Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini summed up in one dominating life (1598–1680) the art of seventeenth-century Rome. From his Florentine father, a sculptor, he learned his art; from his Neapolitan mother he may have derived his emotional intensity and ardent faith. In 1605 the father was summoned to Rome to work on the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. There “Gian” grew up in an atmosphere of classic statuary and Jesuit piety. He was thrilled by the Vatican Antinoü s and the Apollo Belvedere; but he was more deeply moved by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which he practiced till he felt the terror and devotion of one who had experienced the pains of hell and the love of Christ. Every day he heard Mass; twice a week he took the Sacrament.

He tried his hand at painting, even to producing a hundred pictures. Of these the Sts. Andrew and Thomas in the Barberini Collection at Rome has won most praise, though we might prefer the self-portrait in the Uffizi Gallery—a dark, handsome youth tending to melancholy meditation. He did better in architecture. For Maffeo Barberini he completed the Barberini Palace; and when this patron became Pope Urban VIII, Bernini, aged thirty-one, was appointed chief architect of St. Peter’s. There, besides the colonnade and thebaldacchino, he built in the apse the ornate Cathedra Petri, enshrining the wooden chair which the faithful believed to have been used by the Apostle; around it he grouped four powerful figures of Church Fathers; and over the whole bizarre structure he scattered angelic statuary with the abandon of a man who had a mint of masterpieces in his brain. Near it he placed a massive tomb for his beloved Urban VIII. He designed the balconies, and many of the statues adorning the piers that support the dome. Under the dome he placed a monumental figure of St. Longinus, and in the right aisle he raised a lavish memorial to Countess Matilda of Tuscany. Outside the church, in a chaster style, he remodeled the Scala Regia, which leads up past stately columns to the Vatican Palace, and in an alcove of this Royal Stairway he set up an equestrian statue of Constantine seeing in the sky his summons to Christianity; the emotionalism of this figure set a pattern for the baroque age. Toward the end of his life he built in the Chapel of the Sacrament in St. Peter’s an altar whose brilliant marbles and crowning ciborium, temple, cupola, and angels rapt in adoration seemed to him not too gorgeous an embodiment for the Eucharistic mystery of the Mass. All this work in and around St. Peter’s impresses a modern artist as theatrical excess and a specious appeal to the senses; to Bernini it seemed the exuberant vehicle of an ecstatic and communicable faith.

Everywhere he mingled architecture and statuary. He dreamed of an art that would unite architecture, sculpture, and painting into one soulstirring ensemble. In the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria he brought together precious marbles—green, blue, and red—and loosed his decorative fancy to build the Cornaro Chapel, with fluted pillars and graceful Corinthian columns; there he placed one of his most arresting and emotional sculptures: St. Teresa, limp and unconscious in an ecstatic trance, with a delectable seraph preparing to pierce her heart with a flaming arrow, a symbol of the saint’s union with Christ. The seemingly lifeless figure of Teresa is one of the triumphs of Italian baroque, and the darting angel is a song in stone.

Bernini had some rivals. Montaigne was strongly impressed by Giacomo della Porta’s statue of Justice on the tomb of Paul III in St. Peter’s. Torrigiano cast a powerful and realistic bust of Sixtus V, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Borromini, like Bernini, mingled sculpture with architecture, as in the tomb of Cardinal Villamarino in the Church of Santi Apostoli in Naples. Alessandro Algardi equaled Bernini in carving three figures for the tomb of Leo XI in St. Peter’s, and surpassed him in sculptural relief with the alto relievo of The Meeting of Pope Leo I and Attila, also in St. Peter’s; and Algardi’s bust of Innocent X in the Palazzo Doria Pamfili is more satisfying than Bernini’s, and almost as powerful as Velázquez’ portrait. But no one in this age matched Bernini in artistic fertility, imagination, and total achievement.

He delighted Rome with bizarre fountains: the Fontana del Tritone, the Fontana dei Fiumi—where minor sculptors carved four figures representing the Danube, the Nile, the Ganges, and the Plata. From competitive plans submitted for this fountain, Innocent X chose Bernini’s, saying, “One must not look at his designs unless one is prepared to adopt them.”87 Bernini’s flair for sumptuous sepulchral monuments must have given his patrons some pleasant anticipations of death. Urban VIII lived long enough to see the tomb in St. Peter’s that was prepared for his remains.

Cardinal Scipione Borghese rivaled Urban in giving Bernini scudi and tasks. For him the sculptor made the vivid Rape of Proserpine, a dream of masculine muscles and feminine contours; David slinging his shot at Goliath; and Apollo and Daphne—too ideal a representation of male and female youth. These figures (now all in the Borghese Gallery) brought upon Bernini the charge of mannerism and theatrical exaggeration. The Cardinal himself was transmitted to us in two busts, the personification of good nature and good appetite. Naturally more attractive is the bust of the lovely Constanza Buonarelli in the Museo Nazionale at Florence; she was the wife of Bernini’s aide, but Bernini, said his son, made her into stone while hotly enamored of her flesh—fieramente innamorato.88

More than any other artist, Bernini illustrates the faults of baroque. He made too obvious an appeal to emotion. He mistook the theatrical for the dramatic, prettiness for beauty, sentiment for sympathy, size for grandeur. He appropriated to sculpture the intense facial expression usually a privilege of painting. By too meticulous a realism of detail he sometimes dulled the psychological impact of his work. He rarely achieved in his figures the repose that gives a timeless quality to the sculptures of Periclean Athens. But why must a statue always express repose? Why should not the movement, feeling, and zest of life invade and animate marble and bronze? It is a virtue, not a fault, in baroque sculpture that it made stone feel and speak. Bernini observed the Horatian precept and felt what he expressed—the smooth texture of a girl’s skin, the agile vitality of youth, the cares and labors of leaders, the piety and ecstasy of saints.

For almost fifty years he was accepted as the greatest architect of his age. In 1665, when Colbert and Louis XIV proposed to remodel and extend the Louvre, they invited Bernini to come to Paris and undertake the task. He came, and designed not wisely but too well—too grandly for French taste and funds. Perrault’s severer façade was preferred, and Bernini returned to Rome a disappointed man. Now (1667) he made his remarkable chalk drawing of himself, at present in Windsor Castle—white locks receding over a powerful head, a face lined and gnarled with work, the once gentle eyes become hard and fearful, as if seeing whither the paths of glory lead. But he was not yet defeated; for thirteen more years he built and carved con furia, “sharp in spirit, resolute in his work, ardent in his wrath.”89 When his fire flickered out (November 28, 1680), he had outlived the Italian Renaissance.

Milton, visiting Italy in 1638, reported that Italian scholars themselves felt that the glory of their country had departed with the coming of Spanish dominance and the Counter Reformation. Probably subjection and censorship had injured the mind and art of Italy—though Cervantes, Calderón, and Velázquez were flourishing under a severer Inquisition in Spain. But it was a Portuguese mariner, not a Spanish general or an Index Expurgatorius, that ended the Italian Renaissance. Vasco da Gama had found an all-water route to India, a long route, but cheaper than the Venetian and Genoese trade avenues that had made Italy rich. Portuguese and Dutch commerce was supplanting Italian; Flemish and English textiles were taking markets from the Florentines. And the Reformation had cut in half the flow of German and English gold to Rome.

Italy shone in her decline. Art had fallen from the heights of Raphael and Michelangelo, political thought had lost the depth and courage of Machiavelli. But there was no decline, there was a rise, in statesmanship from Leo X to Sixtus V, there was a rise in science from Leonardo to Galileo, in philosophy from Pomponazzi to Bruno, in the music drama from Politian to Monteverdi, only a debatable decline in poetry from Ariosto to Tasso. Meanwhile, like a nourishing mother, Italy was pouring her art and music, her science and philosophy, her poetry and prose, over the Alps to France and Flanders, over the Channel to England, and over the sea to Spain.

I. Stilus meant originally a pointed iron; then an iron point used in writing on wax tablets; then a pen; then a manner of writing, a style. The Italian diminutive stiletto meant both an engraving tool and a small dagger.

II. Note that this word is a corruption of Magdalen—which is still pronounced “maudlin” in the names of Magdalen College, Oxford, and Magdalene College, Cambridge. The Magdalen herself did not escape the devoted pursuit of Guido’s sensuous brush.

III.The museum traveler will find sixty-three Riberas in the Prado and half a roomful in the vestibule of the Salon Carré in the Louvre. New York has The Holy Family in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a Magdalen in the Hispanic Society.

IV. Chiefly the following cities and their environs: Rome, Ostia, Viterbo, Terni, Spoleto, Foligno, Assisi, Perugia, Gubbio, Urbino, Loreto, Ancona, Pesaro, Rimini, Forli, Ravenna, Bologna, and Ferrara.

V. From the Portuguese barroco, an irregularly shaped shell often used as decoration.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!