzcoa.
Loyola’s family was military, both in origins and in practice. They were border chieftains—tough, violent, merciless to their enemies, endowed with an iron loyalty to their friends and allies. Two of Ignatius’ brothers were killed fighting for Spain against Italy, one in the conquista of America. The young Loyolas of Ignatius’ generation were obsessed with the projects of conquering the New World for Christ and, in the Old World, of driving the moros, the occupying Arabs, from Spain and restoring the primacy of the Christian faith to the peninsula. They were enthusiasts—or, not to mince words, fanatics—who completely shared the belief that religious and national feeling were, and ought to be, the same. In their eyes, there was little difference between the messages of early chivalric novels like Amadis of Gaul (the first book of knight-errantry printed in Spain) and the worship of the Virgin Mary. The corollary of this assurance, the certainty that Spain’s supreme projects were the expulsion of the Jews followed by the eradication of the Moors, was a fanatical belief in the sword of the conquistador. This belief lent a nobility to the profession of arms that is difficult to appreciate and impossible to share in another culture more than four centuries later.
Ignatius of Loyola felt it to the extreme. Almost from childhood, he saw himself as a soldier. He was never to write a memoir of his life, but his “confessions,” dictated after 1553, ignored his youthful years, merely saying, “Up to twenty-six years of age, he was a man given to the vanities of the world and his chief delight was in martial exercises with a great and vain desire to gain honor.”
What he gained was not just honor, but disaster and an atrocious degree of suffering that changed his life. In 1521, the duke of Nájera, viceroy of Navarre, was embroiled in a war of secession against the French, who had territorial claims on that part of Basque Spain. Ignatius went to fight for him, but a French cannonball smashed both his legs—the right femur almost irreparably. Taking chivalrous pity on him, the French shipped him on a litter back to his native ground in Azpeitia, fifty miles away, where a long and grindingly difficult convalescence began. At first there seemed to be only two prospects for Ignatius: to die in agony from infection, or to survive as a helpless cripple. But he was a singularly tough and determined man, not to say a lucky one. When it became apparent that his injuries, if allowed to heal “naturally,” would leave him crippled for life, Ignatius submitted to having his leg broken and reset. This butchery took place at the family home in Azpeitia, and was followed by equally horrendous sessions in which the newly fractured leg was stretched—at Ignatius’ own insistence—in an improvised rack, so that both limbs would set to more or less equal lengths. How could he have endured it? One would need to be another Ignatius to know.
Without anesthetics, antibiotics, or any of the drugs modern medicine takes for granted, the sixteenth century was an age when pain would be almost insuperable. Not only that, but Ignatius had to endure the knowledge that the active life of a knight-errant was now closed to him. A lesser man’s resolution might well have buckled under the stress of such disappointment, but nothing could dissuade the crippled cavalier from his ambition to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Before that could be done, Ignatius’ soul must be cleansed, and he set out to achieve this by going first to the ancient pilgrimage center of Montserrat, in Catalunya, home of the cult effigy of the Black Virgin, at whose altar he left his arms and armor, and thence to Manresa, a backwater village where he spent a year in fasting, prayer, and deprivation.
Ignatius’ self-mortification was not as extreme as the punishments inflicted on themselves by certain medieval mystics, such as Henry Suso, who recounted (in the third person, as was customary) how
he secretly caused an undergarment to be made for him; and in the undergarment he had strips of leather fixed, into which a hundred and fifty brass nails, pointed and filed sharp, were driven, and the points of the nails were always turned toward the flesh. He had this garment made very tight and so arranged as to go round him and fasten in front, in order that it might fit the closer to his body.…
Ignatius did not need to go to such masochistic extremes because his doctors, such as they were, did that for him. Nevertheless, he cut a very strange figure in Montserrat and Manresa. He threw away his clothes and donned prickly sackcloth. He grew his hair into a long, matted thatch; his fingernails turned into an animal’s claws; he begged, stank, starved himself, and kept strange hours at night. He spoke of his desire “to escape all public notice,” but he was becoming one of the grotesques of the street. Gradually, these hippielike eccentricities abated, leaving behind a residue of strict self-denial in which there was no room for frailties and eccentric behavior. Ignatius had little in common with such saints as Francis of Assisi, who shrank from cleaning his sheepskin out of tender pity for Brother Louse, or the obese theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas, who endearingly had a piece sawn from his dining table to make room for his Falstaffian belly. His mind was fixed on missionary work, and this entailed different disciplines from those of the contemplative orders—especially, learning about the languages and customs of the very foreign cultures in which he and his fellow priests would be working.
The product of the soldier-saint’s hard time in the outer desert was a small but immensely influential book, the Spiritual Exercises (published 1548). This was the manual for all those who wished to take the road of submission to Ignatian rule, a discipline that few at first could contemplate adopting but that later became the essence of Catholic revival and recruitment. Of all the Spanish Catholic texts that sought to open a passage away from the world and to prepare the soul for its encounter with God, this was by far the best-known and most influential. Its strength lay in its relentless single-mindedness. “Carefully excite in yourself a habitual affectionate will in all things to imitate Jesus Christ,” Ignatius wrote:
If anything agreeable offers itself to your senses, yet does not at the same time tend purely to the honor and glory of God, renounce it and separate yourself from it for the love of Christ.… The radical remedy lies in the mortification of the four great natural passions, joy, hope, fear, and grief. You must seek to deprive these of every satisfaction and leave them, as it were, in darkness and the void.
Ignatius’ Exercises were a long and precisely divided feat of the imagination. First, the soul must be driven into repentance by the fear of Hell. This must go on for a week, at whose end the now terrified and malleable soul will be ready to receive enlightenment. Progressive stages follow, and their sequence amounted to an intense form of self-therapy, which would remain central to Jesuit practice for centuries to come. To see its effect on the humbled, sensitive, and impressionable young mind, one need only read the description of the “retreat” suffered and finally embraced by the Jesuit student Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist. Once an initiate had undergone this, there would be no turning back. Here is Ignatius’ description of the meditation on Hell, the fifth exercise of the first week:
The first point will be to see with the eye of the imagination those great fires, and the souls as it were in bodies of fire.
The second to hear with the ears lamentations, howlings, cries, blasphemies against Christ our Lord and against the Saints.
The third, with the sense of smell, to smell smoke, brimstone, refuse, and rottenness.
The fourth, to taste with the taste bitter things, such as tears, sadness, and the worm of conscience.
The fifth, to feel with the sense of touch how these fires do touch and burn souls.
Each sense is mobilized, one by one. In this way, Ignatius insisted, the utmost concreteness of feeling would be given to spiritual experience. There would be nothing abstract or hypothetical about it. Part of the discipline was learning to defy the evidence of one’s own senses, should obedience make that necessary. Then, gradually, step by step, the novice is moved through repentance to hope, and from hope to desire of the joys of heaven and of union there with God: but each of these stages must be fully visualized, imagined in completeness. The Exercises, as one priest-psychologist put it, created a “regressive crisis, with its concomitant dissolution of psychic structures and the weakening of repressive barriers,” whose product was “a new identity.”
The whole process, from entry to the final emergence as a future Jesuit priest, took some twelve years—and in addition to the usual priestly vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Jesuit had to take further vows of obedience to his superiors in the Papacy, making it incumbent on him to go and work at the task of evangelical conversion anywhere in the world, if the pope so wished. It was a somewhat frightening responsibility, because in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the world was a huge, hostile, and little-known place, and the small corps of Jesuits was spread thinly in it. But this corps grew slowly and steadily. At Ignatius’ death in 1556, there were 958 members of the order; seventy years later, some fifteen thousand; by 1749, 22,500. It was an order highly conscious of its elitism, both intellectual and in terms of class. Other orders of priests could, and did, focus on recruiting the poor. But there is little doubt that, just as the intellectual elitism of the Jesuit missionaries underwrote their enormous success in the highly class-conscious society of eighteenth-century China, so their stoicism and military toughness enabled them to withstand and survive the terrible sufferings visited on them by the savage tribes of North America. They were the commandos of the Church Militant.
The order won official recognition from Pope Paul III in 1540. Once papal approval was secured, the Society of Jesus had to have a home church in Rome, and it had to be splendid, which meant money. Fortunately for the Jesuits, the man who volunteered the cash was Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who became Pope Paul III and, during the fifteen years of his pontificate (1534–49), showered money on his own family and its projects. He also did great things for the city itself: he spent huge sums on repairing the damage inflicted on Rome by the disastrous 1527 sack of the city, directed the creation of Piazza del Campidoglio, and instructed Michelangelo to move the ancient bronze rider statue of Marcus Aurelius there, thus creating the most spectacular and influential urban scheme of the sixteenth century. But there is little doubt that the long-term effect on the Church of his recognition of the Jesuit Order at least equaled his urbanistic projects in importance. The Jesuits already favored their own architect, the otherwise unremarkable Giovanni Tristano (d. 1575), who had designed their college in Rome in 1560. But for the mother church something much grander in spirit was called for, and the chosen designer was a favorite of Cardinal Farnese’s, Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507–73), who had entered papal service in the 1550s, designing a stream of projects for Rome and the Papal States. The greatest of these was the Villa Farnese at Caprarola (1559–73), which began as a five-sided stronghold but morphed into a grandiose country house, a hilltown in its own right, with magnificent approach ramps. There were smaller secular buildings, some of them masterpieces, such as the twin-pavilioned Villa Lante at Bagnaia.
But his most important church, paid for by Alessandro Farnese, was done for the Jesuits: Il Gesù, the Church of Jesus (1568–75), which (as the evangelical order of the Ignatians spread) provided a model for numerous—though usually more modest—Jesuit structures throughout the world. It was also the first church to take the name of Jesus himself.
The main requirement of Jesuit churches, faithfully carried out by Vignola and every designer after him, was that the ceremony of the Mass should be plainly seen, and that the priest’s sermon, carrying the evangelical word of the Church into battle against the claims of Reformation heresy, should be distinctly heard, everywhere in each building. This had not been easy, or even possible, in older church layouts. The work of the Jesuits centered on preaching. So the Gesù had to have a large nave to fit in as many celebrants as possible, with unimpeded views of the main altar, and clear lines of sight and hearing to the main and side pulpits. It would not need crossing spaces—shallow side chapels would be better than transepts. The Gesù’s nave is some seventy-five meters long, and it had three main chapels: on the right, that of Saint Francis Xavier, a memorial to Ignatius’ missionary partner, who carried the Catholic message to the Far East and was the means by which Catholic doctrine and theology entered China, where he died in 1552; at the apse end, that of Saint Robert Bellarmine, the great Counter-Reformation theologian who died in 1621; and on the left, indispensably, the Chapel of Saint Ignatius himself, built to the designs of the Jesuit artist Andrea Pozzo and containing a bronze urn which holds Ignatius’ remains. If one thinks of the soldier-saint as a puritanical opponent of lavishness, which he certainly was when alive, it is a good idea to see what became of him in death: this is one of the most costly and extravagant tombs in all Rome. Its columns are entirely sheathed in blue lapis lazuli, and a globe of this rare and semi-precious stone, the largest in the world—“blue as a vein on the Madonna’s breast,” in Robert Browning’s words—surmounts the whole confection. It was for this reason that the grand duke of Tuscany suggested that the Jesuits’ motto, whose initials are IHS, ought to be rendered Iesuiti Habent Satis, “The Jesuits have got enough.”7 One vividly realizes what Goethe meant when he wrote (in Regensburg, 1786, on his way to Rome):
I keep thinking about the character and the activities of the Jesuits. The grandeur and perfect design of their churches … command universal awe and admiration. For ornament, they used gold, silver and jewels in profusion to dazzle beggars of all ranks, with, now and then, a touch of vulgarity to attract the masses. Roman Catholicism has always shown this genius, but I have never seen it done with such intelligence, skill and consistency as by the Jesuits. Unlike the other religious orders, they broke away from the old conventions of worship and, in compliance with the spirit of the times, refreshed it with pomp and splendour.
Across the ceiling vault of the Gesù spreads the overwhelming rhetorical utterance of Giovanni Battista Gaulli’s Triumph of the Name of Jesus, 1678–79. Gaulli was born in Genoa, but he came to Rome early, before 1658, and worked there for the rest of his life, very much under the spell of Bernini, who connected him to influential patrons like the Pamphilis. His Triumph reminds one how fatuous the Victorian and modernist objections to Baroque art as “too theatrical” are. One might as well decry theater itself as “too theatrical.” Theater, on this ceiling, is of the very essence: emotion and seduction on the grandest scale, achieved through a billowing range of bodily contortion, facial expression, and gesture.
The ceiling falls into three zones, distinguishable but not sharply divided. At the center, the glowing apex, divine light streams from Christ’s monogram, the “IHS.” Around it is a mass of clouds upholding the heavenly blessed, the Communion of Saints, drawn in toward it like filings to a magnet. Some of them are allowed to spill over, across the painted architectural frame, into “our” space. Then, at the bottom of this enormous cartouche, we see the damned and disgraced falling in a torrent out of the sanctifying presence of Christ’s name. As befits their earthly status, these are the most solid bodies of all, not transfigured by light like the saints, but writhing, toppling, and (in some cases) clutching the emblems of their sins—Vanity has a peacock; the head of Heresy teems, like Medusa’s, with snakes.
The Baroque ceiling painting that rivals Gaulli’s masterpiece is also in Rome, and it, too, was dedicated to the founder of the Jesuits. It is by Andrea Pozzo, in the Church of Sant’Ignazio. Its theme is The Glory of Saint Ignatius Loyola and the Missionary Work of the Jesuit Order (1688–94). It represents Ignatius entering Paradise. This enormous fresco in the nave vault, spilling over tracts of fictional architecture which in turn can hardly be told from the real architecture of the church, joins with Gaulli’s work to sum up the rhetorical grandeur of painted Baroque illusion. If one is standing on the right “viewing spot” (considerately marked by a metal disc in the floor) and looking up at the perspective convergence of the ceiling, it is only with difficulty that one can tell where the walls of the nave end and the ceiling begins. The barriers between illusion and reality are down, and it takes a strenuous effort of the will and imagination to raise them again. It was important to have no visible break between what was happening in the sky and on earth: a seamless transition between the two meant a continuity which was both a promise of transcendence and a threat of failure. The walls seem to stretch up so far that they become misty in the open sky; the space between them is filled with a whirling gyre of figures, enacting a sort of spiritually drunken ecstasy. In these ceilings, Bernini’s sculptural achievements in the Cornaro Chapel are equaled in the art of painting. Pozzo would go on to do other schemes for Jesuit churches, in Trento and Montepulciano and even as far afield as Vienna, but Rome remained his base, and none of his later works surpass his frescoes there. Between them, Pozzo and Gaulli represent the furthest stretch of the art of Baroque mural painting in Rome. But when the great age of foreign cultural tourism opened in Rome, after 1700, this was not what i milordi inglesi, the French connoisseurs, or the Russian princes were going there to study and appreciate. They were in full pursuit of the Antique, and of the seemingly lost authority of ancient Rome.
1 Etna, in Sicily.
2 This went both ways, for the Barberinis disliked the Pamphilis as much as the Pamphilis the Barberinis. In about 1635, the pope’s brother, Cardinal Antonio Barberini, had commissioned a painting for the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione, the home church of the Capuchin monks, with whom his career had begun. It was by one of Rome’s most esteemed painters, Guido Reni—a fact which guaranteed that every sophisticate in the city would come to see it. Its subject was the warrior archangel Michael with his sword, trampling underfoot a rebel demon whom he is casting down from Heaven. The prostrate and humiliated demon had the unmistakable face of Giovanni Battista Pamphili, the future Pope Innocent X. Despite the future pontiff’s rage at this insult, the Capuchins hung on to their altarpiece, and it is still there—though nowhere near as well known as the other portrait, of an older Innocent X, by Velázquez, the “screaming pope” frequently copied by Francis Bacon, which remains in its cubicle in Palazzo Doria on the Pamphilis’ family square, Piazza Navona.
3 Paul Fréart, sieur de Chantelou, who was maître d’hôtel for Louis XIV and closely accompanied Bernini on his visit to that monarch in France in 1665, recalled that Bernini had written several comedies for the stage, which “caused a great stir in Rome because of the decorations and the astonishing contraptions he introduced, which deceived even those who had been forewarned.” See Elizabeth Gilmore Holt, A Documentary History of Art, vol. 2, p.125.
4 It is not known what happened to the silver model. It may have ended up in the possession of the formidably avaricious Olimpia Maidalchini, who had been married to Innocent’s late brother and now, in her widowhood, was believed to have become Innocent’s mistress, wielding great influence over him. She was respected and disliked in Rome, both for her ruthlessness and for her sexual power, which led to her nickname, “Olim Pia,” roughly meaning “Formerly Virtuous.” Certainly she would have been a useful and receptive person to bribe with a silver bozzetto.
5 All belonging to the period of Alexander VII’s pontificate: Sant’Andrea al Quirinale (1658–70), San Tommaso Villanova at Castel Gandolfo (1658–61), and the Chigi Church of the Assumption at Ariccia (1662–64).
6 One designed by Carlo Maderno; the other, its twin, by Bernini.
7 It is actually an abbreviation of the Greek form of the name of Jesus.