As a disclaimer: These photos were taken during a visit in April 2016, so this post may not be representative of this site today.
Trigger warning for this post: mention of violence.
I have loved Bernini’s work since I first saw it, though I can no longer remember when that was. What he (he and his workshop, really) did with marble is sublime, making such a hard stone feel light, alive, vibrant, unlike something pulled out of a quarry and more like something spun out of clouds and life. I am moved beyond words by many of the pieces that are signed with his name, and yet– I left the Art History world many years ago, but I never heard this said: Gianlorenzo Bernini was a bad man.
Bernini was born in Naples in 1598, and went on to become sculptor and architect to the popes of Rome, ushering in the Baroque era. He also painted, though this is less known, and he created stage sets for the theater. He (again, he and his workshop) was extremely prolific, and was responsible for countless buildings and sculptures strewn across Rome, Italy, and beyond, and most famously, the Piazza di San Pietro in the Vatican.
So, why do I say that Bernini was a bad man? In the 1630s, Bernini was having an affair with Constanza Piccolomini, who was married at the time to Matteo Bonucelli. He even created a bust of her in 1638-1639, which is now displayed at the Museo del Bargello in Florence. What I find unforgivable is what happened in 1638, when Bernini found out that Constanza was having an affair with his younger brother, Luigi. Enraged, he chased after his brother, threatening his life, until Luigi reached the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (holy sanctuary). Oh, and ordered one of his servants to sneak into Constanza’s house and slash her face up with a razor. The best part? The servant was jailed, and Constanza was tried and jailed for adultery. The best best part? Bernini was completely forgiven by the Pope Urban (those sculptures won’t sculpt themselves, you know), and also arranged a marriage for him to Caterina Tezio, a twenty-two-year-old (Bernini was forty-one) known beauty and heiress.
Bernini was essentially rewarded even though he committed a heinous crime in ordering his servant to attack Constanza, but this was told to me in class as an anecdotal point, not something that should affect the way in which we study Bernini, a fact to keep in mind besides the beautiful artwork that he helped create. We do this an awful lot. Hannah Gadsby discusses this at length in Nanette, this time focusing on Pablo Picasso. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
I don’t tell you all this so you don’t enjoy what I’m going to show you. I tell you this so you’re not ignorant of it when you see Bernini’s work, which is, as I said, sublime and overwhelming (I cried when I first saw the sculpture below), and so you have the context of who Bernini the man was vs the work that he created.
Santa Maria della Vittoria
This church was built from 1608 to 1620 as a chapel dedicated to Saint Paul for the Discalced Carmelites. It was designed by Carlo Maderno, and features a façade by Giovanni Battista Soria.
It was rededicated to the Virgin Mary after the Catholic victory at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, which reversed the Reformation in Bohemia (the Counter-Reformation was a huge theme in Baroque art).
The vault was frescoed in 1675, after Maderno’s death. The paintings — The Virgin Mary Triumphing Over Heresy and Fall of the Rebel Angels — were executed by Giovanni Domenico Cerrini.
Ecstasy of Santa Teresa
Also known as Saint Teresa in Ecstasy and Transverberation of Saint Teresa, this work is the crowining jewel of the Cornaro Chapel at Santa Maria della Vittoria. It was sculpted by Bernini in 1647-1652, wholly from marble, in life-size. The sculptural group depicts a scene from the diary of Teresa de Avila, a mystical cloistered Discalced Carmelite reformer and nun. In it, she describes a religious vision she had where an angel pierced her with its arrow, repeatedly, until she reached religious ecstasy (what is referred to as transverberation).
The sculpture is beautiful in pictures, but in person… I can’t do justice to how the robes move around both figures, as if they flowed with water or air. I can’t describe to you the delicacy of every curve, or how it feels like this is a real scene that is taking place in front of you, not something carved out of marble. All I can tell you is that I stood in front of it and my eyes immediately watered. I couldn’t believe I was seeing it, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing was real.
I know I shared the Fontana di Trevi before, but isn’t it beautiful at night?