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    • Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)


        Gianlorenzo Bernini was born in Naples, the son of Pietro Bernini, a Tuscan sculptor in the late Mannerist style, who moved to Rome c.1605 to work for Pope paul V. The young Bernini early attracted the patronage of the Pope's nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese. His first known work, the Goat Amalthea (c.1615: Rome, Borghese) long passed as an antique, and the Aeneas and Anchises (1618-19: Borghese), shows him working, perhaps with his father's help, within the Mannerist tradition - the group has no fixed viewpoint and the spectator is encouraged to walk round it, thus obtaining a varying silhouette, which, coupled with the slipping movement and the strongly emphasized details of muscles, veins and joints, creates the impression of uncertainty and strain. The Neptune and Triton movement, though still within the tradition of the multiple viewpoint; but in the group of works executed for the Cardinal (Rape of Proserpine 1621-2; David 1623; Apollo and Daphne 1622-4: all in the Borghese.) Bernini adopts a single frontal viewpoint and the indecisions are resolved into a clearcut expression of supreme energy, coupled with a psychological insight and a delicacy of finish that established him as the greatest sculptor since Michelangelo.

        The roots of his style are not only in Michelangelo and the Antique, but also in contemporary painting, for his attitude to the Antique is conditioned by his admiration for Annibale Carracci, his naturalism is stimulated by Caravaggio, and his gestures and facial expressions are influenced by Guido Reni. He rejected Michelangelo's concept of the figure adhering closely to the block, just as he rejected the Mannerist multiple silhouette, and he evolved the new concept of the figure with a single action and viewpoint freed from the limitations of the block and infringing the limits of its own space by breaking into that of the spectator, who is thus drawn into the action. This new concept lay at the root of the Baroque, of which Bernini was the virtual creator and the greatest exponent. His search for a means of expressing different realms of the divine, the mystical and the earthly led him to imaginative mixtures of white and coloured marbles, bronze, stucco, stone, painting, and even to light coloured by being filtered through stained glass. The combination of these materials has often been condemned by Puritan and uncomprehending critics as tasteless overdecoration. The finest examples of this use of mixed media are in the Cornaro Chapel (1645-52: Rome, Sta Maria della Vittoria) with the Ectasy of St Teresa, with the Cornaro family in what might be called 'opera boxes' on either side of the chapel, not looking at the representation of the saint and the angel, but discussing the account she herself wrote, and meditating on her vision, so that the whole chapel becomes a visual and intellectual whole. The tombs of Urban VIII and Alexander VII in St Peter's have the same pictorialquality; the latter is a dramatic conception in white and coloured marbles, with a grim bronze skeleton of Death emerging from the tomb and writing the Pope's name in his book.

        Bernini's busts prove his insight into character, and his religious statues and groups show his passionate concern with the expression of states of mind and soul, while his feeling for the unity of sculpture and its setting led him to become the architect who most fully expressed the upsurge of religious confidence and militant faith that characterize the Counter-Reformation. He was a man of difficult and stormy temperament - his son, Domenico, described him as 'terrible nell'ira' - but of deep piety, who regularly practised the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits.

        Papal patronage provided him with enormous architectural commissions (in and around St Peter's and the Vatican, tombs, fountains, churches), which demanded the participation of numerous assistants, and of these Mochi, Bolgi, Raggi and Caffa were the best of his frequent helpers, while Duquesnoy was a friendly, and Algardi, a bitter, rival. His usual practice was to make several bozzetti in terracotta, which could be enlarged and worked up by his skilled helpers - several of these small bozzetti are in Cambridge Mass. (Fogg).

        Louis XIV invited him to Paris to redesign the Louvre in 1665; the French architects effectively sabotaged the plan, but one result was a magnificent bust of the King (Versailles) and a later equestrian statue of him (1669-77), which, when it arrived in Versailles in 1685, was so disliked by him that Girardon was employed to convert it into a garden ornament. This only too truly fulfilled Bernini's own prediction that after his death his reputation would decline. It is also a vivid illustration of the differences between Italian and French Baroque and the role art was expected to play in the two cultures.

        It is hardly possible to appreciate Bernini's work outside Rome, and on no city has one man left a stronger imprint. There are other works in Birmingham, Bologna (Mus. Civico), Bordeaux (St Bruno), Copenhagen, Detroit, Edinburgh (NG), Florence (Bargello, Contini Coll.), London (V&A), Modena, New York (Met. Mus.). Paris (Louvre, Jacquemart-Andre) and Washington (NG). Several paintings have been attributed to him, including a Self-portrait in Florence (Uffizi), Two Saints (London, NG), and others in Glasgow (Univ.) and Oxford.

        It has also been discovered that he was the author of some twenty plays, though only one, an impresario whose stage machinery fails to work, has so far come to light. It sheds light on Baroque theatrical aesthetics and contemporary attitudes towards the theatre.

      • Source: The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists (Penguin Reference Books)

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