Gian Lorenzo BERNINI ~ The Great Sculptor

by Kim Steele

~ Gian Lorenzo BERNINI ~


“He is so adept at imitating, without affectation, what was most perfect in nature that anyone who studied his works was left in doubt as to which was greater, his artistry or his mastery in hiding it.” Domenico

An artist of such renown, that Gian Lorenzo Bernini is synonymous with Beauty… at least in the Baroque era which has been out of fashion in art history more than in.  Bernini died graciously (saving his brother’s life for raping a young boy) at the ripe age of eighty-two, after an illustrious career, at the center of Rome in 1680.  Pope Indocendi XI sent royal regards to his family upon hearing of The Cavaliere’s death.  Bernini collaborated with eight Popes while working on Europe’s greatest edifices, most successfully with Urban VIII and Alexander VII, and in fact sculpting a living Pope Paul V.


Rendering of The Louvre, by Gianlorenzo Bernini

Rendering of The Louvre, by Gianlorenzo Bernini

Bernini was regularly summoned to Paris to work on The Louvre for Louis XIV on several visits, which he disliked, as well as executing a bust of King Charles I of England, and a massive crucifix for King Philip IV of Spain. His grandeur included the Piazza colonnade at St. Peter’s in Rome, which took several attempts and was regularly sabotaged by competing artists, claiming poor architecture and leaking.  Bernini even made contingency plans to flee to Naples.

Now revered as well as a painter, taught by his father, Bernini created approximately one-hundred and fifty oil on canvases, only forty remain, and unfortunately only the small, individual portraits.  Many are in the manner of his Spanish contemporary, Velázquez.

Bernini lived a careful life, not indulging in either food or drink excessively, but appreciating the sweets.  He maintained an intense work schedule his entire life, and enjoyed it.  He respected his fellow artists, and studied their work, especially the leading architect of the time, Francesco Borromini, whom he eclipsed several times for commissions.  Throughout his life Bernini mounted plays for his family and friends, mostly comedies. He was sometimes a supplicant and sometimes a spoiler, as in his rejection of Louis’ French Academy in Rome.


Rape of Prosperina III, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1621-1622

Pluto and Prosperina, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1621-1622


Bernini’s interactions with the Catholic Church were complex and convoluted; they held the purse strings to his major awards — the Borghese family especially, who sired two Popes and various Cardinals extracted work from him, as they did from Caravaggio.  A visit to their fabled Galleria Borghese is a must in Rome where you will witness two of Bernini’s masterpieces, Pluto and Proserpina (1621) and Apollo and Daphne (1622, created at age twenty-four).  Note that this is via Internet reservations only.  The flowing cape of Daphne turning into tree branches, as delicate as silk, weighs hundreds of pounds. Bernini taunted the stone’s might with his delicate but powerful carvings.


Apollo and Daphne, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1621 - 1625

Apollo and Daphne, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1621 – 1625


As it was with the various powerful families and their power struggles, each one was engaged in jockeying for control over Rome’s art establishment in 1635.  Bernini faced all -from incompetent Popes to abusive Cardinals, all the while balancing this with selling himself. One of his greatest benefactors, the Barberini family was ‘castigated for its immorality and licentiousness.’ The politics were infamous behind the public projects that did well under certain Popes, and failed miserably with other Popes.  Bernini was ‘persona non gratis’ for an entire decade, the 1660’s. He witnessed first hand the war against Galileo, and learned from this ‘not to rock the boat.’

The exuberance of his figures extends beyond their physical stature.  He taught himself architecture and engineering, sometimes on the spot, while coming from an educated family.  Three separate attempts to slenderize his abilities ensued; a leak in St. Peter’s, after the ill-fated bell tower issue for which Pope Urban reprimanded Bernini in 1641, which impacted his health to the point of ‘danger of death,’ according to his diarist Giacinto Gigli, with no documentation as to where it leaked. The leak was actually in the dome of work by Michelangelo. Bernini was ultimately exonerated.

His work has the rarest of passions.  The Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona, is a magnificent chorus of the four major rivers of the world–with actual flowing water from each river’s mouth, festooned with palm trees and elephants. Records indicate that he was very disappointed in the results, and refused to drive through the Piazza. Water now taken for granted in major cites, was new at this time in Rome.  In fact, Bernini was put in charge of all of the aquifers that fed Rome. This powerful position and it’s abundance fed into both of his important fountains.


Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1638 - 1651

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1648 – 1651


Gian Lorenzo’s father was a painter of some repute.  He had in fact been awarded a Vatican assignment.  Very little is known about his childhood except that he came from a migrant, middle-class worker family, and his father was a sculptor that taught both he and his brother, who worked under him throughout his life. Bernini finally married at age forty-one on the Pope Urban’s insistence, to Caterina Tezio, after a boisterous bachelorhood. Bernini has a long and prolific marriage to Catherine, who stood by him well and lived for almost as many years, along with him. Bernini’s family required frequent assistance, which he generously provided. He even did free commissions for the Alexander VII to win a pardon for his brother, Luigi, who viciously raped a young boy.  Earlier he had attempted to kill Luigi who philandered with a married woman, Constanza, with whom Bernini was also involved. Gian Lorenzo obtained the family burial niche with his father, Pietro, who produced a monumental relief in Santa Maria Maggiore, which remained without a name plate for two hundred years. No artifacts were found in the tomb.

Bernini never faltered in his quest for money and fame.  In the ten years whilst out of favor with the Vatican, he beleaguered his projects, working every angle to gain the prominent public projects.  Bernini did manage to secure some of the most important new buildings of the 17th century.

Bernini struggled endlessly to maintain his lofty position in Rome.  He outplayed his main rival, Borromini, for the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona.  Bernini’s success was at the expense of many other artisans of the time. One of his most magnificent commissions was the gigantic Baldacchino over the high altar in St. Peter’s.  At the cost of eight million in today’s dollars, it still takes your breath away.  Bernini broke new ground here, as he continued to do, in the changing of traditional shapes, and the spiral columns and the revolutionary dolphins backs covered in gilding, engulfing the alter.  The rest of Europe copied Bernini for centuries.


Baldacchino, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, St. Peter's Basilica, 1624-33

Baldacchino, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, St. Peter’s Basilica, 1624-33



Bernini's David, in an engraving by Nicolas Dorigny, 1704

Bernini’s David, in an engraving by Nicolas Dorigny, 1704


Bernini’s deeply religious views, throughout his entire life, did empower his artistic expression.  He attended church daily for prayers. He did possess ‘terribilita,’ a fierce, intimidating personality which he employed to keep his workers in line and productive.  He quoted Michelangelo, “I shit blood when I work.”  He averted near-death illnesses twice.  Bernini left a tremendous body of work in Europe, especially in St. Peter’s, and was clearly the greatest sculptor of the Baroque era.


Special acknowledgement to Bernini: His Life and His Rome, by Franco Mormando


Self Portrait, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, c. 1623

Self Portrait, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, c. 1623



Fontana della Barcaccia, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini,  1627-28

Fontana della Barcaccia, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1627-28



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