Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini) (December 7, 1598 – November 28, 1680), who worked chiefly in Rome, was the pre-eminent baroque artist. Eminent as a sculptor and architect, he was also a painter, draftsman, designer of stage sets, fireworks displays, and funeral trappings.

Bernini was born in Naples by a Florentine family and accompanied his father Pietro Bernini, a well known Mannerist sculptor himself, to Rome. His first works were inspired by Hellenistic sculpture that had been brought to Rome in imperial times. Among these early works are "The Goat Amalthea Nursing the Infant Zeus and a Young Satyr" (redated 1609, Galleria Borghese, Rome) and several allegorical busts such as the "Damned Soul" and "Blessed Soul" (ca 1619, Palazzo di Spagna, Rome). In the 1620s he came to maturity with the bust of Pope Paul V (1620), the "Abduction of Proserpina" (1621-1622, Galleria Borghese, Rome), the "David" (1623 - 24, illustration below left), and "Apollo and Daphne" (1624-25).

His first architectural project was the magnificent bronze baldachin (1624 - 1633), the canopy over the high altar of St. Peter's Basilica [1], and the façade for the church of Santa Bibiana (1624-1626), Rome. In 1629, before the Baldacchino was complete, Urban VIII put him in charge of all the ongoing architectural works at St Peter's. He was given the commission for the Basilica's tombs of Pope Urban VIII (1628-1647 [2] and, years later, Pope Alexander VII Chigi 1671-1678 [3]. The Chair of Saint Peter (Cathedra Petri) 1657-1666), in the apse of St. Peter's [4], is one of his masterpieces.

"David" for Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1623-24), (Galleria Borghese, Rome)Among his other best-known sculptures: the "Ecstasy of St Theresa" (1645-1652, in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome), and the earlier commissions of "Apollo and Daphne", and the "David" at the Borghese Gallery.

Bernini depicts David (illustration, left) in motion, in contrast to the famous statue of David by Michelangelo in which the character is preparing for action. The twisted torso and furrowed brow of Bernini's "David" is symptomatic of the baroque's interest in dynamic movement over High Renaissance stasis. Michelangelo expresses David's whole heroic nature; Bernini captures the heroic moment. The white marble sculpture, which brought Bernini his first fame, was commissioned from the twenty-five year old Bernini by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, his great patron.

"Ecstasy of St Theresa," Cornaro ChapelBernini's architecture is as famous as his sculpture: Besides his most famous work, the piazza and colonnades of St Peter's he planned several famous palaces: Palazzo Barberini (from 1630); Palazzo Ludovisi (now Palazzo Montecitorio, 1650); and Palazzo Chigi (1664), all in Rome. In 1665, at the height of his fame and powers, he made a voyage to Paris to present Louis XIV with (rejected) designs for the east front of the Louvre; it was executed in more classicising taste by Claude Perrault.

And he designed some famous churches, though the facade of St Peter's is not his (see Carlo Maderno). One of the small baroque churches in Rome presents an ensemble of Bernini's work: Bernini was responsible not only for the architecture of Sant'Andrea al Quirinale, but also the enormous statue of St. Andrew the Apostle over the high altar. In papal villages near Rome, Bernini designed churches for Castel Gandolfo and in Ariccia.

The first of Bernini's fountains was the Fountain of the Triton (1640). His most famous fountain, the spectacular Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) (1648-1651) [5] in the Piazza Navona, Rome, is also a source of anecdotes about his rivalry with Francesco Borromini (whose Sant'Agnese in Agony church faces the fountain): one of the Bernini's river gods, it was said, cowers in terror at the unsteady-looking facade of Sant'Agnese.

Also to remember: portrait busts of Cardinal Scipione Borghese [6] (1632, Galleria Borghese) and Louis XIV (1665, Palace of Versailles).

Bernini designed the baldacchino or canopy over the altar of the basilica.Another one of Bernini's famous sculptures is known affectionately as Bernini's Elephant. It is located in the Piazza della Minerva, right in front of the church, St. Mary over Minerva. Pope Alexander VII decided that he wanted an ancient Egyptian obelisk to be erected in the piazza and commissioned Bernini to create a sculpture to support the obelisk. The sculpture was finally carried out in 1667 by one of Bernini's students. One of the most interesting features of this elephant is its smile. To find out why it is smiling, one must head around to the rear end of the animal and one notices that its muscles are tensed and its tail is shifted to the left. Bernini sculpted the animal as if it were in the middle of defecating. The animal's rear is pointed directly at the office of Father Domenico Paglia, a Dominican friar, who was one of the main antagonists of Bernini and his artisan friends, as a final salute and last word.

Bernini in 1665, painted by BaciccioThe death of his constant patron Urban VIII in 1644 released a horde of Bernini's rivals and marked a change in his career, but Innocent X set him back to work on the extended nave of St Peter's and commissioned the Four Rivers fountain in Piazza Navona. At the time of Innocent's death Bernini was the aribiter of public taste in Rome. He died in Rome in 1680.

Two years after his death, Queen Christina of Sweden, then living in Rome, commisioned Filippo Baldinucci to write his biography, (translated in 1996 as "the life of Bernini" a work which is still well worth reading.

Bernini's works are featured in Dan Brown's novel Angels and Demons as markers and Altars of Science.