GIOVANNI BERNINI  1598 - 1680  (L1, J1, C1, CW, C2)


Bernini: Self-Portrait – Galleria Borghese, Rome; Abduction of Prosperine – Galleria Borghese, Rome; Apollo and Daphne – Galleria Borghese, Rome; The Ecstasy of St. Teresa – Cornero Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome; Charles I – Royal Collection, UK. St.Peter’s Square: by the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), 1750. Saint Angelo: by the Italian painter Albert Pisa (1864-1936). Jesuit Headquarters: by the Italian engraver Giuseppe Vasi (1710-1782). Borromini: Portrait – date and artist unknown.




xxxxxAnother dominant baroque architect at this time was Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). He was born at Bissone on Lake Lugano, and he trained as an architect and sculptor in Milan before settling in Rome around 1620. Here he spent some ten years working as a stone mason in St. Peter's Basilica, and such was the quality of his carving that he was appointed supervisor of works at both St Peter's and the Barberini Palace during this period. However, melancholic by nature and prone to fits of rage, he quickly alienated his patron and members of his work force. He threw up his job in 1631, and for the next three years worked closely with Bernini on his monumental altar canopy. It would appear that both men collaborated well together and that Borromini was paid handsomely for his valuable contribution, but later a bitter quarrel broke out between the two men when Borromini complained that his work had been undervalued and he had been underpaid.

xxxxxMeanwhile, in 1634 Borromini received his first commission as an architect. His work showed all the hallmarks of the baroque, but he also drew inspiration from antiquity and the Renaissance period. Never orthodox in his design, he based his floor plans on ingenious geometrical forms, and this, together with undulating lines, created an unusual amount of visual interest. His church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, begun in 1638 and not finally finished until 1667, was planned on a diamond shape beneath an oval dome, and the elegant facade was built beyond the height of the church itself (illustrated on left). A plan based on a six pointed star was used for the Sant' Ivo della Sapienza, and the dome here was hexagonal in shape and surmounted with a unique spiral feature (illustrated on right). He also redesigned the basilica of Saint John Lateran in the baroque style, and provided a facade for the church of Saint Agnese in the Piazza Navona. One of his last projects was a huge palace facade for the Jesuit Headquarters, known as the Collegio dI Propaganda Fide, and this was again built on strict geometrical proportions (illustrated below).

xxxxxUnfortunately, his audacious mixture of designs, based on geometric configuration and full of radical innovations, was clearly not the type of development with which to win favour with his contemporaries, particularly Bernini. In 1645 the row between the two architects became public when, arguing over new designs for the facade of St. Peter's Basilica, Borromini openly accused the great Bernini of incompetence. Such a charge could not be ignored. In response, Bernini spoke out against Borromini's novel creations which, he argued, totally abandoned the principles of good architecture. In such a dispute Borromini was on a hiding to nothing, despite the success of his novel creations. A lonely and embittered man, he was no match for the highly successful and popular Bernini. In the last years of his life his health began to break down. He suffered from fits and hallucinations, and in August 1667 he took his own life, convinced that he had not received the recognition he deserved - and, from today's standpoint, he was doubtless right.

xxxxxBe that as it may, the works of Borromini and Bernini, together with those of some talented contemporaries (such as the architects Alessandro Algardi, Pietro da Cortona and Carlo Rainaldi) virtually transformed Rome into a baroque city in the space of some fifty years.

xxxxxIncidentally, Borromini's tragic death by suicide is even the more tragic by its recounting. Being unable to sleep on a hot summer's night, he got up and, in a fit of madness, picked up a sword and fell upon it. Although mortally wounded, he recovered his senses and, before dying, wrote his will and received the last rites. At his request he was buried without any markings in the grave of his teacher and friend Carlo Maderno, the architect for whom he had worked when he first arrived in Rome.

xxxxxAnother talented Baroque architect of this time was the Italian Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). He worked closely with Bernini in the building of his monumental canopy in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, and in 1634 received his first commission, the building of the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. This - plus other churches like his Sant' Ivo della Sapienza - were based on geometrical forms, such as a diamond or a star. They were full of visual interest, but were strongly opposed by the purists, notably Bernini, and a bitter quarrel broke out between the two men. Eventually Borromini, a man prone to fits of depression, took his own life, convinced that his work had been undervalued. He was doubtless right.

xxxxxThe Italian Giovanni Bernini, a leading exponent of the baroque style, was the most outstanding sculptor and architect of his age. His sculptures, statues, busts, fountains, tombs and churches were works full of power, beauty and grandeur. His finest sculptures, noted for their realistic detail, included Neptune and Triton, David, and The Abduction of Prosperina. Supreme among his monumental creations was the huge gilt-bronze canopy, completed in 1633, which towers above the high altar in St. Peter’s, Rome. It was here, too, that he built the immense Chair of St. Peter in the apse and, outside, designed the imposing colonnaded piazza, that vast oval space which is a tribute to his architectural vision. In the city itself he built a number of churches, including his most impressive, Saint Andrea al Quirinale, and he designed a series of ornate fountains, his finest being Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona. Among his hundreds of busts, he produced one of Charles I, based on paintings by Van Dyck. He served no less than eight popes, and was never short of commissions.

xxxxxThe Italian Giovanni Bernini was the leading figure in the development of the baroque style, and one of the greatest and most original sculptors and architects of his age. During a long lifetime devoted to art, his enormous output included sculptures on mythological and religious subjects, monumental statues of saints, portrait busts, colossal fountains and tombs, and architectural designs of awesome power, vision and beauty. A child prodigy, he was born in Naples, but spent almost his entire career working in Rome. He was taught by his father, Pietro, a Florentine sculptor of talent, and it is said that he spent hours studying the antique classical marbles in the Vatican. An ardent Roman Catholic, in all his work he aimed to teach and inspire the faithful and to serve in the cause of the Counter Reformation. In this aim he was generously assisted by his baroque style, an art form which especially appealed to the senses by its grandeur, drama and inward vitality.

xxxxxSome of his finest sculpture was achieved during his most productive middle years from about 1620 to 1650. Belonging to this period, for example, is his Neptune and Triton, and his three outstanding works, the dramatic The Abduction of Prosperina (illustrated right), the realistic David, and the graceful Apollo and Daphne (illustrated left), all produced for the Borghese Palace. These reveal not only his superb technical skill in handling marble, but also his ability to capture the realism of detail - like the billowing turn of drapery, the texture of cloth and skin, and the emotion caught in a fleeting facial expression. But above all they show the innovative use he makes of the interplay between light and shadow and the uncanny sense of movement he infuses into his creations.

xxxxxAnd such qualities are likewise to be seen in his architectural masterpieces in St. Peter's Basilica. Supreme among these is the first of his monumental creations, the elaborate canopy which he installed above the high altar, directly over the saint's tomb. This gigantic gilt-bronze "baldachin", towering 95 feet above the altar, was commissioned by his patron and friend pope Urban VIII, and completed in 1633. As a feat of engineering, a stunning piece of architecture and a magnificent work of sculpture, it is one of the richest monuments in baroque art. Also in the Basilica and taking nearly twenty years in the making is his elaborate and impressive tomb for Urban VIII. Like his later tomb, made for his patron Alexander VII and largely the work of his assistants, he makes much use of ornate detail and three-dimensional figures.

xxxxxAnd to this period belongs his series of superbly sculptured fountains, designed but not always executed by him. There is the Barcaccia in the Piazza di Spagne, the Triton in the Piazzi Barbarini, and, his pièce de résistance, the spectacular Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona, begun in 1648. And to the grandeur of these imposing monuments must be added the sheer beauty of the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in the Cornaro Chapel of the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria (illustrated). Begun in 1645, this marble group (showing an angel piercing the saint's heart with the arrow of divine love) ranks among his finest work, not only for the quality of the figures and its high baroque style, but also for its unique means of illumination, whereby the gilt rays of the sun pervade the whole scene with a golden light. It is a piece of inspired theatre. And also in this church is his marble group of members of the Cornaro family, completed in 1652 with the assistance of his pupils.

xxxxxOf his later work, his greatest accomplishment must certainly be the imposing colonnaded piazza, planned and built in front of St. Peter's Basilica (illustrated). Finished in 1667 after more than a decade in construction, this immense and imposing design is one of his greatest and grandest architectural achievements. The vast oval space - created specifically to house the thousands of pilgrims who come to Rome for the papal benediction - is elegantly and openly contained by two gigantic arcades of 284 Tuscan columns which sweep in a semi-circle on either side of the piazza. In Bernini's words, these colonnades were "the embracing arms of mother Church". And it was about the same time that he built the Scala Regia, the royal staircase which connects the papal apartments in the Vatican Palace to the Basilica, and also the immense Chair of Saint Peter in the apse of the cathedral, supported by four large bronze figures. In designing this gigantic Cathedra Petri, he once again made telling use of light, this time emanating from the dove of the Holy Spirit painted on the central oval window. A major focal point within the church, this illuminates the crowded scene below and helps to create the irrepressible sense of upward movement straining within the work.

xxxxxApart from his work in St. Peter's, Bernini came late to designing other churches in Rome. Notable are his church at Castelgandolfo, and the circular church at Ariccia, both completed in the early 1660s, but his Saint Andrea al Quirinale is the most impressive. Constructed on an oval plan, it is enclosed by a beautiful dome in white and gold, a feature made the more dramatic by the dark, multi-coloured marble that decorates the interior.

xxxxxBernini hardly ever left Rome, but in 1665 he did make a short visit to France, staying about five months in Paris and receiving an enthusiastic welcome. Whilst there he made a bust of Louis XIV, now in the Palace of Versailles, and he put forward a design for a new facade for the Louvre, the real reason for his visit. It would appear, however, that he was not very popular in the French court - ever extolling the virtues of Italian art - so the designs were never taken up. He made a large number of other busts during his working life and they became highly regarded for their dramatic realism. As early as about 1619 he made two allegorical busts called the Damned Soul and the Blessed Soul, and one of his most famous was that of yet another patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who sat for him in 1632. Contemporaries often referred to his busts as "speaking portraits".

xxxxxThe last of Italy's artistic geniuses, Bernini worked almost up to the day he died. During his long lifetime he served no less than eight popes, and his studio was never short of commissions. His last bust, that of the Saviour, now in the Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia, is remarkable for its tranquil, subdued image of Christ, leading some to believe that it was indicative of Bernini's own feelings of calm and resignation as he approached death.


xxxxxIncidentally, Bernini was a skilled caricaturist, and it might well have been he who, during his visit to Paris in 1665, introduced the word caricatura into France. The derivation of this word is sketchy. It might possibly have come from the Italian carattere, meaning "character", or from the Spanish word for face, cara. ……

xxxxx…… A set of "angels", designed by Bernini to adorn the Saint Angelo bridge (illustrated), so delighted the then pope, Clement IX, that he kept them for himself, and they are now in the church of Saint Andrea della Fratte in Rome.