Gian Lorenzo Bernini


Giovan Lorenzo Bernini (Naples, December 7, 1598 – Rome, November 28, 1680) was an Italian sculptor, urban planner, architect, painter, stage designer and playwright.

A multifaceted and multifaceted artist, Bernini is considered the greatest protagonist of Baroque figurative culture. His work was a resounding success and dominated the European scene for more than a century after his death; similarly, Bernini”s influence on his contemporaries and posterity was enormous.


Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born in Naples on December 7, 1598, the first male child of Pietro Bernini, a late Mannerist Tuscan sculptor born in Sesto Fiorentino, and the Neapolitan Angelica Galante. The young Gian Lorenzo spent the very first years of his boyhood in Naples, where his father Pietro had moved at the invitation of the viceroy to work at the Carthusian monastery of San Martino; Bernini was introduced to the world of sculpture precisely in the Neapolitan city, accompanying his father Pietro to the building site and watching him fascinated as he tried his hand at marble.

In 1606 Pietro Bernini moved with his large family to Rome, where Pope Paul V had called him.

Bernini”s training took place, in the Roman artistic sphere, under the guidance of his father Pietro, who was able to enhance his son”s precocious talent by teaching him the first rudiments of sculpture. In those years Pietro Bernini was completely absorbed in the building site of the Pauline Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore, commissioned by Pope Paul V to house there his own funeral monument and that of his predecessor Clement VIII; here a conspicuous body of painters, sculptors and decorators was active, skillfully coordinated by the architect Flaminio Ponzio. Ponzio”s shrewd direction offered the young Gian Lorenzo concrete insights into the organization of a collective building site and the importance of efficient teamwork, to be understood as a unified project where architecture, painting and sculpture could be fused, and not as the sum of individual autonomous interventions: in the future Bernini would direct numerous building sites, and this intuition would be a winning one.

In the meantime Gian Lorenzo, at first a simple disciple of his father Pietro, became an active collaborator of his; father and son worked together in the Priapus and Flora at the Villa Borghese (where Gian Lorenzo made the fruit baskets, with a clear focus on the naturalist Caravaggio model), in the decoration of the Barberini Chapel in Sant”Andrea della Valle, and in the Faun Joking with Two Cupids, where the legacy of antiquity is revisited by the two in a modern key. On the other hand, the first essays of his activity as a sculptor are to be placed between 1614 and 1619, when in complete autonomy Gian Lorenzo made the St. Lawrence on the Gridiron (c. 1614) and the St. Sebastian (1617), where a full adherence to classical motifs and an overbearing distancing from the late Mannerist taste proper to his father Pietro can be felt.

The association with Scipione Borghese

Through his father, who well publicized his son, Gian Lorenzo came into contact with his first patron, Florentine Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who first commissioned him to do some work on one of Michelangelo Buonarroti”s unfinished Pietàs and then to make four putti for the family chapel in Sant”Andrea della Valle.

The quality of his works attracted the attentions of another cardinal, Scipione Caffarelli-Borghese, who in 1618 decided to bet on Bernini-at the time just 20 years old-by entrusting him with the execution of a small bust depicting his uncle Paul V. Ignited by the young sculptor”s genius, Scipione became an enthusiastic patron, commissioning him to create works that kept him busy from 1618 to 1625. During this five-year period, in fact, Bernini gave proof of the expertise he had achieved in sculpture by firing the group depicting Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius fleeing from Troy (these sculptures all went to adorn Scipione Borghese”s luxurious villa outside Porta Pinciana, “an object of awe as a wonder of the world.” Meanwhile, Bernini”s fame was becoming more and more established:

In addition to large-scale sculpture, Bernini in the 1920s also achieved remarkable results in the production of “head and bust portraits.” In this genre, Bernini produced extraordinarily vivid portraits, with the expressions of the faces, the dynamic gestures of the bodies, and the dramatic poses restoring to the work its own psychological individuality, in stark antithesis to the severe and compassionate busts circulating at the time: “to make a white marble take on the likeness of a person, let it be color, spirit, and life,” he would later say thirty years later.

Other achievements from this period were the mattress he sculpted for the Sleeping Hermaphrodite (1620), the restoration of the mute parts of the Fauno Barberini, and some work on the lower section of the Ares Ludovisi.

The enlightened patronage of Urban VIII

Equally important for Bernini”s artistic achievement was the ascension to the papal throne of his very first patron, Maffeo Barberini, in 1623 having become pope under the name Urban VIII, who immediately summoned the artist to the Vatican and addressed him thus, “It is great good fortune yours, O Cavaliere, to see Cardinal Maffeo Barberini as pope; but much greater is ours, that Cavalier Bernino lives in our pontificate.” Bernini enjoyed the pontiff”s familiarity not only because of his Tuscan roots, his father being a native of Sesto (Urban VIII, in fact, preferred Florentines, so that Gian Lorenzo even went so far as to sign himself as “ Gio. Lorenzo Bernini Napoletano or Fiorentino as he likes”), but above all because of his distinct artistic qualities, which enabled him to begin a long period of artistic hegemony over Rome, both in the capacity of performer and entrepreneur.

As a result of his association with Urban VIII, official recognition multiplied for Bernini: on August 24, 1623, he was given the positions of commissioner and auditor of the ducts of the fountains in Piazza Navona, on October 1 he was granted the direction of the Castel Sant”Angelo Foundry, and on October 7 he was appointed superintendent of the Acqua Felice bottini. When his father Pietro died in August 1629, Bernini, while losing an important figurehead, inherited his position as architect of the Acqua Vergine. For this reason, he participated in the construction of various fountains in Rome, to the point of proclaiming himself a “friend of the waters. “Among Bernini”s various fountains are the Triton (1642-43) and the Bees (1644), while his designs for the Trevi fountain were never executed.

Urban VIII recognized in Bernini the ideal artist to carry out his urban planning and architectural projects and to give form and expression to the Church”s desire to represent itself as a triumphant force, through spectacular works with a marked communicative, persuasive and celebratory character. Imitating the Renaissance popes, with Bernini Urban VIII aspired to deliver to history a new Michelangelo: indeed, it was since the time of Pope Julius II that the Roman art world had not witnessed such great and enlightened patronage. We report below the testimony of Filippo Baldinucci:

Bernini universal man

For this reason, Urban VIII also commissioned his protégé to do works of architecture and painting, as well as sculpture. In fact, the first commission he received from the new pope was architectural in nature and was related to the reconstruction of the church of Santa Bibiana, on the occasion of the discovery of the saint”s relics; Bernini also sculpted her statue on the altar, while the pictorial decoration of the interior was entrusted to Pietro da Cortona. On February 5, 1629, however, Bernini took over as director of works at St. Peter”s in the Vatican, succeeding Carlo Maderno (who had died six days earlier) in the prestigious and coveted position. St. Peter”s Basilica was the scene of grandiose Bernini interventions: the tomb of Urban VIII, the statue of St. Longinus, the monumental St. Peter”s canopy, wall hangings, furnishings, and much more.

The baldachin, on which the artist had been working since 1624, is specifically a bronze structure placed to protect and indicate the tomb of St. Peter, the first pontiff of the Catholic Church; the structure, developed on four twisted columns along which racemes and naturalistic motifs unfold, ends with four volutes supported by angels curving on dolphin backs and culminates with the globe and cross. Despite the fact that it is essentially a Bernini invention, the architect-assistant Francesco Borromini also participated in the creation of the canopy, who devised the dolphin-backed volutes placed on the crowning of the airy ciborium; Bernini would later have an extremely contentious relationship with Borromini, which changed into an open hostility that blossomed into legend. In addition to sculpture and architecture, where he achieved his greatest and most lasting results, Bernini in these years also devoted himself to painting, producing a number of portraits, self-portraits and two saints, and to the creation of scenographic installations for special occasions (catafalque for Carlo Barberini, 1630); his achievements in playwriting, an activity that will be discussed in the section § Bernini playwright, are also notable.

Urban VIII”s patronage was very possessive. On behalf of the Barberini family, in fact, Bernini executed a great many works: think of the busts of Antonio and Camilla Barbadori, the pope”s parents, his uncle Monsignor Francesco, his great-uncle Antonio and his nephew Francesco, but also of the construction of the Barberini palace and the execution of the Triton and the Bees fountains, which also respond to precise needs of dynastic exaltation. Works unrelated to Barberini”s glorification, however, were decidedly meager: if the execution of the busts of Charles I of England and Cardinal Richelieu was authorized only for reasons of political expediency, a papal interdict prohibited Bernini from completing the bust of Thomas Baker, and similar reasons prevented the completion of the original version of the bust of Giordano Orsini. The only work of a private nature that escaped papal censure was the bust portraying Costanza Bonarelli, Bernini”s secret lover: for more on the tumultuous love affair between the two, consult the supplementary note “Costanza and Gian Lorenzo.”

Perhaps to console himself for his tragic love with Costanza, Bernini married Caterina Tezio (died 1673) on May 15, 1639: it was a very happy marriage, crowned by the birth of eleven children.

The eclipse with Innocent X

With the death of his friend Urban in 1644 and the accession to the throne of St. Peter of Innocent X Pamphilj, Bernini”s prestige suffered a temporary eclipse. The disgraced Barberini family emigrated to France because of the hostility of the new court, and there were many who took advantage of the new course and tried to harm Bernini”s reputation with backbiting and malicious criticism. By this time papal commissions were no longer directed exclusively to Bernini; they were also entrusted to Alessandro Algardi, Carlo Rainaldi, and his rival Borromini, who was entrusted with the renovation of the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano and the direction of the factory of Sant”Agnese.

To Bernini, on the other hand, fell in 1645 several interventions commissioned by the Congregation of the Reverenda Fabbrica, again related to the construction site of St. Peter”s: five years later, in fact, there would be the Jubilee celebrations and therefore Innocent X aspired to make the basilica even more beautiful. Bernini decorated both the nave and the adjacent chapels, the flooring, the wall coverings and the vaults: these interventions, of course, were not without criticism, aimed at the excessive pomp and costs that were judged too high (from July 1646 to January 1649 enormous quantities of marble arrived at St. Peter”s). The most striking case, however, was that of St. Peter”s bell towers, which Bernini already built in 1637. In 1647, in fact, a number of cracks were detected at the base of the south bell tower; detractors took the opportunity to argue that the structure had been designed too heavy, and therefore a commission of inquiry was set up in this regard. The latter determined that the lesions were attributable to a settling of the masonry and not to Bernini”s inexperience; nevertheless, Innocent X equally held Bernini responsible for the damage and ordered on February 26, 1646, that the bell towers be torn down, moreover at the architect”s expense. The event aroused scandal and Bernini – covered with insults and slanderous accusations from all sides – saw for the first (and only) time his career put in jeopardy: this opened a wound of pride that would never be healed.

Overcome by great prostration, in order to justify the static deficiencies of St. Peter”s bell towers in 1646 Bernini began without commissioning a marble group depicting Truth Discovered by Time, which was left incomplete due to the lack of the figure of Time: the meaning was unmistakable and intended to allude to the injustice of the persecutions against him, which would only fade away with the course of time, which would therefore allow the triumph of truth. No longer burdened with papal commissions, moreover, Bernini had the opportunity to create one of the most important works of his maturity: the Cornaro Chapel in the Carmelite church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. In this sumptuous setting, members of the Cornaro family, portrayed in half-busts and bas-reliefs and placed in the side loggias, witness the mystical event of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila (hence the work”s name), depicting the saint in the midst of the rapture of divine ecstasy.

In 1651, a year after the close of the Jubilee year, Bernini was commissioned by the pontiff to create the fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, in what had by then become the “insula Pamphilia.” Disagreements with Innocent X, who frowned upon the Barberini”s friends, were settled, according to tradition, thanks to a clever stratagem by Bernini, who prepared a silver model of the fountain and had it smuggled into the papal palace; Innocent X was said to have been so fascinated by it that he decided to give the commission to Bernini, and not to Borromini (the initial recipient of the commission). With the Fountain of the Four Rivers, Bernini was able to lift the fortunes of his artistic career, managing to overcome that setback he had suffered during the early years of Innocent X”s pontificate: the solution of the rock that pours water into the basin and at the same time supports the ancient obelisk, found near the Circus of Maxentius, and the concept of the “four rivers” (the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube and the Rio de la Plata), representing the four continents then known, in fact excited general enthusiasm. Also in Piazza Navona, Bernini rearranged with the figure of the Moor an existing basin, made in 1575-76 by Giacomo Della Porta under the pontificate of Gregory XIII.

Alexander VII

The Roman cultural climate experienced a new turn with the death of Innocent X and the ascension to the papal throne of Fabio Chigi, who became pope under the name Alexander VII. With the new pontiff, a connoisseur “of paintings, sculptures, ancient medals, and archives particularly” (as he himself put it) and a friend of intellectuals such as Kircher and Luca Olstenio, Bernini once again became the favorite artist of the papal court; in fact, the major architect of the Chigi projects was Bernini himself, who certainly fulfilled Alexander VII”s ambition to redevelop the Roman street fabric.

The Chigi patronage, in fact, came to take the form of a real urban renewal: Alexander VII aspired in fact to give Rome a theatrical perspective with the adoption of surprises, stages, dazzling architecture, in a continuous interweaving of urban planning and scenography. The auspicious occasion to initiate these reorganizations was provided by the blatant conversion of Christina of Sweden to Catholicism. In her honor, Bernini redesigned the access to Piazza del Popolo, the northern entrance to the city, with the erection of the two scenographic “twin churches” on the side facing Via del Corso and the execution of the interior facade of the Porta, where the inscription “FELICI FAVSTO MDCLV” (for a happy and auspicious entrance, Year of our Lord 1655) was affixed, so as to greet the abdicated queen and – subsequently – all visitors to the Urbe.

The first works he commissioned were the statues of Daniel and Habakkuk with the Angel, later placed in the family chapel at Santa Maria del Popolo, where he also decorated the nave and transept; later, he made near the Pantheon the obelisk of Minerva, where a small stone elephant holds an obelisk on its back (so as to recall the virtues of strength and wisdom) and designed the building known as the Manica Lunga, in the papal palace of Montecavallo (today”s Quirinale). Also during those years, Bernini designed three churches: St. Thomas of Villanova at Castel Gandolfo (1658-61), St. Andrew at the Quirinal (1658-70), and finally Santa Maria dell”Assunzione at Ariccia (1662-64).

The epicenter of most of Chigi”s commissions, in any case, quickly returned to St. Peter”s. For the Vatican basilica Bernini designed St. Peter”s Chair, so as to enshrine the bishop”s chair that had belonged to St. Peter, an heirloom revered by multitudes of faithful and pilgrims. Outside the building Bernini erected an imposing and solemn elliptical colonnade, symbolizing the embrace of the Church that gathers the whole world; thus St. Peter”s Square was created, which not only effectively resolved the junction between the church and the city, but also established a physical place designated for the devotion of the Christian community. Work at St. Peter”s ended with the construction of the Scala Regia, the official entrance to the apostolic palaces, and the equestrian statue of Constantine, in perpetual memory of the first political sanction of Christianity.

Bernini had by then become an artist of international renown. As a testament to the celebrity he had achieved, in 1664 French minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert on behalf of King Louis XIV persuaded the pope to grant him his favorite artist, and so on April 29, 1665, the now 66-year-old Bernini left for France, with the ambitious intent of, among other things, designing the renovation of the Louvre Palace. Before his departure he had sent two designs. After his arrival he drew up a third and final design. However, Bernini soon began to prove impatient with the French artistic climate, accruing hostility due to differences of ideas on architectural matters, practical and cost problems, and corporate jealousies: the artist even went so far as to think that actually behind the Louvre”s royal commission was the intent to mortify Alexander VII by taking away the most important artist at his disposal (between the French monarchy and the papacy, in fact, not inconsiderable tensions persisted).

It was for these reasons that the French experience lasted only a few months: on October 20 Bernini returned to Rome, after, however, having witnessed the laying of the foundation stone of his project, which had no follow-up. On behalf of Louis XIV, in any case, Bernini also made an equestrian monument, later transformed by François Girardon into a Marcus Curtius throwing himself into the chasm and relegated to a secluded corner of the park of Versailles, at the Pièce d”Eau des Suisses.

Last years

On his return from France, Bernini had by then exhausted his creative energies, due to his waking age: in fact, by the time he completed the monument to his friend Pope Alexander VII in 1678, he was in his eighties. Works in his later years include the Ecstasy of Blessed Ludovica Albertoni in San Francesco a Ripa (1674), the altar of the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Peter”s with the two Angels kneeling in adoration (1673-74), and the bust of Gabriele Fonseca in San Lorenzo in Lucina. Bernini”s last major undertaking was the creation of the ten statues of Angels with the symbols of the Passion to be placed on the Sant”Angelo Bridge; this was a commission desired by Pope Clement IX, who in this way intended to represent the liturgy of the Lenten Stations of the Cross, so as to transform the bridge into a path of contemplation.

In the last years of his life Gian Lorenzo, who was fervently a believer, devoted himself more and more to the needs of the spirit, with deep interest in the problem of the salvation of the soul after earthly death. He thus became an assiduous frequenter of the Gesù church and the circles gravitating there, where the preparation for a Catholic”s good death was an object of meditation and prayer. Fruit of these reflections from the extreme foreshortening of his existence are some of Bernini”s final works, such as the Sanguis Christi and the Salvator Mundi, which Gian Lorenzo made for himself and which accompanied him at the moment of his passing.

In 1680 Bernini”s health, already declining, was aggravated by paralysis in his right arm; he experienced his ailment ironically and playfully, recognizing that it was only right that his right hand should rest after so much work. His infirmity, however, worsened, eventually leading to his death on November 28, 1680; in the year of his departure, the papal throne was occupied by Innocent XI, the eighth pope to see Bernini at work. The artist was eventually buried in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, in the family”s terragna tomb. At the behest of Gian Lorenzo himself, the author of so many monumental and scenically architectural tombs, his burial instead consists of a very modest tombstone, placed to cover a step on the right side of the high altar.

Bernini sculptor

Gian Lorenzo Bernini”s sculptures are characterized by electrifying dynamism (with which the moment of movement of forms is surprised and fixed), powerful technical virtuosity, irrepressible expressive exuberance, vigorous psychological representation, and scenic theatricality.

Before physically executing the work, Bernini would externalize his design by making quick sketches and notes, or by modeling small clay sketches, a design medium certainly more akin to Bernini”s spirit. The clay was handled with a toothed bone splint 30 to 45 centimeters high; next, the model was measured with a calibrated scale divided on the back into sixteen parts. The dimensions of the sketch were then placed in proportion on the block to be carved, by tracing grid squares on the four sides of the latter: according to an observation by Orfeo Boselli, author of some Observations on Ancient Sculpture, “the model thus adjusted is like a picture grated for good copying, as the painters use in valuable originals.” This method, Boselli notes, presented a criticality, however, in that the very small size of the sketch created a “certain difficulty in transporting them from the small model into the marble, and maximally when the stone is adventure come from the quarry too fair, that every overburdened blow is fatal.”

Legend has it that many of his works were stolen and destroyed.

Once the modeling was finished, Bernini would scrape the surfaces with the use of rasps and files, then polish them with abrasives of various kinds (such as pumice stone) and finally polish them with tripoli (siliceous rock powder used for this purpose) and burnt straw. The marble used, generally, was from the Carrarese quarry of Polvaccio, which was considered in the 17th century to be the most well-made; Bernini, in any case, attacked the stone block in all directions, while preserving the overall picture of the situation. All the decorative elements were masterfully rendered in this way, with special attention paid to the flesh tones, polished to perfection.

Among the tools used by Bernini were the subbia (used to rough out the block), the gradina, the chisel, the ferrotondo, the rasp, the unghietto, the rope drill, and abrasives, with an operating procedure that did not allow for the possibility of rethinking during the work or subsequent adjustments; finally, it must be ruled out that Bernini used final patinas to make the surfaces further smooth, as confirmed by analyses of his sculptures. Among his most significant works are a number of monumental fountains in Rome: the Fountain of the Bees, the Fountain of the Moor, the Fountain of the Four Rivers, and the Fountain of the Triton.

Bernini architect

In addition to being a sculptor, Bernini was also an architect, especially in his mature years. He was influenced both by Michelangelo, creator of a plastic and chiaroscuro architecture, and by the structural remnants of imperial Rome, buildings that were able to cover spaces of immense size with the use of curvilinear surfaces (in stark contrast to the rectilinear ones of Greek memory). Bernini would later mix Michelangelo”s and Rome”s teachings with his inexhaustible inventive vein, giving his architecture a new sense of decoration and the picturesque.

In his achievements Bernini surveyed the masses, studying them so that they had a visual and structural harmony, played with perspective and color, employed the plastic force of chiaroscuro, and harmoniously blended the structures and members of his creations; he also did not fail to give a theatrical and scenographic effect to the whole, blending into a single spatiality the physical rigor of architecture with the pictorial preciousness, the virtuosity of sculpture, and the unbridled imagination of the stage designer, such as Bernini was.

Bernini applied his own conception of architecture in many of his creations. Excluding the baldachin at St. Peter”s, a work more sculptural than architectural, he already gave evidence of his taste for an architecture conceived plastically by masses and strongly chiaroscuro. The Palazzo Barberini, on the other hand, denotes a more decided orientation toward classicism, so much so that here Bernini took up the scansion in three orders of arches of the Colosseum and the Theater of Marcellus, adding the perspective artifices of the windows of the supreme loggia. When he conceived the two bell towers of St. Peter”s, Bernini was concerned with dynamically accelerating the feeling of vertical elevation, which was mortified by the horizontality and compactness of the facade; on the other hand, in the Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria Bernini gave the apparatus a great decorative and scenographic preciousness by using curvilinear surfaces, breaking up the tympanums, and moving in a chiaroscuro significantly accentuated by the color of the marbles.

Having reached full architectural maturity after the age of fifty, Bernini adhered more and more willingly to pure classical schemes, though interpreting them with a certain freedom. In the palace of Montecitorio, for example, he broke the monotonous horizontality and compactness of that front by scanning it in five bays, with classical reminiscences noticeable even in the high plinth. Bernini also returned to the classical conception in the colonnade of St. Peter”s Square, in which one hears the echoes of the curved porticoes of the Imperial Forums, but revisited with the all-Berninian addition of the choir of angels and the effect of illusory perspectives; the latter, in particular, were taken up again in classical terms in the Scala Regia in the Vatican, so as to amplify in the eyes of the observer the length of the path.

With regard to churches, Bernini borrowed from the Romans the adoption of a concentric layout so as to increase the visual effect of liturgical environments, creating a feeling of greater breadth; he also experimented with the oval plan in Sant”Andrea al Quirinale, round in the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta in Ariccia, and Greek-cross in Castel Gandolfo. It was in particular the Pantheon, a place he got to know and appreciate while working in the service of Urban VIII, that exerted a strong and lasting influence on him. Indeed, the spirit of the Pantheon lives on in the interior partition and presbytery of St. Andrew”s, in the dome, arches and pronaos of Ariccia, and in the dome of Castel Gandolfo. To the memory of the Pantheon, however, Bernini associated the theatricality of Baroque ornamentation, and he transformed the circular plan into an oval one, while keeping the classical schemes intact.

Bernini painter

Bernini was also a painter: spurring him to try his hand with the paintbrush as well was Urban VIII. The neo-Renaissance dream with which Pope Barberini wanted to imprint his pontificate required a new Michelangelo at his side, a paradigm of the universal artist capable of excelling in all three major arts. Bernini, already an accomplished sculptor, already an architect with the rebuilding of Santa Bibiana, lacked precisely painting.

To fill the gap, Urban VIII commissioned Bernini to paint a vast cycle of frescoes that was to historize the Loggia of Blessings in St. Peter”s Basilica. Gian Lorenzo nevertheless declined the offer and in fact never in his entire long career fired pictorial works aimed at public display, a destination at the time reserved for the genre called historia, that is, large compositions with a religious theme or, if not intended for ecclesiastical buildings, even with a historical-propagandistic or allegorical subject. Nevertheless, Bernini was a painter nonetheless. He was so essentially for personal pleasure, concentrating his production in small-format paintings of rapid and naturalistic execution that for the most part-at least with regard to the few paintings that can be reasonably traced to his brush today-are portraits and self-portraits.

Even within the narrowness of Bernini”s current pictorial catalog, it is possible to infer from his known works that while Gian Lorenzo did not make painting a profession, he was equally very interested in this art, having reflected on the works of masters of his contemporaries or previous generations. In his paintings, in fact, one can catch influences from Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci, right up to the art of the great Diego Velázquez, who had stayed in Rome in 1629-1630.

Biographical sources attribute between one hundred and fifty and two hundred paintings to Bernini: even net of possible exaggerations of these numbers, the current catalog of plausibly autograph paintings is limited to about fifteen works: it is reasonable to think, therefore, that of Bernini”s pictorial production there is still much to be discovered.

If Bernini limited his personal intervention only to small figure paintings not commissioned by anyone, to a certain extent and, so to speak, through an intermediary, he nevertheless had a prominent role in some large public commissions as well. In fact, Gian Lorenzo attracted to his circle of aides and collaborators not only many sculptors but also several painters he used for the realization of public works he had conceived but not personally executed (artists who were also responsible for the pictorial completion of his works in the sculptural and architectural fields, as in the case of the frescoes in the Cornaro Chapel).

Remarkable in this sense is the case of Carlo Pellegrini, a painter from Carrara of whom we know nothing but of his presence in Bernini”s workshop, to whom Gian Lorenzo entrusted various pictorial assignments, among which the most important, for the prestigious destination, was the Martyrdom of St. Maurice, conceived (and at most retouched) by the master but put on canvas by his assistant. The large painting was in fact part of the series of altarpieces, due to some of the best painters then active in Rome, with which the altars of St. Peter”s Basilica were initially furnished (later replaced by even larger, monumental, mosaic copies, better suited to the immensity of the basilica).

Among the painters who worked alongside Bernini, putting their brushes to work on his projects, the most talented was undoubtedly Giovan Battista Gaulli: even his absolute masterpiece, among the triumphs of the Roman Baroque, that is, the frescoes of the Gesù church, in all likelihood benefited from the ideas, suggestions and advice of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Bernini playwright and stage designer

Bernini also applied his talent to the world of theater, from which he would later draw inspiration for several of his works, conceived precisely as lavish stage sets. The first record of Bernini”s theatrical activity dates from 1633, when the Duke of Modena”s representative in Rome wrote:

Bernini”s comedies were intended for a small audience and drew heavily from the tradition of the Commedia dell”arte, but they have many affinities with the contemporary genre of the so-called commedia ridicolosa, a theatrical phenomenon that was very fashionable in seventeenth-century Rome. Despite their amateur character, Bernini”s plays were prepared with great and meticulous care, and they did not fail to impress with the boldness of the scenic realizations – of which the artist himself was, of course, the originator and creator – which often made the spectators actors at the same time. In De” due teatri, for example, the audience had the impression that a second imaginary audience existed in addition to the real one, as the actors wore masks that reproduced the spectators” features; this illusion was emphasized in the prologue phase, acted by two actors who turned one toward the nonexistent audience, and the other toward the real one. Another highly appreciated scenic prodigy of Bernini”s was that of the play The Fire, where precisely at the transit of a carnival float frightful flames burst forth that seemed to devour everything. A similar effect of “marvel” was produced by the comedy L”inondazione del Tevere (The Tiber Flood), inspired by a 1637 flood, in which the breaking of the banks of the Roman river was simulated. His son Domenico reports the audacity of the stage stunt:

Deeply impressed by The Inundation of the Tiber, the Duke of Modena”s ambassador commented that “there were three scenes to amaze the whole universe” and that Bernini “alone knows how to practice such works and not so much for the quality of the machines as for the way of acting.” Another Bernini play, which has come down to us in a fragmentary state, is La fontana di Trevi.

As a stage designer Bernini was also very active in the production of ephemeral apparatuses for secular and religious festivals and commemorations, some of which quickly became legendary for the jaw-dropping effect they had on the population of Rome at the time. Among these, astounding, not least for the pyrotechnics Bernini prepared for the occasion, was the staging of the festivities held in Rome in 1661, at Trinità dei Monti, for the birth of the Dauphin of France.

Bernini”s workshop

Over the course of his career Bernini developed considerable organizational and managerial skills, required given the large number of commissions to which he was charged and the peculiar characteristics of his works. Bernini”s works, in fact, presented an integration of sculpture, painting and architecture that presupposed the help of collaborators and disciples, despite the fact that very often the commissions required that the work ordered be autographed by the artist (“by his own hand,” a somewhat haphazard concept that nonetheless also allowed for simple superintendence).

Bernini, in short, was assisted in his work by a concourse of assistants and disciples, in a workshop that, however, had no permanent staff: assistants certainly included his father Pietro and brother Luigi, to whom Gian Lorenzo often delegated the execution of the less demanding parts of the work. Beyond relatives, in any case, Bernini”s circle also counted sculptors such as Andrea Bolgi, Pietro Naldini, Giulio Cartari and Antonio Raggi, who ensured rather continuous cooperation, or more occasional presences such as Ercole Ferrata.

The peculiarity of Bernini”s workshop was the relationship between the various helpers: there was no passive subordination, as in several workshops of the time; on the contrary, the different helpers, despite the gap between the different personalities, worked in such harmony and cohesion of image that often the individual hands are recognizable only by analyzing archival data.

Paul Fréart de Chantelou was Bernini”s companion and interpreter during his stay in France; he lived with the artist in almost daily contact and recorded Bernini”s gestures, actions and thoughts in the Journal de voyage du Cavalier Bernin en France. In this work, Chantelou gives us a very detailed physiognomic and character portrait of Bernini:

From Chantelou”s testimony, but also from the multiple portraits, we therefore know that Bernini was of medium height, rather slender, with a brown complexion and flowing black hair, which became white and less abundant with old age; his eyebrows were long and thick, and his forehead was broad, “hollowed in the center and slightly raised above the eyes.”

He had a sanguine temperament, with an ardor and enthusiasm that not infrequently turned into outbursts of anger and wrath, as witnessed by Domenico Bernini, the artist”s son, who described his father as “sour by nature, fixed in operations, ardent in wrath.” According to the judgment of eighteenth-century art historian Francesco Milizia, in fact, Bernini was fiery, irascible, and proud of his gaze, but also cordial, charitable, and an enemy of envy and backbiting; poet Fulvio Testi, on the other hand, extolled his brilliant and lively intelligence, calling him “a man to drive people mad.”

Bernini”s multifaceted personality was also marked by a particular penchant for mockery. One of the most famous episodes, revealing this facet of his character, occurred during the making of the Fountain of the Four Rivers. In fact, rumors began to spread in Rome that the work would not withstand the weight of the obelisk affixed to it and that there was an imminent danger that it would collapse. One day Bernini went to the site and with a very serious air knotted thin threads of wool to the obelisk, which he fastened with a nail to the walls of some of the buildings in Piazza Navona, then flaunting satisfaction and relief at having made the fountain safe, obviously mocking, with acute irony, his critics.


  1. Gian Lorenzo Bernini
  2. Gian Lorenzo Bernini