The Power of Art: Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Continuing my quest to learn more about Art, I present to you Gian Lorenzo Bernini — the Pope’s architect, the supreme sculptor of Rome, a man who practiced Jesuitical discipline every day.

Where should we start? Can you look at this picture with an innocent eye?

Bernini: Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

I thought not. A french aristocratic connoisseur passing through Rome on the Grand Tour, the Chevalier de Brosses, took on look at the sculpture and remarked: “Well, if that’s divine love, I know all about it.”

“Gianlorenzo Bernini,” Simon Schama writes in The Power of Art, “cared a great deal about likeness, to the point where he redefined it as more than appearance. True likeness — the kind he wanted to capture in his sculptures — was the animation of character, expressed in the movements of bodies and faces.” At the time it was thought that only pictures could generate “the sense of being in a warm-blooded, living presence.” Bernini proved that sculpture could as well. “Stone could be made to pulse with natural action. Out of the smooth, chill marble would spring human action.”

Bernini wasn’t a fan of straight standing people in status. “His figures break free from the gravity pull of the pedestal to run, twist, whirl, pant, scream, bark or arch themselves in spasms of intense sensation.” By taking chances with risky drilling, Bernini would make marble do things it had never done before. “He,” writes Schama, “made it fly and flutter, stream and quiver.”

Modesty was not one of Bernini’s failings. But then again, there was, according to Schama, never a time when he had not been hailed as a marvel. If anything, it’s surprising he didn’t have a bigger head. His father, a sculptor, paraded and promoted him as extraordinary. At the age of 8, a sketch of Saint Paul ‘with free bold strokes’ astonished Pope Paul V to the point where he thought he was looking at the next coming of Michelangelo. “To nurture his talent, Paul V appointed Cardinal Maffeo Barberini to watch over the young Bernini and to shape his education. The Cardinal was so smitten that he remarked to (the boy’s father), ‘Watch out, Signor Bernini, the pupil will surpass his master,’ to which the proud father replied, without any apparent testiness, ‘In that case, Your Excellency, why should I care, for the loser then also wins!'”

Years of what all sculptors had to do — study and draw from classical models — followed. Even boy wonders had to learn the rules.

Bernini would later say “Those who never dare break the rules never surpass them.”

Bernini was only 15 when he made The Martyrdom of San Lorenzo in 1613.

Bernini: The Martyrdom of San Lorenzo

How could the Cardinals not compete for the services of the young prodigy? Bernini would repay this confidence with a procession of masterpieces:

Bernini: The Rape of Proserpina
The Rape of Proserpine


Bernini: Apollo and Daphne
Apollo and Daphne


Bernini: David

But his big break was just around the corner.

When, in 1623, Maffeo Barberini become Pope Urban VIII he pounced and, unlike Apollo, got his way. Bernini was called into the papal apartments and given a famous acclamation: ‘It is your great good luck, Cavaliere [for Bernini had been knighted in the Order of Christ by Urban’s predecessor, Gregory XV], to see Maffeo Barberini Pople, but we are even more fortunate in that the Cavaliere Bernini lives in the time of our pontificate.’ It was now no longer just a matter of making sculpture for a private patron, even one as grand as Scipione Borghese. What Urban VIII had in mind for Bernini was nothing less than the remaking of Rome — its secular buildings, churches and fountains – always with the busy-bee emblem of the Barberini on it. Even for the officially acknowledged prodigy, brimful of self-confidence, this must have been a giddy prospect.

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To learn more about Bernini, watch Schama’s introduction to Bernini.

Still curious? Pick up a copy of Simon Schama’s, The Power of Art, or watch the excellent BBC series. While you’re at it, check out E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art.