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.