Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was the favorite sculptor and town planner to three successive popes. His buildings, facades, fountains and other sculptures have left a strong personal mark on the appearance of Rome equaled by no other artist.
My introduction to Bernini came in July when a PBS art series, Schamaís Art, spent an hour describing his life and works. What I saw intrigued me so when we arrived in Rome early in September, I was on the lookout for works of Bernini.
Porto del Popolo    The first Bernini work we saw was the inside face of the Porta del Popolo on the Piazza del Popolo. The Porta is on the site of a gateway in the third century Aurelian wall. The exterior face of the Porta was built in the 1560ís by Pope Pius IV who wanted to impress visitors from the north. In 1655 the inner façade was decorated by Bernini with two scrolls supporting a garland beneath a star which was part of the coat of arms of the then Pope, Alexander VII. I think the scrolls are very nice and the garland is a fine garland but I was looking for something more from Bernini.
Ponte Santí Angelo Angels    On the Ponte Santí Angelo near the Castel Santí Angelo on the Tiber Bernini created ten baroque angels for Pope Clement IX. These angels are truly lovely but to my untrained eye they did not put Bernini in a class by himself as compared to artists of many baroque statues that I had already seen around Rome.
Chick of Minerva    I was more gratified by our next encounter with Berniniís art. In the Piazza Minerva near the Pantheon we came upon a bizarre statue of an elephant carrying an obelisk. Bernini had the idea of decorating the piazza in front of the Santa Maria sopra Minerva church with this piece. The obelisk is 6C B.C. Egyptian and was once part of the Temple of Isis. The strange elephant, called the "chick of Minerva" was sculpted by one of Berniniís students in 1667. His head is canted to the side and down a bit but his eyes look sadly toward the heavens. Perhaps he is asking his maker to release him from the obelisk.
Ecstasy of Santa Theresa    But where is the treasure of Berniniís own hand? In the church of Santa Maria della Victoria in the Cornaro Chapel we came upon the very moving work, Ecstasy of Santa Theresa of Avila. In this amazing piece, St. Theresa lies on a cloud with her mouth open and her eyes closed in what one of our tour books suggests may be a bit too much ecstasy. However, because of the lighting and the fact that St. Theresaís head is higher than that of the viewer, it is a difficult to completely appreciate this from the available viewpoint. The marble that Bernini worked to represent the texture of the cloth of St. Theresaís Carmelite habit looks as soft and supple as cloth itself. You have the feeling that if you were to poke the cloth habit, your finger would push the cloth aside. Incredible! The sight of this garment was the beginning of my real appreciation of Berniniís work and what set it apart from the work of others. But Bernini did not stop there. In a true stroke of genius, he designed and placed above and to the right of St. Theresa a marble theater box with several marble figures resembling members of the Cornaro family. It looks as if the family is watching and discussing the St. Theresa Ďs ecstasy. Talk about "over the top".
Ecstasy of Beata Ludovica    Recently Sueann and I crossed the Tiber and wandered the back streets of Travestere specifically to find San Francesco a Ripa, a small rather plain church. In the fourth chapel in the left hand aisle is one of Berniniís later works (1674), Ecstasy of Beata Ludovica. In this work one clearly sees the ecstasy of the subject. You not only see the ecstasy (or is it agony), you feel it. Notice the angels observing Beata Ludovica's ecstasy. Perhaps Bernini felt that a good ecstasy was too much to go unobserved.
Fontana del Tritone    We have often passed though the Piazza Barberini. In the center of this circular piazza is Berniniís fountain, the Fontana del Tritone. The fountain shows four surreal dolphins sitting on their heads and twisting their tails together to support a large scallop shell on which Triton, the muscular king of the sea kneels and blows a stream of water into the air though a large conch shell. Donít you love Berniniís imagination? If you look closely at the photo you will be able to make out the Barberini bees on the coat of arms nestled between the dolphinsí tails. Pope Urban VIII who commissioned the fountain in 1642 was a Barberini. The Triton has been blowing water skyward for more than 350 years.
The Galerie Bourghese    The Bernini works discussed so far were an introduction for us to this great artist. At the Galerie Bourghese, we saw and were able to closely examine three amazing Bernini sculptures. These pieces were sculpted from pure white marble and are in perfect condition. Very unfortunately no photographs may be taken in the Museum. Iíll just briefly tell you about the works. Perhaps you will find a book on Bernini which is sure to include images of these masterpieces.
"David" shows Goliathís challenger wound up, body twisted, a slight frown on the face and lips poised in concentration. He is portrayed at the ultimate moment of intense effort. You look at this work and you can feel what it must be like to prepare for a very important moment whose outcome depends upon your physical performance.
In "Apollo and Daphne" Bernini shows the nymph Daphne fleeing from the sun god Apollo by metamorphosis from nymph to laurel bush. The sculpted transitions of Daphneís fingers, toes and hair into laurel are incredible.
"The Rape of Proserpina" was an early commission of Bernini which was given as a gift to Cardinal Ludovisi. In this work Proserpina is being attacked by Pluto (Hades). Pluto has a slight smirk on his face and Prosepinaís face with tears on her cheek deftly portrays her intense fear. Even Prosperpinaís toes show her fear as they are rigidly stretched downward. The indentation in Proserpino's thigh where Pluto's fingers hold her looks more like real flesh than marble.
These three pieces at the Galerie Bourghese are wonderful to experience. They gave me a feeling of great joy which I suppose is one of the reasons for art. Darius is coming to Rome next week and we will have a chance to return to the Galerie with him.
I hope this naive treatise on Berniniís works has interested you. It barely scratches the surface of Berniniís works in this great city. Youíll just have to come here and see for yourself.
This is the last entry to my Rome blog. We will be home soon and look forward to seeing you.
Have a great Thanksgiving,
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