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Week 11: Bernini (1598-1680)

April 7, 2011

Aeneas, Anchises, & Ascanius

Bernini 1618-1619.


For Cardinal Scipione Borghese, now in Galleria Borghese, Rome.

Working with his father Pietro, a sculptor, Bernini was exposed to opportunities for patronage.  Chief among them, and his first major patron, was Cardinal Scipione Borghese.  Young Bernini’s first monumental commission was for Aeneas, Anchisis, and Ascanius. This sculpture (and patronage) foreshadows the development of Bernini over the next few years.

This multi-figural sculpture depicts a scene from Roman history.  Aeneas carries his father Anchises out of Troy, while Ascanius follows closely behind.  The composition of the three figures is very tight and vertical.  Bernini’s Mannerist inspiration can be seen in the serpentinata upward twist of Aeneas as he holds his father to his left side.  This compositional idea is expanded in Pluto and Persephone.

Bernini seems to have been looking at Michelangelo and Raphael in conceiving the idea for this composition.  The musculature of the men comes from Michelangelo’s countless sculptures and paintings.  The figure of the man carrying another man in Raphael’s Fire in the Borgo seems to have lent some inspiration to this sculpture as well.

The problem with this sculpture is that not all characters can be seen at once.  True, one can move around it to see all three, but Bernini had solved this problem in later sculptures.

Pluto & Persephone

Bernini 1621-1622.


Commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, as a gift for Cardinal Ludovisi, now in Galleria Borghese, Rome.

This multi-figure sculpture appears to be a maturation and refinement of Bernini’s earlier Aeneas, Anchises, & Ascanius.  Pluto strides forward as Aeneas had, both men carrying a person in a serpentinata spiral.  Although Aeneas had been carrying his father in order to save him, Pluto is carrying Persephone away to take her.  This sculpture is successful in showing all the action in a single view, yet the narrative can be satisfied from any viewpoint.

As opposed to the static verticality of the Aeneas group, Pluto and Persephone can be considered High Baroque in the tension created by their dynamic movements.  The struggle and resistance of Persephone intensifies the drama of the scene. Inspired by Hellenistic sculpture, Persephone’s intense facial expression conveys her frantic emotion (Wittkower 6).  Bernini used hair and drapery to enhance the affeti of his pieces.

Another one of Bernini’s major successes within this piece is his rendering of flesh with verisimilitude.  Bernini was able to create the tender flesh of Persephone out of stone.  Imprints of Pluto’s strong hands are indicated on her thigh.  Contrasting her supple body is the musculature of the Michelangel-eqsue Pluto.


Bernini 1623.


For Cardinal Scipione Borghese, now in Galleria Borghese, Rome.

Over 100 years after Michelangelo’s David, Bernini executed the same subject in the same material in High Baroque style.

Inspired by the single view point of the Renaissance and the freedom of Mannerism, Bernini combined the two past styles, creating an entirely new Baroque dynamism, seen in this sculpture (Wittkower 11).  It was originally intended to be placed in a niche, against architectural elements.  However, David has more than one viewpoint.  The sculpture also takes up more than one pictorial plane.

As was typical of Bernin’s concetto, we catch Bernini’s David mid-action, just about to strike a stone at Goliath (Wittkower 19).  His determination shows in his face: tight lips, protruding chin, and furrowed brow.  The dynamic stance of David can be seen in Annibale Carracci’s Polyphemus Furioso and Myron’s Classical Discobolus.

Unlike Michelangelo’s David, Bernini’s is almost life-size.  This creates a relationship with the viewer that any colossal statue can never attain.  The subject life-sized sculpture exists in the viewer’s world.  Bernini’s David is almost on the same level as the viewer, Goliath could be standing right behind the viewer.

Bernini’s sculpture of David is an example of the mastery of nature, which Baroque artists strived for.  Hundreds of studies of human faces, expressions, reactions, and emotions were being documented at this time.  Bernini fully encompassed what it must actually feel like to be a young hero up against a giant monster.  It is believed that Bernini looked at himself in the mirror, modeling David on himself, just as Caravaggio had in his double self-portrait.

Martin, John R. Baroque. New York: Harper & Row. 1977.

Wittkower, Rudolf. Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750. Vol II. High Baroque Yale University Press. 1958.

Baldacchino over Altar of St. Peter's, Bernini, 1623-1634.Baldacchino for St. Peter’s

Bernini 1623-1634.

Gilt bronze.

St. Peter’s, Vatican.

Between Michelangelo’s dome and Carlo Maderno’s confessio is Bernini’s monumental baldacchino.  It hovers above the high altar of the church and the grave of St. Peter (Mezzatesta).  The structure consists of four gilt bronze spiral columns.  These mimic the original twisted columns from Old St. Peters.  The original marble columns can be found in the pier-niches of this same church.  The originals are believed to have been from the Temple of Solomon.  The erection of such a baldacchino with reference to these special columns links Pope Urban VIII with Solomon and his Divine Wisdom.

The form of the baldacchino comes from Counter Reformation church architecture.  The Council of Trent decreed that the altar should be able to be seen from the back of the church.  Church used to have rood screens, keeping the public far away from the Eucharist.  The open structure of the baldacchino invites the worshipper in.  The heavy metal canopy is further made to appear lighter by its open space between ribs.  Designed to look like a canopy, the flaps look as though they could sway in the breeze.  Four angels and a globe at the top anchor the baldachhino down.

Bernini shows an interest in nature on the columns.  Not only are the Barberini bees depicted in gold, but olive branches also climb up the spiraling columns.  This as well as its open spaces make the heavy metal structure appear to be springing up from the crypt with life.

Michael P. Mezzatesta and Rudolf Preimesberger. “Bernini.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 7 Apr. 2011 <;.

Tomb of Urban VIII

Bernini 1627-1647.

Bronze, gilt bronze and marble.

St. Peter’s, Vatican.

The tomb of Urban VIII is the first tomb Bernini was commissioned to execute.  It is located in the apse of St. Peter’s next to the relocated tomb of Paul III.  The pairing of these two tombs provides a contrappasto of styles and shows evidence that Bernini may have been looking at Michelangelo’s Medici tombs for inspiration.

An over life sized bronze statue of Urban VIII is in the center of the piece, his arm outstretched in a blessing.  At his feet is the allegory of death writing Urban’s name in the book of the dead.  Flanking these figures are two allegories: Charity and Justice.  The general set up of these figures became a model for prestigious tombs to come.

All figures in this composition seem to have been caught mid action.  Charity is nursing a child, Justice looks to have given up, and the winged skeleton’s bronze parchment slumps as he attempts to inscribe Urban’s name.

Michael P. Mezzatesta and Rudolf Preimesberger. “Bernini.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 7 Apr. 2011 <;.

Bust of Scipione Borghese

Bernini 1632.


For Scipione Borghese, now in Galleria Borghese, Rome.

Compared to Bernini’s earlier bust of Paul V, this bust of Scipione Borghese is full of life and vigor.  The individualized features are further made custom by the cardinal’s subtle movements.  Scipione appears to be mid-sentence, speaking with vitality, fully engaged with someone or something.

Cardinal Scipione Borghese was one of Bernini’s major patrons.  At the time of the carving of this bust, Bernini had moved on from his patronage.  This shows a strong relationship between the two and Bernini’s admirable reputation among the papal elites.

The story of the crack in the marble of this bust almost equates Bernini with Michelangelo.  In the latter’s case, the great master took on the job of carving a flawed piece of marble that no one wanted to attempt.  In the end, the beautiful colossal David came of if.  Likewise, an unforeseen flaw in the marble Bernini was carving revealed itself around the forehead of the cardinal.  It appears that Bernini attempted to assimilate it into the wrinkles of the forehead made by the cardinal’s expression.  However, Scipione ordered a new one to be made, and Bernini carved it almost overnight.  Although two different outcomes to the story, both involve master sculptors emerging more than triumphant from the ordinary obstacles many sculptors face.

St. LonginusSt. Longinus, Bernini, 1631-1638, St. Peter's Basilica.

Bernini 1631-1638.


St. Peter’s, Vatican.

This sculpture in St. Peter’s basilica stands above the Holy Lance, one of four relics housed by the church.  It is placed in a niche in one of the piers that holds up the dome over the crossing of the nave.

Although St. Longinus is executed in monochrome marble, Bernini’s sculpting techniques add a dazzling quality almost like color.  The saint’s chest is left unpolished, chisel marks in tact.  This created a matte effect, causing the light not to reflect as intensely, just as it would off human skin.

As in Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, drapery is used to assist in conveying the spiritual mentality of the figure (Wittkower 7).  It flows in such a direction that leads the eye to the relic below.  It seems to billow in a wind unfelt by the viewer, but realized upon seeing its imaginary effects.

This statue if out of the viewer’s reach, but Bernini employed another device to place the sculpture in the same realm as the viewer.  St. Longiuns looks up toward the light coming from the dome.  The viewer can do the same and experience its effects.

Wittkower, Rudolf. Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750. Vol II. High Baroque Yale University Press. 1958.

Cornaro Chapel

Bernini 1647-1652.

Marble and bronze architecture, marble sculpture and relief, stucco and fresco vault.

S.M. della Vittoria, Rome.

The decoration of this family chapel at the request of Cardinal Federigo Cornaro is considered Bernini’s most complete work.  Indeed, the painting, sculpture, and architecture come together as a cohesive whole, revealing the mystical world envisioned by the chapel’s centerpiece, Ecstasy of St. Teresa.

As seen in Bernini’s work on the Baldacchino of St. Peter’s, the artist successfully combines art and nature.  Bernini took the liberty to altar the architecture of the church to control his light source on the sculpture and the paintings.  St. Teresa sits in a niche with a hidden window above it.  The natural light pours in and glitters off the gold beams.  His combination of the two worlds of art and nature can be seen in the chapel’s program at large: the material world versus the heavenly world.  The natural world is depicted on level with the viewer in sturdy materials whereas the heavenly world – the realm never seen by human eyes except through art – is shown above the viewer, out of his or her reach.  The bright light from the window also obscures the viewer’s perception of the scene on the ceiling.

Although the chapel as a whole was created to simulate the experience of St. Teresa, the ordinary viewer can never see it the way Bernini and the Cornaro family had.  Railings at the edge of the chapel keep the viewer at a distance, controlling the viewpoint of each piece of art within.  The patrons of this chapel are always inside it, sculpted in a marble relief on a sidewall.  This imitates a choir box or balcony.  Although carved out of very hard marble, Bernini managed to create the illusion of depth in low relief in the background.  One of the four figures is aware of and paying attention to the scene of ecstasy while the other talk among themselves.

Michael P. Mezzatesta and Rudolf Preimesberger. “Bernini.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 7 Apr. 2011 <;.


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