Sunday, 9 December 2012


“Sculpture is the art of the intelligence.” - Pablo Picasso

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini - December 7, 1598 – November 28, 1680), who worked chiefly in Rome, was the epitome of the baroque artist. Eminent as a sculptor and architect, he was also a painter, draughtsman, designer of stage sets, fireworks displays, and funeral trappings. Bernini was born in Naples to a Florentine family and accompanied his father Pietro Bernini (a well known Mannerist sculptor himself), to Rome. His first works were inspired by Hellenistic sculpture that had been brought to Rome in imperial times. Among these early works are “The Goat Amalthea Nursing the Infant Zeus and a Young Satyr” (redated 1609, Galleria Borghese, Rome) and several allegorical busts such as the “Damned Soul” and “Blessed Soul” (ca 1619, Palazzo di Spagna, Rome).

In the 1620s he came to maturity with the bust of Pope Paul V (1620), the “Abduction of Proserpina” (1621-1622, Galleria Borghese, Rome), the “David” (1623 - 24), and “Apollo and Daphne” (1624-25). His first architectural project was the magnificent bronze baldachin (1624 - 1633), the canopy over the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, and the façade for the church of Santa Bibiana (1624-1626), Rome. In 1629, before the baldachin was complete, Urban VIII put him in charge of all the ongoing architectural works at St Peter’s. He was given the commission for the Basilica’s tombs of Pope Urban VIII (1628-1647 and, years later, Pope Alexander VII Chigi 1671-1678. The Chair of Saint Peter (Cathedra Petri) 1657-1666), in the apse of St. Peter’s, is one of his masterpieces.

Among his best-known sculptures is the magnificent “The “Ecstasy of St Teresa” (1645-1652, in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome). This is a dynamic and flowing work where the inner emotional and spiritual turmoil of the saint is depicted in her pose and the flowing drapery that Bernini sculpts with consummate skill. Bernini’s “David” also shows the youth in motion, in contrast to the famous statue of David by Michelangelo in which the character is at rest, contemplating his imminent action. The twisted torso and furrowed brow of Bernini’s “David” is symptomatic of the baroque’s interest in dynamic movement over the High Renaissance meditative repose. Michelangelo expresses David’s whole heroic nature while Bernini captures the heroic moment.

Bernini’s architecture is as famous as his sculpture. Besides his most famous work, the piazza and colonnades of St Peter’s he planned several famous palaces: Palazzo Barberini (from 1630); Palazzo Ludovisi (now Palazzo Montecitorio, 1650); and Palazzo Chigi (1664), all in Rome. In 1665, at the height of his fame and powers, he made a voyage to Paris to present Louis XIV with (rejected) designs for the east front of the Louvre – it was to be executed in more classic taste by Claude Perrault. Bernini designed some famous churches. One of the small baroque churches in Rome presents an ensemble of Bernini’s work: Bernini was responsible not only for the architecture of Sant’ Andrea al Quirinale, but also the enormous statue of St. Andrew the Apostle over the high altar. In the papal villages near Rome, Bernini designed churches for Castel Gandolfo and in Ariccia.

The first of Bernini’s fountains was the “Fountain of the Triton” (1640). His most famous fountain, the spectacular “Fountain of the Four Rivers” (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, 1648-1651, see below) in the Piazza Navona, Rome, is also a source of anecdotes about his rivalry with Francesco Borromini (whose Sant’ Agnese in Agony church faces the fountain). In a sculptural dig, one of the Bernini’s river gods, it was said, cowers in terror at the unsteady-looking facade of Sant’ Agnese. The death of his steadfast supporter and patron Urban VIII in 1644 released a horde of Bernini’s rivals and marked a change in his career, but Innocent X set him back to work on the extended nave of St Peter’s and commissioned the Four Rivers fountain in Piazza Navona. At the time of Innocent's death Bernini was the aribiter of public taste in Rome. He died in Rome in 1680.

“The Fountain of the Four Rivers” illustrated above, depicts gods of the four great rivers in the four continents as recognised by the Renaissance geographers: The Nile in Africa, the Ganges in Asia, the Danube in Europe and the Río de la Plata in America. Each location is further characterised by animals and plants specific to the country the river is found in. The Ganges carries a long oar, representing the river’s navigability. The Nile’s head is draped with a loose piece of cloth, meaning that no one at that time knew exactly where the Nile’s source was. The Danube touches the Papal coat of arms, since it is the largest river closest to Rome. And the Río de la Plata is sitting on a pile of coins, a symbol of the riches America might offer to Europe (the word plata means silver in Spanish).

Each River God is recumbent, in awe of the central tower, epitomised by the slender Egyptian obelisk (built for the Roman Serapeum in AD 81), symbolising Papal power and surmounted by the Pamphili symbol of the dove. The Fountain of the Four Rivers is a theatre in the round, whose leading actor is the movement and sound of water splashing over and cascading down a mountain of travertine marble. The masterpiece was finally unveiled to the world on June 12, 1651, to joyous celebration and the inevitable criticisms of the day. Then as today the Fountain of the Four Rivers continues to amaze and entertain visitors to Rome.

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