The Achievements of Gianlorenzo Bernini

views updated

The Achievements of Gianlorenzo Bernini

Dominated Seventeenth-Century Art.

While Maderno's designs proved to be influential in shaping the direction of the Baroque style, it was Gianlorenzo Bernini who dominated artistic and architectural developments in Rome for much of the seventeenth century. Bernini was in many ways similar to the great "universal men" of the Renaissance. An accomplished sculptor, architect, and painter, he also wrote for the theater and composed music. By his mid-twenties he had produced a string of sculptural masterpieces, and was beginning to undertake architectural commissions for Pope Urban VIII (r. 1623–1644). These included the famous baldachino and sculptural decorations for St. Peter's as well as a series of tombs for Roman notables, and a large number of stunning fountains located throughout the city. A student of urban design, Bernini's sculptural fountains ennobled many Roman squares and gave the city numerous attractive focal points. In this way he achieved one of the visions that Renaissance designers had longed for: the creation of handsome monuments set in attractive public squares where city dwellers might meet and congregate.

St. Peter 's Courtyard.

While Bernini decorated the city as a grand canvas, his most important architectural achievement was the courtyard he created in front of St. Peter's Basilica, an enormous public space capable of holding crowds of hundreds of thousands of people, yet made inviting by its enveloping colonnades. He ingenuously designed the shape of these structures to hide less attractive buildings within the papal complex. Unlike many more highly decorated colonnades at the time, Bernini's design was far simpler, calling for four rows of simple Doric columns progressing out from the basilica, first in a straight line and then bowing to form a circular shape. In all, there are 300 columns in this massive structure. They enclose a square with two large circular fountains at the sides and an Egyptian obelisk in the center. Atop the colonnade's simple, unbroken entablature Bernini placed a large number of statues of the saints of the church. While massive and severely unadorned, the colonnade nevertheless suggests the "arms of mother church," Bernini's own phrase to describe the space he wished to create.

Parisian Interlude.

As a result of achievements on this truly massive scale, King Louis XIV recruited the architect to plan his remodeling of the medieval and Renaissance palace of the Louvre in Paris. A jumble of conflicting wings and buildings had collected at this site from the Middle Ages onward, and Louis initially believed that Bernini was the architect who might bring order out of this architectural chaos. When he first arrived in Paris, he pronounced the Louvre beyond redemption, and argued that it should be torn down. Over time, though, he became convinced that the façade of the enormous palace might be rebuilt to give the structure unity and coherence. One of his designs for the structure was highly imaginative and included a curved façade, although Bernini eventually altered that design to reflect the more severe and classical tastes of the king and court. While he participated in the ceremony to lay the new foundation stone for the remodeling of the palace, his plans were rejected immediately after his departure from Paris. Back in Rome after only five months abroad, Bernini continued to sculpt, to design, and to supervise many projects until his death at the age of eighty. He remains one of the most prolific artists of the seventeenth century, and as an architect he was especially important for his grand contributions to urban planning and design. His plans for buildings are fewer in number than other great architects of the day and included only three small church projects built in Rome. Yet these structures demonstrated imaginative uses of the more fluid shapes Baroque architects championed at the time.


Massimo Birindelli, Piazza San Pietro (Rome: Laterza, 1981).

Irving Lavin, ed., Gianlorenzo Bernini: New Aspects of His Life and Art (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985).

Torgil Magnuson, Rome in the Age of Bernini (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1982).

Charles Scribner III, Gianlorenzo Bernini (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1991).

see also Visual Arts: Sculpture in Italy

About this article

The Achievements of Gianlorenzo Bernini

Updated About content Print Article


The Achievements of Gianlorenzo Bernini