Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Rome

King of the Baroque

Picture the scene.  The year is 1667.  Music is playing in the distant background.  Perhaps the evocative sweet strings of Vivaldi.  Perhaps the rousing chords of J S Bach. (Please do not let the fact that the former was only two years old and the latter was not yet born put us off.  Baroque music…. Let us conjure up the image.)

 A distinguished looking 71 year old man strolls, or maybe swaggers, into St Peter’s Square with a faint smile on his face, his cloak flowing in the breeze.  His curling locks and slim moustache now show a hint of grey, though his eyes are still as keen and bright as ever as he surveys the final monumental addition to the largest and most revered Catholic church in the world. 

This man may have acted as though he owned the place.  He didn’t of course!  It was owned by the Pope.  But he had created it.  He was Gian Lorenzo Bernini and he must have known that this architectural masterpiece, St Peter’s Square, would ensure his place in history.  He was genuinely the master of all he surveyed.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Rome 1
St Peters Square

The Prodigy

Wait a minute.  Let’s rewind.  What’s the story?  How did a child prodigy become so influential in Rome for around 50 years in the 1600s?  What was so different about his style that it would change the course of art history?  The story of the rise of Bernini is inextricably linked to the lives of his patrons – the Popes.

In 1605 Pope Paul V Borghese was elected and made it his mission to transform Rome.  For this he needed a huge workforce of artists, sculptors and engineers. In 1606 the Pope summoned one Pietro Bernini to the papal court.  A mannerist sculptor of some renown, Pietro had moved from Florence to Naples and produced 13 children!  The entire family arrived in Rome and Pietro took part in the construction and decoration of the Paolina chapel in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

Gian Lorenzo was the sixth child but showed such promise that his father encouraged him in all aspects of the work.  He was immersed in the life of the bustling workshops of the papal court.  Learning the tools of the trade – the hammer and chisel, the file and the rasp.  And the tricks of the trade!  That’s your education, scraps of navigation around the tools and teachers, the materials and the subject matter.  The lives of the saints and classical mythology were the preferred subjects for decorative art – a nod to the glorious past of ancient Rome and the confirmation of Christianity’s conquest over paganism.  These lessons would serve Gian Lorenzo well, but he had a different vision.   

Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Bernini Self Portrait 1623

Iconic works

A vision of a whole new style of art.  The baroque. I will take these stories and put them in your face!  You will be caught in the moment! I don’t only want artistic admiration, I want emotion!  I want theatre!  I want drama!  I want you to feel viscerally what I create for you! 

From 1618, when only 20 years old, Bernini created perhaps the 4 most iconic sculptures of his long career.  One of his most loyal patrons was Cardinal Scipione, the nephew of Pope Paul V.  Immensely wealthy and extravagantly flamboyant, Scipione took pleasure in encouraging great talent, not only Bernini but also Caravaggio.  A discerning collector, he built the Galleria Borghese to be the ‘delight of Rome’ and filled it with the best works from both the ancient world and his newly commissioned works.

Today you can still see the four masterpieces in Galleria Borghese…their home.

 Aeneas, Anchise and Julio Ascanio

The representation of the escape from the siege of Troy, the perfect triad of the three ages of man.

Aeneas Anchise and Julio Ascanio

The Rape of Proserpina

The mythological story of Pluto, the God of the underworld carrying off the daughter of Ceres. 

rape of proserpina

Apollo and Daphne

The mighty God lusting after a chaste nymph who begs her father for help in the chase, metamorphising into a laurel tree. 

Apollo and Daphne
Apollo and Daphne in the Borghese Gallery


the only biblical story, poised in the exact moment before he hurls the stone at Goliath.


Each one graphically presents a story.  Somehow the solid marble becomes flesh.  Somehow the open mouth of Daphne is pleading and we can almost hear the prayer. Somehow Pluto’s hand is pressing into the living flesh of Proserpina. And we believe it.  At the very moment of its telling.  We are drawn in and understand the story better because of the emotions evoked. This is just one part of Bernini’s genius, how he made us look at art differently and feel it differently.

The Knight

At the age of 22, Bernini was awarded a papal knighthood by Pope Gregory XV.  This was a well deserved reward for his contribution to art, perhaps, particularly for his bust of the Pope himself.   Importantly, this knighthood provided a lifetime salary. 

However, Pope Urban VIII Barberini, Gregory’s successor, would become an even more crucial patron and staunch ally.  This relationship would result in palaces, fountains and the largest bronze monument in the world.

In 1623, Bernini began work on the baldacchino, the immense altar canopy towering above the papal altar. This would become the dominating focal point for the interior of St Peter’s Basilica. 

Baldacchino in St Peter’s Basilica

Was all the bronze recycled from the bronze of the Pantheon? Stripping the ancient decoration that had remained in place for more than 1400 years?  Perhaps.  Or maybe that had been used to make cannons?  Wherever the bronze came from, Bernini constructed this giant canopy right under MichelAngelo’s dome.  It had to be this large, anything smaller would have been dwarfed under the vast space.

Again, the genius of Bernini was to not just make a canopy, but to make a story.  Make it relevant!  The four columns are twisted spirals, harking back to the twisted columns of the temple of Jerusalem that the Romans had destroyed in 70AD.  The family symbol of the Barberini family was the Bee.  Bumble bee.  Busy bee.  What do you think we see all over the Baldacchino?  Yes – bees of course.  This was Papal advertising.  This was me.  I did this. 

Bernini is still only 36 years old.  He is the chosen sculptor of the Pope and the darling of the people.  Any sculptor of note wants to join his workshop.  However, not everything would run smoothly for the golden boy.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Rome 2
Barberini Coat of Arms

The Bad Patch

On a personal note, Bernini’s love life was not going well.  Around 1635 he was carrying on an affair with the wife of one of his assistants.  Her name was Constanza and she was beautiful.  How do I know?  Bernini sculpted a portrait bust of Constanza and this was exceptional enough in itself.  Sculptors just do not make portrait busts of ordinary women.  Saints?  Yes.  Queens?  Yes.  Your mistress?  Really no! 

Today this bust is in Florence – take a look.  Seductive and provocative with her top button undone.  Bernini was nothing if not daring and emotional. 

The affair did not end well.  Gian Lorenzo’s brother Luigi also commenced an affair with the aforementioned Constanza.  Is anyone else thinking Love Island?  When Bernini found out, he flew into a rage and tracked his brother down.  He also sent a servant to savagely slash Constanza’s face with a razor.  A cruel and brutal act from the famous lover of beauty. 

Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Rome 3

A great scandal of the time, Constanza was imprisoned for adultery, Luigi was banished from Rome.  Gian Lorenzo – well – being the favourite of the Pope had its advantages.  He was merely given a fine and encouraged (read ordered!) by the Pope to marry.  He married Caterina and they would go on to have 11 children.

Pope Urban had faith in Bernini, not only as a sculptor, but also an architect.  He commissioned the immensely prestigious task of adding two great campanili, bell towers, to the recently completed facade of St Peter’s Basilica.  Bernini undertook the task with his usual enthusiasm, vision and ambition.  Perhaps too much ambition.  As the first bell tower grew higher and higher, cracks began to appear on the facade of the church.  Alarm increased as building continued ever upwards and the cracks started to spread. 

Bernini blamed the existing foundations for the fractures, but this project was doomed to failure.  In 1644 Pope Urban VIII died.  Gone was Bernini’s ever supportive patron and the newly elected Pope Innocent X immediately ordered the tower to be demolished.  He made it plain that Bernini would no longer be the papal favourite.  Worse, the new Pope favoured the arch rival Borromini and he would now receive the plum jobs.   

Bernini’s reputation was in tatters and he needed to look outside the papal court for new commissions.

The Comeback Kid

The church of St Maria della Vittoria nestles on a corner not so far from todays Termini train station.  In 1647 the wealthy Cornaro family decided to commission Bernini for the decoration of their private chapel.  A new chance to prove himself.  Did he play safe?  Quite the opposite.  The Ecstasy of St Theresa in the Cornaro chapel has been the subject of admiration, condemnation and endless debate by art historians, critics and students for almost 400 years.

It was a novel topic.  Not just another ‘Madonna and child’ or another ‘John the Baptist’.  St Teresa of Avila had only recently been sanctified.  Her account recalls how she was pierced by the golden spear of an angel which caused such exquisite pain that she experienced a spiritual ecstasy revealing the love of God.

Bernini takes this account and produces pure theatre.  The centrepiece of St Teresa and the angel he carved from pure white marble.  His characteristic ability to transform solid stone to flowing fabric was in full force.  However, it was the treatment of St Teresa herself that was so innovative. 

Ecstasy of St Therea
Ecstasy of St. Theresa

Reclining on a cloud, almost levitating, her head is thrown back, her eyelids are half closed and her lips parted at the very moment of the ecstasy.  Is this spiritual ecstasy?  Or, as many have suggested, a representation of a much more physical experience?

The scene is illuminated by light from a concealed window in the dome of the chapel, amplified by gilded stucco rays pouring forth.

Maybe the most unusual touch here was Bernini’s addition of two loggias, literally theatre boxes.   Lifesize members of the Cornaro family are portrayed observing the drama being played out below them.  This really is Bernini playing to the gallery.  Another triumph, if controversial.  The boy was back!

Death as Art

1655 would bring the election of a new Pope and the return of Bernini’s privileged position in the papal court.  Pope Alexander VII Chigi welcomed Bernini back with open arms and commissioned several works to adorn St Peter’s Basilica, St Peter’s Square, the great Cathedral dominating the west wall and his own funerary monument.

This is an astonishing monument.  Situated towards the end of the left aisle, this was always going to be a challenging project.  The setting is an alcove above a working door.  How to work around that problem?  Beneath the benign figure of the Pope, Bernini decided to sculpt one solid piece of purple jasper to create an elaborate curtain being raised to reveal the door, an allegory to the portal to the afterlife.  What is raising the curtain?  A skeleton, holding aloft an hourglass.  The message is clear.  Time is running out and death is coming for all of us.  Bernini was 73 years old.

The masterstroke of this composition, for me, is the statue representing Truth that flanks the curtain.  Many papal funeral monuments are surrounded by female statues – the personifications of virtue.  Charity, Justice, Prudence and Truth.  Bernini’s statue of Truth is seen resting her foot on a globe.  There is a spike through her foot.  Which country is she standing on?  Guess.  Yes, England!  England had rejected Catholicism in favour of Protestantism.  England – you are a thorn in the foot of truth and a thorn in the side of the Pope.

This funerary monument combines skill, ingenuity and social comment thrown in for good measure.  Completed in 1678, this is often considered to be Bernini’s last great work, just two years before his death.

Tomb of alexander vii
Tomb of Pope Alexander VII

The End

In 1680, just shy of his 82nd birthday, Bernini died of a stroke.  He had been the virtual artistic director of the 1600s in Rome.  He left an indelible footprint on the city of Rome.  From churches to museums, from piazzas to bridges, Bernini enriched this city with a style and energy rarely seen. I, for one, will be forever in his debt.  Come on, take a tour!

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