Gian Lorenzo Bernini (7 December 1598 - 28 November 1680) was an Italian artist/sculpture who worked principally in Rome.
Bernini was the leading sculptor of his age and also a prominent architect. A great student of classical art, he is credited with being a leading figure in creating the Baroque style of sculpture. Bernini’s sculptures are admired for his capacity to capture an almost shockingly realistic experience of humanity.
In addition to being a sculptor, he painted, wrote plays, and designed metalwork and stage sets.
He lived primarily in Rome and enjoyed the patronage of the Popes he lived under. Bernini worked under Pope Gregory XV, and Pope Urban VIII.
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, following his death, under Bernini.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini Self-Portrait
Bernini was generally regarded as the pre-eminent artist of his time, and he secured the most prestigious commissions, beating rivals such as Borromini and Cortona, Bernini gained the approval of the popesUrban VIII (1623–44) and Alexander VII (1655–65) One of the most significan architectural projects was to finish the embellishments of St. Peter’s Basilica. Bernini’s design of the Piazza San Pietro in front of the Basilica is one of his most innovative and successful architectural designs. Within the basilica he is also responsible for the Baldacchino, the decoration of the four piers under the cupola, the Cathedra Petri or Chair of St. Peter in the apse, the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in the right nave, and the decoration of the new nave.
The Vatican today
Bernini was also innovative and greatly admired as a sculptor. He was able to add a touching realism to his subjects, making use of shade and even given a textual awareness of skin and hair. In particular, Bernini broke with tradition by creating figures in the act of movement. This added an extra layer of drama and emotion, encouraging the viewer to identify with not just the person, but their moment of life.
Breaking with tradition was a feature of Bernini’s approach, he famously stated. “those who never dare to break the rules never surpass them”
David by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1623-24) It took him seven months and he completed the work in 1624.
Bernini’s David (which was created as a life-size replica of the biblical David) illustrates his differences with Michelangelo. Rather than the pristine purity of Michelangelo’s David, Bernini offers a more life-like, earthly figure, who seems ready to burst into life and throw his stone. Bernini was also revolutionary in his greater use of emotion in his statues. In this example, we have the righteous anger of David.
Ecstasy of St Therese
From Cornaro Chapel (1644- 47)
One of Bernini’s greatest works is the Ecstasy of St Therese in the Cornaro Chapel. It endeavours to capture a mystical experience of pure joy. The work was inspired by St Therese’s own description of her religious experience. In her own words, she said.
“Beside me on the left appeared an angel in bodily form . . . He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest ranks of angels, who seem to be all on fire . . . In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God.”
It was this depth of emotion that Bernini sought to capture in his statues. The sculpture has fascinated and enamoured both the art-world and ordinary people – causing the diverging appearance of the inner meaning. Simon Schama writes
“Bernini’s sculpture is, after all, a spectacle that hovers on the borderline between sacred mystery and indecency. Scholars have fallen over themselves to warn us that what we are looking at could not possibly be a moment of sensual surrender.” (link)
During his early adult life, Bernini did not wish to marry. When pressed by the pope to marry, Bernini replied his artworks were his children. He felt art to be his divine calling and (he never suffered from false modesty.)
However, in 1636, Bernini began an affair with a married woman called Constanza. He created a passionate portrait bust of her and put it on full display in 1637. However, when Constanza began an affair with his brother Luigi, Bernini became enraged and chased his brother through Rome, breaking two of his ribs with an iron bar and threatening him with his life. He then ordered a servant to slash the face of Constanza. Bernini’s servant was jailed for assault, whilst Constanza was jailed for adultery.
Perhaps due to his closeness to the Pope, Bernini escaped serious censure – receiving only a paltry fine, despite being guilty of ordering the slashing. But after this incident, Pope Urban ordered Bernini (then 41 years old) to marry a younger women Caterina Tezio, in an arranged marriage. She bore him eleven children. His biographers say after his condemnation for the incident with his girlfriend, he became more religious and never repeated his violent outburst of anger.
After receiving great honour and praise throughout his life, his reputation was turned on its head when he was criticised for his construction of the facade in St Peter’s. Urban VIII withdrew his patronage, and his successor Innocent X ordered the remaining belltower to be dismantled. As a result, Bernini felt distraught and depressed. But he responded by taking commissions from other patrons outside the Vatican, and this included finishing his great work of St Therese (1644-47)
Bernini died on 28 November 1680, aged 82 from the after-effects of a stroke. He had remained in good health until his final few weeks. He was buried with his parents in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Gian Lorenzo Bernini”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net 23 Feb. 2008. Updated 2nd March 2020.