Today is the birthday (1598) of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (also spelled Gianlorenzo or Giovanni Lorenzo), Italian artist and a prominent architect who worked principally in Rome. He was the leading sculptor of his age, credited with creating the Baroque style of sculpture. In addition, he painted, wrote plays, and designed metalwork and stage sets. Bernini possessed the ability to depict dramatic narratives with characters showing intense psychological states, but also created large-scale sculptural works which convey a magnificent grandeur. His skill in working with marble made him a worthy successor of Michelangelo, far outshining other sculptors of his generation. His artistry extended beyond the confines of his sculpture to consideration of the setting in which it would be situated. He had an extraordinary ability to synthesize sculpture, painting, and architecture into a coherent conceptual and visual whole.
Bernini was also a leading figure in the emergence of Roman Baroque architecture along with his contemporaries, the architect, Francesco Borromini and the painter and architect, Pietro da Cortona. Early in their careers they had all worked at the same time at the Palazzo Barberini, initially under Carlo Maderno and on his death, under Bernini. Later on, however, they were in competition for commissions and fierce rivalries developed, particularly between Bernini and Borromini. Despite the arguably greater architectural inventiveness of Borromini and Cortona, Bernini’s artistic pre-eminence, particularly during the reigns of popes Urban VIII (1623–44) and Alexander VII (1655–65), meant he was able to secure the most important commission in the Rome of his day, St. Peter’s Basilica. His design of the Piazza San Pietro in front of the Basilica is one of his most innovative and successful architectural designs.
During his long career, Bernini received numerous important commissions, many of which were associated with the papacy. At an early age, he came to the attention of the pope’s nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, and in 1621, at the age of only 23, he was knighted by Pope Gregory XV. Following his accession to the papacy, Urban VIII is reported to have said, “Your luck is great to see Cardinal Maffeo Barberini Pope, Cavaliere; but ours is much greater to have Cavaliere Bernini alive in our pontificate.” Although he did not fare so well during the reign of Innocent X, under Alexander VII, he once again regained his place of artistic domination and continued to be held in high regard by Clement IX.
As persistent readers of this blog know well, I could ramble on a long time about Bernini’s life and works. But I won’t. There are plenty of books and websites to consult if you are interested. The greatest testament to his life is his work itself. So here is a small gallery of some of my favorite pieces. To me, Rome and Bernini are synonymous. Well, I suppose Michelangelo should get a mention. But Bernini is EVERYWHERE.