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"Bernini" redirects here. For other people named Bernini, see Bernini (surname).

Gian Lorenzo Bernini
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Self-Portrait of Bernini, c. 1623
Birth name Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Born (1598-12-07)7 December 1598
Naples, Kingdom of Naples, in present-day Italy
Died 28 November 1680(1680-11-28) (aged 81)
Rome, Papal States, in present-day Italy
Nationality Italian
Field Sculpture, painting, architecture
Movement Baroque style
Works David, Apollo and Daphne, The Rape of Proserpina, Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (also spelled Gianlorenzo or Giovanni Lorenzo) (Naples, 7 December 1598 – Rome, 28 November 1680) was an Italian artist and a prominent architect[1] who worked principally in Rome. He was the leading sculptor of his age, credited with creating the Baroque style of sculpture.[2] 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 organise large-scale sculptural works which convey a magnificent grandeur.[3] His skill in manipulating marble ensured he was considered a worthy successor of Michelangelo, far outshining other sculptors of his generation, including his rival, Alessandro Algardi. His talent extended beyond the confines of his sculpture to consideration of the setting in which it would be situated; his ability to synthesise sculpture, painting and architecture into a coherent conceptual and visual whole has been termed by the art historian Irving Lavin the "unity of the visual arts".[4] A deeply religious man, working in Counter Reformation Rome, Bernini used light as an important metaphorical device in the perception of his religious settings, often using hidden light sources that could intensify the focus of religious worship,[5] or enhance the dramatic moment of a sculptural narrative.

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.[6][7] 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 papal 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 Cavalier Bernini alive in our pontificate."[8] Although he did not fare so well during the reign of Innocent X, under Alexander VII, he once again regained pre-eminent artistic domination and continued to be held in high regard by Clement IX.

Bernini and other artists fell from favour in later neoclassical criticism of the Baroque. It is only from the late 19th century that art historical scholarship, in seeking an understanding of artistic output in the cultural context in which it was produced, has come to recognise Bernini's achievements and restore his artistic reputation. The art historian Howard Hibbard concludes that during the seventeenth century "there were no sculptors or architects comparable to Bernini."[9]

Early life

Bernini was born in Naples to a Mannerist sculptor, Pietro Bernini, originally from Florence, and Angelica Galante, a Neapolitan, the sixth of their thirteen children.[10][11] Bernini himself would not marry until May 1639, at age forty-one, when he wed a twenty-two-year-old Roman woman, Caterina Tezio, in an arranged marriage. She bore him eleven children including youngest son Domenico Bernini who became his first biographer.[12] In 1606, at the age of eight he accompanied his father to Rome, where Pietro was involved in several high profile projects.[13] There, as a boy, Gianlorenzo's skill was soon noticed by the painter Annibale Carracci and by Pope Paul V, and he soon gained the important patronage of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the papal nephew. His first works were inspired by antique classical sculpture.

Early Works for Cardinal Borghese

Under the patronage of the Cardinal Borghese, the young Bernini rapidly rose to prominence as a sculptor. Among the early works for the cardinal were decorative pieces for the garden of the Villa Borghese, such as The Goat Amalthea with the Infant Jupiter and a Faun, and several allegorical busts, including the Damned Soul and Blessed Soul. By the time he was 22, he was considered talented enough to have been given a commission for a papal portrait, the Bust of Pope Paul V.

Bernini's reputation was clearly established by four masterpieces, executed between 1619 and 1625, all now displayed in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. To the art historian Rudolf Wittkower these four works—Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius (1619), The Rape of Proserpina (1621–22), Apollo and Daphne (1622–25), and David (1623–24)—"inaugurated a new era in the history of European sculpture".[14] It is a view repeated by other scholars.[15] Adapting the classical grandeur of Renaissance sculpture and the dynamic energy of the Mannerist period, Bernini forged a new conception for religious and historical sculpture.

Unlike those done by his predecessors, these sculptures focused on specific points of narrative tension in the stories they are trying to tell—Aeneas and family fleeing Troy; the instant that Pluto grasps Persephone; the moment Apollo sees his beloved Daphne begin her transformation into a tree. They are transitory moments in each story. Bernini's David is the most obvious example of this. Unlike Michelangelo's David—and versions by other Renaissance artists—which shows the subject in his triumph after the battle with Goliath, Bernini illustrates David during his combat with the giant, as he twists his body to catapult towards Goliath. To emphasise these moments, and to ensure these specific moments were appreciated by the viewer, Bernini designed the sculptures with a specific viewpoint in mind. Their original placements within the Villa Borghese were against walls, so that the viewers' first view was the dramatic moment of the narrative.[16][17]

The result of such an approach is to invest the sculptures with greater psychological energy. The viewer finds it easier to gauge the state of mind of the characters and therefore understands the larger story at work—Daphne's wide open mouth in fear astonishement; David biting his lip in determined concentration, or Prosperina desperately struggling to free herself. As well as psychological realism, they show a greater concern for representing physical details. The tousled hair of Pluto, the pliant flesh of Prosperina, or the forest of leaves beginning to envelop Daphne all demonstrate Bernini's exactitude and delight for representing complex real world textures in marble form.[18][19]

Bernini in the age of Urban VIII

On the assumption of Maffeo Barberini to the role of Pope Urban VIII, and Bernini's subsequent patronage from the Barberini pope, the artist's horizons broadened. He was not just producing sculpture for private residences, but playing the most significant artistic (and engineering) role on the public city stage.[20] His appointments testify to this - "curator of the papal art collection, director of the papal foundry at Castel Sant'Angelo, commissioner of the fountains of Piazza Navona" [21] Such positions gave Bernini the opportunity to executive his skills throughout the city. Perhaps most significantly, he was appointed Chief Architect of St Peters, in 1629. From here on, Bernini's work and artistic vision would be placed at the symbolic heart of Rome.

The St Peter's Baldacchino was the most obvious example of this. Designed as a massive spiralling bronze canopy over the tomb of St Peter, Bernini's four-pillared creation reached nearly 30 metres from the ground and cost around 200,000 Roman scudi (about $8m in currency of early 21st-century). "Quite simply," writes one art historian, "nothing like has ever been seen before." [22] As well as the St Peter's Baldacchino, Bernini's rearrangement of the crossing of the basilica left space for massive statues, including the St Longinus executed by Bernini. Bernini also began work on the tomb for Urban VIII, a full 16 years before Urban's death.

Despite this engagement with public architecture , Bernini was still able to produce a number of artworks that showed the gradual refinement of his sculptural technique. This included a number of marble portraits, such as several busts of Urban VIII himself, the family bust of Francesco Barberini or most notably, the Two Busts of Scipione Borghese - the second had been rapidly created by Bernini once a flaw had been found in the marble of the first.[23]

One noted portrait is that of Costanza Bonarelli (executed around 1637), unusual in its more personal nature. Bernini had an affair with Costanza, who was the wife of one of Bernini's assistants. When Bernini suspected Costanza to be involved with his brother, he badly beat him and ordered a servant to slash her face with a razor. Pope Urban VIII intervened on his behalf and he was fined.[24]

Bernini also gained royal commissions from outside Italy, for subjects such as Cardinal Richelieu, Francesco I d'Este, Charles I of England and Henrietta Maria. The last two were produced in Italy from portraits made by Van Dyck (now in the royal collection), though Bernini preferred to produce portraits from life – the bust of Charles was lost in the Whitehall Palace fire of 1698 and that of Henrietta Maria was not undertaken due to the outbreak of the English Civil War.[25][26]

The Towers of St Peter's and Temporary Disgrace

Under Urban VIII, Bernini has been appointed chief architect for the basilica of St Peter's. Work by Bernini included the aforementioned Baldacchio and also sculptures such as St Longinus. In 1637, Bernini attempted to embellish the facade of the basilica, originally designed by Carlo Maderno earlier in the century. Bernini's plan was to add two massive bell towers on each flank of the facade, making use of the foundations Maderno had supplied. But the once first tower was erected in 1641, cracks began to appear in the facade. Work was immediately stopped and the towers were pulled down a few years later.[27] Although not necessarily Bernini's fault, his opponents within the Roman artistic world pinned the blame on Urban's artist.

Visit to France

At the end of April 1665, and still considered the most important artist in Rome, he travelled to Paris, where he remained until November; he met Paul Fréart de Chantelou who kept a Journal of Bernini's visit.[28] Bernini's international popularity was such that on his walks in Paris the streets were lined with admiring crowds. This trip, encouraged by Father Oliva, general of the Jesuits, was a response to the repeated requests for his works by King Louis XIV. Here Bernini presented some designs for the east front of the Louvre. which were ultimately rejected. He soon lost favor at the French court as he praised the art and architecture of Italy over that of France; he said that a painting by Guido Reni was worth more than all of Paris. The sole work remaining from his time in Paris is the Bust of Louis XIV, known as one of the grandest portraits busts of the baroque age.[29]


Bernini's architectural works include sacred and secular buildings and sometimes their urban settings and interiors.[30] He made adjustments to existing buildings and designed new constructions. Amongst his most well known works are the Piazza San Pietro (1656–67), the piazza and colonnades in front of St. Peter's Basilica and the interior decoration of the Basilica. Amongst his secular works are a number of Roman palaces: following the death of Carlo Maderno, he took over the supervision of the building works at the Palazzo Barberini from 1630 on which he worked with Borromini; the Palazzo Ludovisi (now Palazzo Montecitorio)(started 1650); and the Palazzo Chigi (now Palazzo Chigi-Odescalchi) (started 1664).

His first architectural projects were the façade and refurbishment of the church of Santa Bibiana (1624–26) and the St. Peter's baldachin (1624–33), the bronze columned canopy over the high altar of St. Peter's Basilica. In 1629, and before St. Peter's baldachin was complete, Urban VIII put him in charge of all the ongoing architectural works at St Peter's. However, due to political reasons and miscalculations in his design of the bell-towers for St. Peter's, of which only one was completed and then subsequently torn down, Bernini fell out of favor during the Pamphili papacy of Innocent X.[31] Never wholly without patronage, Bernini then regained a major role in the decoration of St. Peter's with the Pope Alexander VII Chigi, leading to his design of the piazza and colonnade in front of St. Peter's. Further significant works by Bernini at the Vatican include the Scala Regia, (1663–66) the monumental grand stairway entrance to the Vatican Palace and the Cathedra Petri, the Chair of Saint Peter, in the apse of St. Peter's.

Bernini did not build many churches from scratch, rather his efforts were concentrated on pre-existing structures, and in particular St. Peter's. He fulfilled three commissions for new churches; his stature allowed him the freedom to design the structure and decorate the interiors in a consistent manner. Best known is the small oval baroque church of Sant'Andrea al Quirinale, a work which Bernini's son, Domenico, reports his father was very pleased with.[32] Bernini also designed churches in Castelgandolfo (San Tommaso da Villanova, 1658–61) and Ariccia (Santa Maria Assunta, 1662–64).

When Bernini was invited to Paris in 1665 to prepare works for Louis XIV, he presented designs for the east facade of the Louvre Palace but his projects were ultimately turned down in favour of the more stern and classic proposals of the French doctor and amateur architect Claude Perrault,[33] signalling the waning influence of Italian artistic hegemony in France. Bernini's projects were essentially rooted in the Italian Baroque urbanist tradition of relating public buildings to their settings, often leading to innovative architectural expression in urban spaces like piazze or squares. However, by this time, the French absolutist monarchy now preferred the classicising monumental severity of Perrault's facade, no doubt with the added political bonus that it been designed by a Frenchman. The final version did, however, include Bernini's feature of a flat roof behind a Palladian balustrade.

In 1639, Bernini bought property on the corner of the via Mercede and the via del Collegio di Propaganda Fide in Rome. On this site he built himself a palace, the Palazzo Bernini, at what are now Nos 11 and 12 via della Mercede. He lived at No. 11 but this was extensively changed in the 19th century. It has been noted how very galling it must have been for Bernini to witness through the windows of his dwelling, the construction of the tower and dome of Sant'Andrea delle Fratte by his rival, Borromini, and also the demolition of the chapel that he, Bernini, had designed at the Collegio di Propaganda Fide to see it replaced by Borromini's chapel.[34]

Fountains in Rome

True to the decorative dynamism of Baroque, among Bernini's most gifted creations were his Roman fountains that were both public works and papal monuments. His fountains include the Fountain of the Triton or Fontana del Tritone and the Barberini Fountain of the Bees, the Fontana delle Api.[35] The Fountain of the Four Rivers or Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in the Piazza Navona is a masterpiece of spectacle and political allegory. An oft-repeated, but false, anecdote tells that one of the Bernini's river gods defers his gaze in disapproval of the facade of Sant'Agnese in Agone (designed by the talented, but less politically successful, rival Francesco Borromini). However, the fountain was built several years before the façade of the church was completed. Bernini was also the artist of the statue of the Moor in La Fontana del Moro in Piazza Navona (1653).

Other works

The Elephant and Obelisk is located in the Piazza della Minerva and in front of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Pope Alexander VII decided that he wanted an ancient Egyptian obelisk to be erected in the piazza and in 1665 he commissioned Bernini to create a sculpture to support the obelisk. The sculpture of an elephant bearing the obelisk on its back was created by one of Bernini's students, Ercole Ferrata and finished in 1667. An inscription on the base aligns the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Roman goddess Minerva with the Virgin Mary who the church is dedicated to.[36] A popular anecdote concerns the elephant's smile. To find out why it is smiling, the viewer must head around to the rear end of the animal and to see that its muscles are tensed and its tail is shifted to the left as if it were defecating. The animal's rear is pointed directly at the office of Father Giuseppe Paglia, a Dominican friar, who was one of the main antagonists of Bernini and his artist friends, as a final salute and last word.[37]

Bernini worked along with Ercole Ferrata to create a fountain for the Lisbon palace of the Portuguese nobleman, the Count of Ericeira. For the same patron he also created a series of paintings with the battles of Louis XIV as subject. These works were lost as the palace, its great library and the rich art collection of the Counts of Ericeira, were destroyed along with most of central Lisbon as a result of the great earthquake of 1755.

The death of his patron Urban VIII in 1644 and the election of the Pamphilj pope, Innocent X, initially marked a downturn in Bernini's career and released a series of opportunities for Bernini's rivals. However, within several years, Innocent reinstated him at St Peter's to work on the extended nave and commissioned the Four Rivers fountain in the Piazza Navona. At the time of Innocent's death in 1655, Bernini was the arbiter of public artistic taste in Rome. His artistic ascendency continued under Alexander VII.

He died in Rome in 1680, and was buried in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.

Among the many who worked under his supervision were Luigi Bernini, Stefano Speranza, Giuliano Finelli, Andrea Bolgi, Filippo Parodi, Giacomo Antonio Fancelli, Lazzaro Morelli, Francesco Baratta Nicodemus Tessin, and Francois Duquesnoy. Among his rivals in architecture were Francesco Borromini and Pietro da Cortona; in sculpture, Alessandro Algardi.

First biographies of Bernini

The most important primary source for the life of Bernini is the biography written by his youngest son, Domenico, entitled Vita del Cavalier Gio. Lorenzo Bernino, published in 1713, though first compiled in the last years of his father's life (c. 1675–80).[38] Filippo Baldinucci's Life of Bernini, was published in 1682 and a meticulous private journal, the Diary of the Cavaliere Bernini's Visit to France, was kept by the Frenchman Paul Fréart de Chantelou during the artist's four-month stay from June – October 1665 at the court of King Louis XIV. Also there is a short biographical narrative, The Vita Brevis of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, written by his eldest son, Monsignor Pietro Filippo Bernini, in the mid-1670s,[39]

Until the late 20th century, it was generally believed that two years after Bernini's death, Queen Christina of Sweden, then living in Rome, commissioned Filippo Baldinucci to write his biography which was published in Florence in 1682.[40] However, recent research has suggested that it was in fact Bernini's sons (and specifically the eldest son, Mons. Pietro Filippo) who commissioned the biography from Baldinucci sometime in the late 1670s, with the intent of publishing it while their father was still alive. This would imply that firstly, that the commission did not come from Queen Christina who would have merely lent her name as patron and secondly, that Baldinucci's narrative was largely derived from Domenico Bernini's biography of his father, evidenced by the large amount of text repeated verbatim.[41] In sum, Domenico's biography, though published later than Baldinucci's, represents the earlier and more important full-length biographical source of Bernini's life, even though it may idealize a number of facts.

Selected works

Main article: List of works by Gian Lorenzo Bernini


Architecture & Fountains


Bernini's activity as a painter was a sideline which he did mainly in his youth. Despite this his work reveals a sure and brilliant hand, free from any trace of pedantry. He studied in Rome under his father, Pietro, and soon proved a precocious infant prodigy. His work was immediately sought after by major collectors.




Further reading

  • Google Books.
  • Copy at Google Books.

External links

  • Checklist of Bernini's architecture and sculpture in Rome
  • Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the "A World History of Art"
  • Simon Schama's The Power of Art
  • Photographs of Bernini's Santa Maria Assunta
  • , Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome
  • Virtual tour of Rome visiting Bernini's key works
  • Constantly updated list and discussion of the most recent archival discoveries regarding Bernini's biography and works
  • Passion For Art (Bernini)

Template:Gian Lorenzo Bernini

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