Bernini, Gianlorenzo

Contributed By:
Edward J. Sullivan

The single most important artistic talent of the Italian baroque. Although most significant as a sculptor, he was also highly gifted as an architect; painter; draftsman; designer of stage sets, fireworks displays, and funeral trappings; and playwright. His art is the quintessence of high baroque energy and robustness (see Baroque Art and Architecture). His ability to suggest textures of skin or cloth as well as to capture emotion and movement in sculpture was uncanny. Bernini reformed a number of sculptural genres, including the portrait bust, the fountain, and the tomb. His influence was widespread throughout the 17th and 18th centuries and was felt by such European masters as Pierre Puget, Pietro Bracci, and Andreas Schlüter.

Bernini's life was dominated by his work, and his biography can be traced through the immense number of projects he undertook. His career developed almost entirely in Rome, although he was born in Naples. His father, Pietro Bernini, a talented sculptor of the late Mannerist style, was his son's first teacher (see Mannerism). Young Gianlorenzo soon surpassed his father in excellence, however, as is known from the principal sources of information on Bernini: the biography by Filippo Baldinucci in 1682 and the biography by the artist's son Domenico in 1713. Many of Bernini's early sculptures were inspired by Hellenistic art (see Greek Art and Architecture). The Goat Amalthea Nursing the Infant Zeus and a Young Satyr (1609, Galleria Borghese, Rome) typifies the classical taste of the youthful sculptor. Group sculptures by earlier masters such as Giambologna were noted for their Mannerist multiple views. Bernini's sculpture groups of the 1620s, however, such as the Abduction of Proserpina (1621-1622, Galleria Borghese, Rome) present the spectator with a single primary view while sacrificing none of the drama inherent in the scene. During the 1620s, Bernini also executed his first architectural projects, the facade for the church of Santa Bibiana (1624-1626) in Rome, and the creation of the magnificent baldachin (1624-1633), or altar canopy, over the high altar of Saint Peter's. The latter commission was given to Bernini by Pope Urban VIII, the first of seven pontiffs for whom he worked. This project, a masterful feat of engineering, architecture, and sculpture, was the first of a number of monumental undertakings for Saint Peter's. Bernini later created the tombs (1628-1647 and 1671-1678, respectively; Saint Peter's) of Urban VIII and Alexander VII that, in their use of active three-dimensional figures, differ markedly from the purely architectural approach to the sepulchral monument taken by previous artists. Bernini's immense Cathedra Petri (Chair of Saint Peter, 1657-1666), in the apse of Saint Peter's, employs marble, gilt bronze, and stucco in a splendid crescendo of motion, made all the more dramatic by the golden oval window in its center that becomes the focal point of the entire basilica.

Bernini was the first sculptor to realize the dramatic potential of light in a sculptural complex. This was even more fully realized in his famous masterpiece Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1645-1652, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome), in which the sun's rays, coming from an unseen source, illuminate the swooning saint and the smiling angel about to pierce her heart with a golden arrow. Bernini's numerous busts also carry an analogous sense of persuasive dramatic realism, whether they are allegorical busts such as the Damned Soul and Blessed Soul (both 1619?, Palazzo di Spagna, Rome), or portraits such as those of Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1632, Galleria Borghese) or Louis XIV of France (1665, Palace of Versailles).

Bernini's secular architecture included designs for several palaces: Palazzo Ludovisi (now Palazzo Montecitorio, 1650) and Palazzo Chigi (now Palazzo Odescalchi, 1664), in Rome, and an unexecuted design for the Louvre presented to Louis XIV in 1665, when Bernini spent five months in Paris.

Bernini did not begin to design churches until he was 60 years old, but his three efforts in ecclesiastical architecture are significant. His church at Castelgandolfo (1658-1661) employs a Greek cross, and his church at Ariccia (1662-1664), a circle plan. His third church, Sant' Andrea al Quirinale (1658-1670) in Rome, is his greatest. The church was constructed on an oval plan with an ovoid porch extending beyond the facade, echoing the interior rhythms of the building. The interior, decorated with dark, multicolored marble, has a dramatic oval dome of white and gold. Also dating from the 1660s are the Scala Regia (Royal Staircase, 1663-1666), connecting the papal apartments in the Vatican Palace to Saint Peter's, and the magnificent Piazza San Pietro (designed 1667), framing the approach to the basilica in a dynamic ovular space formed by two vast semicircular colonnades. Bernini's most outstanding fountain group is in the spectacular Fountain of the Four Rivers (1648-1651) in the Piazza Navona in Rome.

Bernini remained a vital and active artist virtually up to his death. His final work, Bust of the Savior (Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia), presents a withdrawn and restrained image of Christ indicative of what is now known to have been Bernini's calm and resigned attitude toward death.

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