Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Comeback Artist

The Baroque sculptor’s audience has finally come around to his way of seeing the world.
In Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, marble becomes a medium for a metamorphosis. (Arnold de Luca/Corbis)

In the Borghese Gallery, in Rome, when you first see Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Apollo catch up with Daphne, you would swear that her flesh is turning into a tree, although both she and the tree are made of marble. An interlocking mosaic of carbonate crystals has become the medium for a metamorphosis, a tour de force of drama, like almost everything Bernini did. As a sculptor and setter of scenes, he made Rome the pace-setting city of Europe in the 17th century, the age of the Baroque. Materializing out of the marble, his popes, kings, horses, and women set the style for an era.

Then neoclassicism took over, and his renown was eclipsed for more than 200 years. The Fountain of the Four Rivers, with the most marvelous of all his horses, was still there in the Piazza Navona to delight all foreign visitors, but somehow their delight did not build him a reputation for genius. While he was alive and working, even his enemies thought he was a great man. During the next two centuries, almost nobody did. His luster was still on its way back when I was young in the late 1950s and saw his statuary photographed in black-and-white for the Phaidon album that bore his name. Years before I got to Italy and saw the actual objects, the pictures of them bowled me over.

It was the effect he wanted. Bowling people over was his aim in life, along with making money with which to raise the status of his large family to a princely level. The two goals were closely connected. Almost to the end of his life, a string of popes wanted his theatrical best from him, to swell the crowds of marveling visitors to Rome. Bernini could turn churches into histrionic events. Most of the drama in Saint Peter’s comes from various achievements by Bernini, headed by the Baldacchino, the enormous gilt-bronze edifice—the tent for the throne of Saint Peter—at the center of the church. Outside, those are his colonnades framing the piazza where people gather 100,000 at a time to hear the pope speak. Bernini had an organization of assistants to handle all the work, and they had to be paid. But still, by today’s standards, millions of dollars were left over for Bernini to put under his mattress.

Bernini’s new biographer, Franco Mormando, is good on the scholarship and the account books but less so on the dramatic detail. He didn’t want to be dull; he has all manner of excited prose at his service, but his trouble is that the excited prose is not very exciting for his readers (“not very exciting and then some,” as he might say when one wishes he wouldn’t). He employs quite a lot of racy colloquialism, but almost invariably it is in the wrong spot, and sometimes it is garbled. (Either he or his editor thinks that you tow the line instead of toeing it.) He has a tiresome habit of raising a subject only to announce that he will be dealing with it later on (“… whom we shall meet later in this chapter”). In addition, a surer touch with grammar would have helped. As things are, his style teeters on the edge of fluency, interrupting itself with tiny but crucial slips such as saying “to no end” instead of “no end.” But let’s not fail to be grateful for his diligence. There were a lot of documents and ledgers to be dusted off, weighed, and read. When he says that Bernini has been largely neglected for more than 200 years, he is not quite right. In the 19th century, the great scholar Jacob Burckhardt thought that Bernini’s statue of Saint Teresa was too sexy to be sacred. If Mormando is saying, however, that the great critics did not much concern themselves with Bernini, he is close to the truth. The interesting question is why this was so.

In a standard scholarly way, Mormando blames the rise of neoclassicism. But the same thing didn’t do much to diminish Michelangelo, whose fame has never faltered. A better explanation might be that Bernini was simply too good. His chisel could make marble flow like water, and much as we love the results, we tend to think that the sculptor’s talent had no merit, because it was too facile. When Donatello and Michelangelo sculpted David, they transmuted his rock-throwing dynamism to monumental potential. Bernini’s David actually swings the sling, his face all screwed up in concentration like yours or mine would be, with every little muscle picked out and straining. One tends to think there is a dimension missing, when in fact there is an extra dimension present: natural humanity.

Bernini left nothing out of the range of emotions, and this in turn left some of his work ripe for scandal. He was ripe for that anyway. His libido was always in a rage. If his wife had lived longer, he would have generated even more children than the 11 he did. Just before he married her, he was having an affair with Costanza Bonarelli, the model for the beautiful bust that is now in the Bargello collection, in Florence. When I first visited the Bargello, I hadn’t yet been to Rome, so she was my first 3‑D Bernini. I could see immediately how the texture of the carving either didn’t fit into the Renaissance at all or else brought it to an end. The naturalism was bewildering, because you would have thought that some of the earlier sculptures in the collection were already as natural as could be. Between that head and the pretty, slightly plump young woman who inspired it, there is no distance that we might call monumentality. The sculpture simply says that Bonarelli was once alive, even though Bernini came close to killing her. She was already someone else’s wife, but when Bernini caught her having an affair with his brother, he went berserk, drawing his sword and chasing his brother in and out of churches. Meanwhile, to his eternal shame, he directed a factotum to slash Bonarelli’s face. This is a very nasty moment in the narrative, and Mormando seems not quite aware just how much it might put us off. His excuse for Bernini is that such a retributive mutilation was a widely spread practice among men of the day. Perhaps, but you can’t help wondering whether the force of his passion was really an argument for the fineness of his feelings.

While Bernini was alive, even his enemies thought he was a great man. During the next two centuries, almost nobody did.

Nevertheless, the Bonarelli is a fine piece of sculpture. They all are, as long as Bernini did them. Such was the demand for his style that he had to call in lesser artists to supply the demand. But when he was the author, the result was a hit every time, with the exception of the equestrian statue of Louis XIV, which the king himself thought was a dud. Similarly, Bernini’s succession of designs for the Louvre Palace in Paris ended up going nowhere, at the price of a huge drain on his energy. He was accustomed to having his energy drained, but outright failure was never typical. What was typical was a lucrative success, in a long career that culminated in his shaping and decorating an entire church, Sant’Andrea al Quirinale. As with all the other projects that involved architecture along with sculpture, he was the complete master of both media, and if he was constantly pushed beyond his natural pace, well, being pushed was his pace. He seems to have slept soundly enough; it was to others that the cost was heartbreaking. The ordinary people of the city picked up the tab, because all the outlay came out of money that the popes stole from them in lieu of providing the simple social amenities that might have saved their lives. Nevertheless, there is no arguing with the results obtained by the dream team of Bernini and Pope Urban VIII. The Rome we see today is the Rome they built.

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