Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the most famous and important sculptor in 17th century Europe, but also a recognized architect, painter, events organizer, poet and playwright, was born in Naples on December 7, 1598 to a Mannerist sculptor, Pietro Bernini, originally from near Florence, and Angelica Galante, a Neapolitan, the sixth of their thirteen children. At the age of eight he accompanied his father to Rome, where Pietro was involved in several high-profile projects for Pope Paul V Borghese, under the important patronage of the Pope’s nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, an unscrupulous art collector: the Pauline Chapel in the Roman Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, where he carved the Coronation of Clement VIII (1612-13) as well as the marble relief of the Assumption of the Virgin (1607-10) in the Baptistery. For the Barberini Chapel in Sant’Andrea della Valle, Pietro later carved St. John the Baptist (1616).
From his arrival on, except for six months in Paris in 1665 at the height of his fame, Bernini seldom left the Eternal City where he received numerous important commissions from seven of the nine popes who reigned during his long lifetime: Paul V ((1605-21), Gregory XV (1621-23), especially Urban VIII Barberini (1623-44), Innocent X Pamphili (1644-55), Alexander VII Chigi (1655-67), and Clement IX (1667-69), and Clement X (1670-76). So it’s little surprise that Pope Urbab VIII said to Bernini: “You are made for Rome and Rome for you.”
Bernini died in Rome on November 28, 1680 and his easily-overlooked tomb, simply indicated by a pavement marker, is in the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore. Thus, as with Caravaggio, most of whose works are also in Rome, it is fun to follow chronologically in the footsteps of Bernini’s art works. An easier but not chronological route, which takes about 2 hours on foot (or by hopping on and off the no. 62 bus) not including visiting time, starts at the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria with his Ecstasy of St. Teresa and ends in St. Peter’s Square with stops in Piazza Barberini to see his fountains: Of the Triton and of the Bees, Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, a church he designed, the Trevi Fountain he inspired, Palazzo Montecitorio he designed in 1650 and today the seat of the Italian Parliament, Piazza Santa Maria sopra Minerva with its elephant obelisk, and Piazza Navona with his fountains: of the Four Rivers and of the Moor.
Young Bernini’s talent was immediately noticed by the painter Annibale Carracci and by Pope Paul V, and, like his father, Gian Lorenzo soon gained the important patronage of Cardinal Scipione Borghese rapidly rising to prominence as a sculptor. Most of his early works: many decorative pieces for the garden of Villa Borghese such as The God Amalthea with the Infant Zeus and a Faun, and several allegorical busts such as the Damned Soul and the Blessed Soul as well as the Bust of Pope Paul V and the more famous full-length statues: Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius, The Rape of Pwersephone by Pluto, Apollo and Daphne, and David are all in the Villa Borghese Museum today.
In 1621, at the age of only 23, Bernini was knighted by Pope Gregory XV; and two years later when Urban VIII became Pope, he is reported to have told Bernini: “Your luck is to see Cardinal Maffeo Barberini Pope, Cavaliere; but ours is much greater to have Cavalier Bernini alive in our pontificate.” In fact, Urban VIII was Bernini’s strongest supporter and his long pontificate (1623-44) could be called Bernini’s “Golden Age” because of his prolific production, much of which is in Vatican City today: St. Peter’s Baldachin, the statue of Charity with Four Children, the Tomb of Urban VIII, Saint Longinus, a Bust of Urban VIII, and Charity with Two Children.
Although Bernini fell out of favor during the papacy of Innocent X Pamphili (1644-1655), he designed two of his most famous works during this decade: Ecstasy of St. Teresa and the Loggia of the Founders, both in the Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria, and the Four Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona with its ancient Egyptian obelisk topped by a bronze dove with an olive branch in its beak, the symbol of the Pamphili
family. The four great rivers then known–the Ganges, the Danube, the Nile, and the Plate—are represented by giants. The Nile’s veiled head symbolizes the river’s unknown source, but there’s also the legend that the veil conveys Bernini’s dislike for the nearby Sant’Agnese in Agone Church designed by his rival Borromini. Similarly, the figure of the Plate, cringing with arm upraised, is supposed to express Bernini’s fear that the church will collapse and destroy his fountain. Luckily, these wives’ tales have no factual basis because Bernini had completed his fountain before Borromini even started work on his church.
Under Pope Alexander VII Chigi (1655-67) Bernini regained a major role in the decoration of St. Peter’s, leading to his design of the piazza and the colonnade in front of the Basilica. Like his predecessor, Alexander VII wanted an ancient Egyptian obelisk erected in a major Roman piazza — in this case Piazza Maria Sopra Minerva — so in 1665 he commissioned Bernini to create a sculpture to support a small obelisk. The sculpture of a baby elephant bearing the obelisk on his back was created by one of Bernini’s students, Ercole Ferrata, and finished in 1667. A popular anecdote concerns the elephant’s smile. To find out why it’s smiling, the viewer must head round to the rear of the animal to see that its muscles are tensed and its tail is shifted to the left as if it were defecating. The animal’s rear is pointing directly at the office of Father Giuseppe Paglia, a Dominican friar, who was one of Bernini’s main antagonists.
Bernini also continued to be held in high regard by Popes Clement IX and X. The Ponte Sant’Angelo was completed in 134 AD by the Emperor Hadrian to span the Tiber from the city center to his newly constructed mausoleum, transformed in the Middle Ages into a a papal fortress and prison. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance pilgrims crossed the bridge to reach St. Peter’s and in 1669 Pope Clement IX commissioned Bernini to restore it. Bernini’s project, one of his last, called for ten angels, holding instruments of the Passion. Bernini personally only finished two: Angel with the Crown of Thorns and Angel with the Superscription, both of which are in the Church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte today. His last major project was probably the macabre Tomb of Alexander VII (1671-78) in St. Peter’s Basilica to the left of his Baldachin.
Recommended reading: Bernini: His Life and His Rome by Franco Marmando, an associate professor of Italian at Boston College, (University of Chicago Press, 2012), $35.00. The author asserts this biography is the first book in English about Bernini the man rather than about his work.