A version of this article features in the August 2014 edition of the Architectural Review
It was his son who described Gianlorenzo Bernini, as ‘stern by nature, rock steady in work, warm in anger’. Born in Naples in 1598 and heralded as the next Michelangelo by the age of eight, to all accounts Bernini ostensibly embodied the stereotypical haughty hot-headedness of the Southern Mediterranean. He is a man around whom a powerful mythology has been sculpted and his reputation, at least among his immediate predecessors, is easily discernable from the lengthy and eulogizing accounts by his primary biographers. These included the amateur artist and gossipy raconteur Filippo Baldinucci alongside the scholar Domenico Bernini, Gianlorenzo Bernini’s last, eleventh, child.
Knighted at the meagre age of twenty three, Bernini assumed the moniker ‘il Cavaliere’ as well as friends in high places such as the future pope Urban VIII, Maffeo Barberini. Through these channels he became accustomed to the sycophantic rhetoric of the age; especially from his influential friend, who is famously recorded to have said; ‘It is your great good luck, Cavaliere, to see Maffeo Barberini pope. But we are even luckier in that the Cavaliere Bernini lives at the time of our pontificate.’ This friendship spanned over two decades and is one of art history’s greatest ever love-ins between artist and patron, and certainly the most influential on the fabrications of seventeenth century Rome. A portrait bust of Barberini sculpted during his pre- papal days is testimony to both their friendship and Bernini’s wit. The ‘speaking likeness’, despite drawing on the classical tradition and sculpted from chilly, inanimate marble still manages to convey a filmy patina on the cardinal’s complexion and the straining buttons over his robust chest belie a fondness for a life lived as if it were one long, good lunch.
Bernini had a predilection for extremes of the flesh, which ranged from the masochistic to the sadistic. He is reported to have undertaken experiments on his own body to guarantee an authenticity of expression in his sculpture, whether burning his leg to understand the contortions of torture suffered by St.Lawrence, the Christian martyr roasted on a grill, or plunging his hand into flames in front of a mirror to render the silent scream of a damned soul in hell. Both of these acts might seem unnecessarily thespian were he not also predisposed to inflicting acts of grevious bodily harm when enraged. Bernini broke his brother’s ribs for conducting an affair with the lovely Costanza Bonucelli (Bonarelli) before sending a servant to slash his paramour’s face to ribbons with a blade.
Despite this taste for violence he lived his daily life in an odour of piety, visiting mass every evening at the Jesuit church of il Gesù alongside the suitably militant Jesuit order. But while his focus on the piety of the inner life is reflected in his devotion to St. Ignatius Loyola’s meditational text the ‘Spiritual Exercises’, as a sculptor he is known for his rendering of marble into flesh so tantalising it’s palpably uncomfortable. Who can easily forget the robust hand of Pluto sinking into the pearly cushion of Proserpina’s thigh, a scene of base sexual assault turned into sublime admiration for the sculptor’s craft, not to mention the provocative jouissance that ripples through ‘St. Teresa of Avila’?
Perhaps it is easy to suggest that this irrepressible preoccupation with the body extended to his architecture. The anthropomorphic arms of the oval piazza redesign of St. Peter’s became a symbolic gesture of an anxious Catholic church embracing its flock and clinging to those in the fold, while the new use of the ovoid shape and interpenetrating spaces created a different three dimensional experience for the body in architectural space, and one that deviated from the strict Vitruvian geometry that had underpinned Renaissance architecture.
If Bernini’s triumphant reworking of St. Peter’s and his contributions on the inside such as the ‘baldacchino’, ‘Cathedra Petri’, ‘Scala Regia’ and papal tombs can be seen as his greatest legacy, then his work on the building also prompted his greatest gaffe. Bernini designed two towers that were to flank Carlo Maderno’s façade of the church, but no sooner had the foundations been set that they began to topple. Art history has perpetuated the belief that this was a spectacular fall from grace for the architect, one that saw the brightest star being shut out of Eden, and freed the stage for Bernini’s main rival, the prodigious Francesco Borromini. , According to some sources, Borromini was the scorned and uncredited genius behind the twisting towers of the baldacchino which rose like a canopy over the subterranean tomb of St.Peter at the crossing of the gargantuan basilica.
Truth is, despite the assumption that Bernini spent a period relegated to the wings for the remainder of Innocent X’ s papacy, he still designed the ‘Four Rivers Fountain’ during this period and enjoyed various commissions from aristocratic and foreign patrons, including a spell at the French court of Louis XIV in 1660s. He comfortably took centre stage again during Alexander VII’s papacy, which saw him involved in the large scale architectural adaptations of Rome including the disembowelling and dilation of the medieval innards of the city to make way for the grand processional spaces such as Piazza San Pietro.
By far the most lucky thing for Cavaliere Bernini was that he lived within the period of great ‘builder Popes’, hell-bent on restoring Rome’s cultural capital through architectural projects and magisterial urban planning, all the while anxiously attempting to spurn the threat of Martin Luther’s new Protestant faith by casting the Catholic faith triumphant in the masonry of the city. Rome became a stage set for processional pomp and stimulating the senses, and Bernini delivered designs which implemented the dramatic contortions, undulations and elevations characteristic of the Roman Baroque style. These aimed for something of an intoxicating embodied ecstasy in the beholder as a reminder of Catholicism and Rome’s supremacy when it came to souls. In this regard Bernini’s work as a sculptor gave him an advantage when designing buildings which heightened the perception of space as lived through the body in three dimensions; the power of negative space, and his experiments in combining painting and sculpture to complement architectural form. It is for this, the ‘bel composto’ of elements that he is remembered and revered, and to him the later conception of the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (that which breaks the aesthetic borders between real and imagined space) seems made for.
Bernini’s blousy burial in Santa Maria Maggiore was his ultimate rendering of the Baroque conceit. In tucking his tomb just under the high altar, close to the relics of the Holy Crib, and in close proximity to the Salus Populi Romani portrait of the Virgin by the hand of St.Luke, Bernini lay claims to the posthumous function of his body and bones in making Rome holy, as well as aligning his hand with that of the first Christian artist, St. Luke. Sadly his reputation for crafting philosophical encounters with mysticism and illusionism did not universally endure into the eighteenth century, and Joshua Reynolds would dismiss him his nothing more than a cheap sorcerer.