Sculpture in Italy

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Sculpture in Italy

Gianlorenzo Bernini.

The figure of Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) came to dominate the Baroque style in mid-seventeenth-century Italy. Although he is recognized today primarily as a sculptor, Bernini was a multitalented genius the likes of which had not been seen in Italy since the days of the High Renaissance. Trained as a sculptor in his father's Roman studio, he completed his first sculptures by the time he was eleven years old. At this early age, he produced a small sculpture noticeable for its naturalness and delicacy for the Cardinal Scipione Borghese. While he continued to practice the art of sculpture his entire life, he also acquired great skills as a playwright, painter, draftsman, and composer. By the time he was twenty he had acquired a second prominent patron in the figure of Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who eventually rose to become Pope Urban VIII (r. 1622–1644). Both Cardinal Borghese and Barberini managed to keep the young sculptor employed with a number of commissions. Even in this early period of his youth, Bernini produced a number of masterpieces that were hailed as unprecedented since the time of Michelangelo. Two of these early works, the David (1623) and Apollo and Daphne (1624), continued to shape the training of sculptors well into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In contrast to Michelangelo's self-contained and assured David, Bernini's sculpture treating the same subject immortalized dramatic tension and movement. As in Caravaggio's painting, Bernini strives here to capture the moment: the exact instant when the young David is just about to propel the stone from his slingshot. The pose that Bernini captured in this marble was derived from one of the ancient figures contained in Annibale Carracci's ceiling at the Palazzo Farnese, but the expression on the David's face was the artist's own. Oft-repeated anecdotes from the time told that Bernini spent a great deal of time looking at his own reflection in a mirror to capture the details of this strained expression, and that the future pope, Maffeo Barberini, even held the mirror for the artist several times while he was at work. A more fanciful creation can be seen in the young artist's Apollo and Daphne, completed one year after the David. Again, Bernini chose a climactic moment in the ancient myth: the point at which Daphne calls upon her own father for help and is turned into a laurel tree. As Bernini captures the legend, Daphne's hands and legs have already begun to be transformed into the tree, while behind the beautiful figure of Apollo rushes futilely to try to catch his love. These two sculptures helped proclaim the young artist's genius, and in the years to come he was to receive a cavalcade of commissions from his early patron Barberini, now Pope Urban VIII.

Work at St. Peter 's.

Even more than the work of the architect Carlo Maderno, Bernini's accomplishments in the interior and exterior of St. Peter's Basilica were to shape the experience of millions of visitors to the mammoth church for centuries to come. His first massive achievement there was the construction of the baldachino, a canopy almost ten stories above the high altar. Built between 1624 and 1633, the structure actually required the labor of a number of artists, although Bernini proved to be the guiding spirit behind its creation. The most distinctive features of the baldachino are the four huge twisted spirals that serve to support the massive horizontal upper story and crown-like top above. Bernini adapted this design from descriptions of columns that had been in the original Constantinian basilica that had stood at the site until the early sixteenth century. These columns, in turn, were connected to the ancient Hebrew temple erected in Jerusalem during Solomonic times. Although the work is enormous, Bernini's baldachino proves to be one of the only structures within St. Peter's that is capable of suggesting the church's enormous scale. From the rear of the church the canopy appears small, yet as one approaches it and can grasp its massive proportions set against the even larger dome above, the true size of St. Peter's becomes evident. Throughout the interior of the building, too, Bernini oversaw a massive sculptural program that decorated the church's walls, holy water stoups, and massive piers and columns with statuary. Most of these statues are about one and a half times life size, but their scale is dwarfed within the confines of Christianity's largest church. As Bernini's labors progressed at the basilica, he also planned to build two massive bell towers on the other side of St. Peter's façade, though these structures eventually proved to be structurally unsound and had to be torn down. As a result his reputation as an artist, architect, and designer suffered for a brief time under the pontificate of Urban VIII's successor, Innocent X (r. 1644–1655). The artist's imprint on the church's exterior is most notable today through his design of the enormous square that lies outside the church's nave, as well as the statues he designed for this square's massive, encompassing colonnade (a forest of columns that is roofed over to provide protection from the elements). Three hundred simple Doric columns populate this curving colonnade, while on either side of the enclosed space Bernini placed two handsome bronze fountains. Atop the colonnade the statues Bernini designed portray the major saints of the church. In the center of the square he placed an ancient Egyptian


introduction: Although the artist Gianlorenzo Bernini dominated the Roman artistic scene for a number of years, he did fall out of favor for a short period in the later 1640s, after the death of his long-time patron Pope Urban VIII. Urban's successor, Innocent X, cast a critical eye on the artist when two bell towers Bernini had designed for the façade of St. Peter's had to be torn down when it became clear that they were structurally unsound. In his Life of Cavaliere Gianlorenzo Bernini, the first biography of the artist, the Florentine Filippo Baldinucci (1624–1696) wrote of these problems, but also of how the artist redeemed himself through his ingenious creation of the plans for the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona, one of the most charming monuments undertaken in Baroque Rome.

So strong was the sinister influence which the rivals of Bernini exercised on the mind of Innocent X that when he planned to set up in the Piazza Navona the great obelisk brought to Rome by the Emperor Antonino Caracalla, which had been buried for a long time at Capo di Bove, for the adornment of a magnificent fountain, the Pope had designs made by the leading architects of Rome without giving an order for one to Bernini. But how eloquently does true ability plead for its possessor, and how effectively does it speak for itself! Prince Niccolò Lodovisio, whose wife was a niece of the Pope and who was at that same time an influential friend of Bernini, persuaded the latter to prepare a model. In it Bernini represented the four principal rivers of the world, the Nile for Africa, the Danube for Europe, the Ganges for Asia, and the Rio della Plata for America, with a mass of broken rocks that supported the enormous obelisk. Bernini made the model and the Prince arranged for it to be carried to the Casa Pamfili in the Piazzo Navona and secretly installed there in a room through which the Pope, who was to dine there on a certain day, had to pass as he left the table. On that day, which was the day of the Annunciation, after the procession, the Pope appeared and when the meal was finished he went with Cardinal Pamfili and Donna Olimpia, his sister-in-law, through that room and, on seeing such a noble creation and the sketch for such a vast monument, stopped almost in ecstasy. Being a Prince of the keenest judgment and the loftiest ideas, 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 Lodovisio. 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 not to see them." He sent for Bernini immediately. With a thousand demonstrations of esteem and affection and in a majestic way, almost excusing himself, he explained the reasons and causes why Bernini had not been employed until that time. He gave Bernini the commission to make the fountain according to the model.

source: Filippo Baldinucci, The Life of Cavaliere Gianlorenzo Bernini in A Documentary History of Art. Vol. II. Ed. Elizabeth G. Holt (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Books, 1958): 116–117.

obelisk, a monument that signified the church's conversion of the heathen peoples and its subsuming of their cultures into Christianity. He imagined the entire structure, with its enfolding arms, as signifying Mother Church's embrace of the faithful, and despite its colossal size the square does manage to grant a sense of integrity and welcome to the massive structure that stands in its background. Generally, Bernini's decorative program at St. Peter's managed to endow the severe monumentality of the church with a sense of movement and dramatic climax, key features of the artistic sensibilities of both the visual arts and architecture in the Baroque. (See Architecture: The Rise of the Baroque in Italy)

Bernini 's Decorative Programs Elsewhere in Rome.

Although Bernini fell out of papal favor early in the pontificate of Innocent X, he soon came to be reinstated as the dominant artist of seventeenth-century Rome. For most of the century, he was the man that popes called upon to execute their ambitious plans. Scarcely a corner of the city escaped his touch. Since the Renaissance, Italian artists and architects had frequently envisioned handsome squares, broad avenues, and other urban monuments that might serve as focal points for urban life. Few of these grand plans had been executed, but in the seventeenth century Rome's popes redoubled efforts to endow their city with these grand monuments. As a result, Rome emerged as the model for the early-modern capital, and its handsome public spaces were to be imitated throughout the Continent. Bernini proved in every way to be equal to the challenge of creating noble public spaces. Throughout the city, he designed sculptures and fountains, and he placed ancient monuments within new frames that set off their noble features. The little obelisk that he placed in the square near the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva was typical of one direction in which Bernini's decorative and humorous art flowed. He set the ancient monument atop the back of a fancifully sculpted elephant, suggesting the mode of transport that the artifact had likely taken on its way to Rome. Elsewhere his designs for urban squares were more dignified. Perhaps his most definitive achievement on the urban scene was the construction of the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona. This long and narrow rectangular square had been the site of a Roman stadium, a staging point for chariot races in the ancient city. The monument was Bernini's first major commission undertaken for Pope Innocent X, after the setback that he had suffered as a result of St. Peter's ill-fated bell towers. Innocent stipulated that the square be decorated with a fountain as well as an ancient Egyptian obelisk that had been brought to Rome centuries before. Since the late sixteenth century, the increase of the city's water supply had been an essential component of papal policy; ancient aqueducts had been repaired and new water sources developed. As these achievements occurred, successive popes came to celebrate Rome's new, secure sources of fresh water by commissioning fountains like Bernini's Four Rivers. The Roman fountain was above all a utilitarian object, for without running water in houses, this was how people received their water. Bernini's structure, though, came to outshine the many handsome, but largely utilitarian structures that had been built in the city to this point. Relying on his enormous ingenuity, Bernini built the obelisk into his fountain design, placing it atop a mountain of fake rock that appeared to be a natural pile of stone, but which in reality was carefully cut to refract light dramatically off its surfaces. At each of the four corners under the obelisk he designed a massive sculpture that personified the qualities of four of the world's most important rivers, including the Danube, Ganges, Nile, and the South American Plate. He encircled the sculptures with carved flora and fauna suggestive of the river's region and he relied on playful jets to dispense the fountain's water in dramatic spurts, dribbles, and jets of water. In this way Bernini's fountain transformed an object that might have been a merely useful object on the Roman scene into a widely revered and playful monument.


introduction: The sixteenth-century Catholic saint, Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), was one of the Christian tradition's greatest mystical writers. In her autobiography she described the many visions she had experienced, including that of the transverberation, a visitation by an angel who pricked her with a burning spear that left her alive with the love of God. This was the subject of Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa, one of the most vividly emotional of all the Baroque's religious works. Teresa's life, like St. Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, was widely read by the seventeenth-century devout, and the emphasis that both figures placed on the importance of forming a mental picture of the events of the Bible and the history of the church were a major impetus for the era's constant out-pouring of new images and sculptures.

Our Lord was pleased that I should have at times a vision of his kind: I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see, unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord's will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful—his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call cherubim. Their names they never tell me; but I see very well that there is in heaven so great a difference between one angel and another, and between these and the others, that I cannot explain it.

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

During the days that this lasted, I went about as if beside myself. I wished to see, or speak with, no one, but only to cherish my pain, which was to me a greater bliss than all created things could give me.

I was in this state from time to time, whenever it was our Lord's pleasure to throw me into those deep trances, which I could not prevent even when I was in the company of others, and which, to my deep vexation, came to be publicly known. Since then, I do not feel that pain so much, but only that which I spoke of before—I do not remember the chapter—which is in many ways very different from it, and of greater worth. On the other hand, when this pain, of which I am now speaking, begins, our Lord seems to lay hold of the soul, and to throw it into a trance, so that there is no time for me to have any sense of pain or suffering, because fruition ensues at once. May He be blessed forever, who hath bestowed such great graces on one who has responded so ill to blessings so great!

source: The Life of St. Teresa of Avila (London: Thomas Baker, 1904): 255–257.

The Cornaro Chapel.

Of Bernini's many Roman creations, the one that the artist himself most admired was his design for the Cornaro Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, a work he executed between 1645 and 1652. The chapel's subject, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa immortalizes a famous incident in the life of this Spanish Counter-Reformation saint. In his plans for the chapel, Bernini designed a complete stage-like setting that reproduced the saint's miraculous visitation by an angelic messenger. During this incident, known alternately as her "Ecstasy" or "Transverberation," the angel pricked her with a burning arrow that left her alive with the love of God. Although the event had been painful, St. Teresa described it as so fulfilling and sweet that she never wanted it to end. To suggest this mixture of mingled pain and joy, Bernini relied on his already well-established language of flowing lines and polished drapery. The folds of St. Teresa's habit fall into elegant shapes that suggest movement and the inner turmoil and sweetness of her experience. The artist placed this sculpture, too, within an architectural frame that projects outward toward the viewer's space. Above, the pediment that crowns this group is broken and again moves outward toward the viewer. At either side he placed what appear to be theatrical boxes into which he put sculptures of members of the Cornaro family. Thus the patrons appear as witnesses to St. Teresa's great drama, and although sculpted in stone, they have before them a perpetual image of the great Spanish saint's mysterious visitation. Since the onset of the Catholic Reformation in the sixteenth century, reformers like St. Ignatius of Loyola had recommended that the faithful practice daily meditations in which they kept before their eyes images of Christ's Passion as well as key events in the life of the Virgin and the saints. Bernini himself practiced similar pious regimens based, not upon St. Ignatius Loyola, but upon the devotions contained in Thomas à Kempis' late-medieval devotional classic, The Imitation of Christ. In his Ecstasy of St. Teresa, he showed the Cornaro family also taking part in this kind of visual meditation: they sit in a theatrical setting, as if pondering the miracle of Teresa's Transverberation, consuming it as one might a play. In this way Bernini's chapel made use of the widespread tendency to elevate images into a method for avoiding sin. To endow his entire creation with greater force, Bernini surrounded his entire chapel with richly colored marbles and touches of gilt, while in the space above he had painted a fresco that suggested the heavens. In its rich use of color, its dramatic sculptural imagery, and theatricality, Bernini's Ecstasy has long served as an emblematic image of the Catholic Reformation. It achieved, in other words, that dramatic mix of intense emotionalism and clear religious content that Catholic reformers had long recommended as the highest aims of religious art. While highly successful and often imitated, Bernini's Cornaro Chapel has more recently been invoked as the first of many complete artistic environments, a setting in which sculpture, painting, architecture, and the decorative arts all merge to provide a complete sensory experience to those who visit it.


Howard Hibbard, Bernini (Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1965).

John R. Martin, Baroque (New York: Harper and Row, 1977).

Rudolf Wittkower, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque. 2nd ed. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981).

see also Architecture: The Achievements of Gianlorenzo Bernini