by Roderick Conway Morris

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Bernini and the Birth of the Baroque

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 13 June 1998
Bargello, Florence
Bernini's portrait bust of his lover Costanza Bonarelli, 1636-37



Bernini, as his greatest patron Urban VIII observed 'was made for Rome, and Rome for him.' And it was largely thanks to Urban that Bernini was able to place his stamp on this city in a manner unparalleled by any other artist on any other city.

The sculptor transformed the interior of St. Peter's with his towering 'Baldacchino' over the high altar, larger-than-life saints, monumental tombs and the decoration of the vaults; he completely reordered the appearance and impact of the vast square in front of the cathedral with his majestic double colonnade, and transfigured the dark, narrow stairway that previously led down from the papal Vatican apartments to St. Peter's by creating the magnificent, light-filled Scala Regia.

His churches provided the model for dozens of subsequent ones; he placed himself center stage in several of Rome's finest piazzas with his ebullient, fantastical and humorous fountains, and made the Sant'Angelo bridge linking the city with the Vatican his own by lining its parapets with his angels.

Bernini practically invented the Baroque, and throughout his long life remained its supreme exponent. The astonishing rapidity and confidence with which he developed this style is vividly demonstrated by 'The Sculptor Bernini: The Birth of the Baroque in the House of the Borghese,' which marks the 400th anniversary of his own birth. It continues to Sept. 20.

The son of a Florentine sculptor, Gianlorenzo Bernini was one of the most outstanding infant prodigies of all time. He had mastered the techniques of sculpting marble while still a child, prompting Cardinal Barberini to remark to his father, Pietro, when the boy was only 8 that the master was in danger of being surpassed by the pupil. To which Pietro replied: 'That doesn't bother me, because as you know, in that case the loser wins.'

The earliest known surviving piece by Bernini is 'The Goat Amalthea With the Infant Jupiter and a Faun.' It was done when he was 17 and is on permanent display at the Borghese Gallery. So accomplished was it that for a long time it passed as an antique original.

Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the builder of the Villa, now the Gallery, Borghese, was the leading Roman collector and connoisseur of the era, and it was during these youthful years when Bernini was executing commissions for him that the artist created the new style in sculpture that was to have reverberations in a whole range of arts far beyond Rome and Italy.

Some of these works have been at the Borghese ever since, and form the core of the exhibition. But there are in addition several loans essential for filling out the picture: notably 'The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence' from the Contini-Bonacossi collection in Florence, 'The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian' from the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in Lugano and the 'Hermaphrodite,' from the Louvre. As becomes immediately clear from 'The Goat Amalthea,' Bernini could, while yet in his teens, produce a perfect imitation of an ancient statue. The young genius's problem was where to take his talent from there.

Sources of inspiration were the paintings of his contemporaries, particularly Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci and Guido Reni, many of whose works are also at the Borghese. Following the example of Caravaggio especially, Bernini brought to sculpture a sense of drama and naturalism, and launched the daring enterprise of capturing in stone frozen moments of human bodies in motion. Three triumphant successes displayed here are 'The Rape of Persephone' (1621-22), 'David' (1623-24) and 'Apollo and Daphne' (1622-25).

The artist's total control over his medium allowed him to introduce into sculpture a hitherto unknown level of physical naturalism, breathtakingly revealed in dozens of details - from the bark beginning to envelop the fleeing Daphne's body, the leaves sprouting from her fingers and the roots from her toes as she is metamorphosed into a tree; to the taut cords of David's sling, and the soft, yielding flesh of Persephone's voluptuous waist and thighs in the grasp of her abductor Pluto as he carries her off to his subterranean kingdom.

Bernini's ability to translate his loving observation of the human body into palpable form in marble obviously delighted Cardinal Scipione (who was also a keen collector of pornography). Even the mattress and pillow Bernini carved for the existing Hellenistic sculpture of the 'Hermaphrodite' blatantly enhanced the figure's sensuality by transporting this ambiguous object of desire from the realm of ancient mythology to the 17th-century bedroom.

In striving to animate his portraits, he adopted a novel method of preparing before starting to carve: Instead of drawing at a formal sitting, he would make rapid sketches of his subjects as they went about their daily business. Nor did he necessarily refer to drawings when sculpting. As he told Louis XIV, had he followed the sketches in this way he would have been producing a copy, not an original.

The two uncannily lifelike busts of the epicurean Cardinal Scipione bear early witness to the efficacy of this virtuoso approach. That there is a near-identical pair of these is because the first one turned out to have a fault in the marble, prompting Bernini, who was capable of carving for hours on end without tiring, to produce at breakneck speed a second, perfect version.

In a very different register, but no less convincing is his melancholy 1632 portrait of Urban VIII -- who once dubbed the artist 'a sublime artificer, born by Divine Disposition' - pictured as a man worn down by the burdens of his office.

So advanced was Bernini so early in his career that although the show consists mainly of works from his younger years, it offers the key to his entire development.

Unfortunately, the pieces are scattered through a series of rooms amid dozens of permanent exhibits, and visitors are not provided a plan to find them, necessitating a hunt that is a challenge even to those familiar with his work.

It seems a pity, too, that the organizers have failed to take the opportunity to place works such as 'The Rape of Persephone' and 'Apollo and Daphne' in their original positions against walls, as Bernini intended them to be viewed, but left them in their later placings in the center of rooms.

Entrance to the show is included with the normal Borghese Gallery admissions ticket, which has to be reserved, usually several days in advance.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023