“You are made for Rome and Rome is made for you” – The Genius of Gianlorenzo Bernini

Gianlorenzo Bernini is often associated with the magnificence of Baroque Rome – and so he should be. Imprints of his expressive, sculptural genius can be found all over Rome. He is akin to Michelangelo in three main ways: firstly, he primarily saw himself as a sculptor; secondly, he was indebted to the patronage of forward-thinking popes; and thirdly, he also had a huge bearing on the artistic and architectural excellence Rome is so revered for. However, the personalities of the two artists were poles apart: Michelangelo was introverted, tortured and cantankerous, whereas Bernini was sociable, witty and aristocratic. He made his name through sculpture, particularly busts (his bust of Cardinal Richelieu is in the Louvre), but became ingratiated with the Popes from a young age, having been precociously brilliant – Pope Urban VIII is said to have told him “You are made for Rome and Rome is made for you”.

Perhaps it is also important to look at what the Baroque actually was – it is heavily associated with the religious fervour of Counter-Reformation Rome, from where the movement spread across Europe. In fact, whilst now the expressiveness of Baroque artists such as Bernini and Peter Paul Rubens is lauded, it was initially a term of critical abuse that derived from two contemporary words; the Italian barocco referred to tortuous medieval pedantry and the Portuguese barrocco meant a deformed pearl. Either way, it described an artistic movement that deviated from the norm and that stood out in the course of seventeenth century art. Its key associations are, as I already mentioned, religious emotion, dynamic movement (think of the twists and turns in Rubens’ figures) and exuberant, rich decoration.

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Bernini’s Baldacchino underneath Michelangelo’s dome in St Peter’s Basilica – normally it’s really annoying when people get into your photos, but here they demonstrate the true scale of this canopy

This is plainly obvious in the first point of my Bernini whistle stop tour of Rome – you can see his Baldacchino underneath Michelangelo’s dome inside St Peter’s Basilica. This majestic gilded bronze canopy stands above the altar, reaching a height of 95ft. It took Bernini almost a decade to complete this, between the years 1624 and 1633, and it required 186,000 tonnes of bronze, some of which came from the ancient Pantheon. Whilst now it stands out for its dramatic twists on a relatively traditional design, it suffered at the time due to rapidly changing tastes, and not many people were impressed with it when it was unveiled. Whilst viewed as a genius, Bernini was never far from controversial critique.

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The Triton Fountain in Piazza Barberini, 1642-3

If you move to the Piazza Barberini, not far from the Spanish Steps and at the beginning of the Via Veneto, you will find Bernini’s Triton Fountain. This was sculpted during 1642-3 (much quicker than the Baldacchino!) and shows the sea god majestic atop of a shell supported by four dolphins. He blows water from a conch shell; Bernini supposedly spent time studying how water should fall in relation to a piece of sculpture – this was very important for his main and most talked about work in Rome (but more on that in another post).

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My quite dark photo of The Ecstasy of St Teresa was taken during the evening in January, but you can still see the natural light coming through onto the angel and the figure of St Teresa appears to be levitating towards heaven

At the top of the Via Barberini is the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, where you will find Bernini’s beautiful and controversial The Ecstasy of St Teresa in the Cornaro Chapel. It was sculpted over a seven-year period from 1645, and represents a pious artist responding to the writings of St Teresa of Ávila, who had only been canonised only just over two decades before Bernini began working. St Teresa had several powerful visions of God connecting with her, the strongest of which – and the one Bernini chose to represent – was of an angel plunging a golden spear aflame into her heart. Of this she wrote: “The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly with it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it – in fact a large share in it.” At the time, controversy was courted because of how sensual and realistic Bernini’s creation was in showing this spiritual euphoria. It is cleverly designed, as it is illuminated from above by a hidden window, lighting up the golden rays behind the angel and St Teresa that show the juncture between heaven and earth. This could be seen as a prime example of Counter-Reformation art as it is a depiction of the power of God and religious vision, and St Teresa, who was born in 1515, grew up in a time of religious uncertainty with the Reformation, but was credited with never denying the true strength of her Catholic faith in the face of this turmoil – an appropriate symbol for a city aflame with religious expressiveness. It is definitely worth a visit – the facial expressions are so beautiful that you have to see them in person!

I obviously could not discuss Bernini without going on about how much I adore being in the Piazza Navona in front of the Four Rivers Fountain (every one of the four days we spent in Rome, I made us walk past it, I love it THAT much), but I thought it deserved a post of its own… so next time!

VISIT…

  • St Peter’s Basilica is absolutely amazing, and is free to go inside! Over the summer months (April to September), it is open from 7am until 7pm, and during the winter months (October to March), 7am until 6pm. There are so many artistic wonders to look out for inside: I mentioned briefly earlier, Michelangelo’s dome stands above the Baldacchino and is certainly not to be missed – you can even climb up it, which gives you spectacular views of Rome. My favourite Michelangelo statue, the Pietà, can also be viewed in St Peter’s as soon as you walk inside.
  • The Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria is so peaceful and absolutely stunning, and another free place to visit! Be aware that most churches in Rome close for mass – this one is open from 9am until 12pm, then 3.30pm until 6.30pm. It also makes an appearance in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, for fans of his Robert Langdon novels.
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