Sunday, March 11, 2012

On Bernini: His Life and His Rome

Bernini: His Life and His Rome
Franco Mormando
University of Chicago, 2011
I’ve recently finished a fascinating account by Boston College professor Franco Mormando of the life of the leading Baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini and the Rome in which he lived and worked.  The city in the 17th century was a highly political environment for an artist like Bernini, who maneuvered continually to secure and maintain the patronage of the very worldly Popes and their very rich, often feuding families. In Bernini’s time, Popes funneled much of what wealth they could acquire into public art to impress all with the majesty of the Church in Counter-Reformation Rome.  Rich and noble families such as the Borghese and the Barberini figure large in the story, as do sordid details of the intrigue, corruption, and scandals of Baroque Rome.

Bernini was born in Naples of a Tuscan father, a sculptor himself, and a Neapolitan mother, and is said to have gotten his artistry from the former and his temperament from the latter.  Before long his remarkable talent was discovered in Rome.  He perhaps best defines the Baroque emphasis on natural realism filled with the two elements that most come to my mind when looking at a Bernini sculpture -- emotion and movement.  Although he was primarily a sculptor and architect, he sometimes designed entire artistic presentations, perhaps best illustrated by The Ecstasy of St. Theresa, that combined sculpture, painting, architecture, and decoration into a beautiful whole called “bel composto.”

The backgrounds on his greatest works are well covered:  Apollo and Daphne (which, according to D’Epiro and Pinkowish in Sprezzatura, Bernini considered his “most virtuosic sculpture”), The Rape of Proserpina (Pluto and Persephone), David, The Ecstasy of St. Theresa, the Fountain of the Four Rivers, the Roman Jesuit church Saint’ Andrea al Quirinale (said to be his most self-satisfying composition, and what Mormando calls "the jewel of his architectural crown"), and of course his work at St Peter’s Basilica. 

Bernini became a wealthy man but by late in life he was somewhat reviled in Rome by the commoners as a living symbol of Papal extravagance amidst widespread poverty.  After his death, the Baroque style fell quickly from tastes in favor of the neoclassical, and Bernini’s status seems only to have revived in recent generations.  To me, his work is more appealing than some of the cold and stiff works of Renaissance and neo-classical artists. 

Completing the book over a period of a few weeks, and reading other books and materials concurrently as I typically do, I needed to resort to keeping notes on index cards to keep track of the Popes and other characters as well as Bernini’s major works in each phase of his life.  A detailed time line of events, a glossary of major characters, and a few maps would have helped immensely.  I also would have liked more detail about Bernini’s daily life and his family, with occasional “day in the life” portraits.  Nevertheless, Mormando’s story is engaging, informative, and well-referenced, and attractively bound in a rich cloth cover by the University of Chicago Press.

There is, surprisingly, no public memorial to Bernini in Rome, whose cityscape owes so much to the man’s influence.  Mormando closes by imagining an indignant retort by Bernini’s son and biographer Domenico:  “ ‘You seek a mere marble tomb?  A single, puny plaque?  A lone portrait to contain the memory of so colossal a genius?’  Instead, grandly sweeping his arm across the magnificent panorama of the city of Rome, he invites us with haughty but justifiable pride: ‘If you seek his monument, just look around you!’ ”

R. Balsamo

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