Although born in Napoli Bernini spent most of his life in Rome, and it is here that we find some of the greatest examples of his work. And so, during my short visit, I decided to see as many Bernini sculptures as time would allow. It was a treasure hunt with sublime rewards!
I began at the Villa Borghese, the splendid palace and gardens built in 1612 to house the immense art, antiquities and curiosities collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V. Today the villa has been meticulously restored and is open to the public via timed-entry tickets purchased well in advance.
Inside is a treasure trove of Classical, Neo Classical and Baroque art all presented in opulent surroundings of marble mosaic and murals with glimpses of gardens through the windows. I could devote an entire blog to the masterpieces by Lucas Cranach, Caravaggio and Titian, but I promised Bernini and here lies the motherlode!
The Galleria Borghese boasts no fewer than six major marble sculptures by Bernini in its collection. To be fair, two of these are the same bust of Pope Paul V, the first one marred by a major flaw in the stone so a second, identical bust was commissioned! The story goes that Bernini completed the replacement in just three days but art historians today tend to doubt that even the great Bernini could have achieved such brilliance in such a short time.
The sculpture that, in my amateur opinion, best showcases Bernini's impressive talents as an artist and carver of marble is "Apollo and Daphne" (see below). This life-size work created between 1622-25, shows the nymph Daphne being pursued by Apollo, god of light. In an amazing feat of design and execution, as the viewer walks around the sculpture he witnesses Daphne's transformation from a beautiful young woman into a laurel tree in an effort to escape her abductor. Leaves sprout from her fingers and toes and her body becomes covered with bark, yet Apollo's hand can still feel her heart beating beneath it. The technical virtuosity of the carving is only surpassed by the emotion expressed in the terrified Daphne's eyes. It is hard to believe that this is a piece of stone.
Bernini also created many outdoor sculptures and fountains that dot the city of Rome. One of the best known is at the base of the Spanish Steps, on the Piazza Spagna. "Fontana della Barcaccia", literally the "Fountain of the Ugly Boat", was actually a joint effort between Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his father, Pietro. Unfortunately it is currently hidden behind a protective wall as it is being restored with funds generously donated by the Italian jeweler Bulgari. However, the equally famous "Fontana del Quatro Fiumi" [Fountain of the Four Rivers], is viewable in its full splendor on the Piazza Navona.
Designed by Bernini in 1651 for Pope Innocent X, the four giant men on the fountain depict the Nile, the Plate, the Ganges and the Danube rivers, representing the continents of Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe, respectively.
Another example of Bernini's outdoor sculpture is the charming "Elephant and Obelisk" that stands on the Piazza della Minerva, right behind the Pantheon. This friendly-looking pachyderm was designed in 1667 while the obelisk was an Egyptian relic discovered nearby. It is one of my very favorite sites in Rome.
Of course, Bernini was also a sought-after artist for church decorations and altars. A particularly dramatic work, and the one that he called his most beautiful, is "Saint Teresa in Agony" installed in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria. Executed between 1645-52, this amazing altarpiece depicts an angel about to plunge a golden spear into the heart of Teresa of Avila and captures the moment of agony, or is it ecstasy, as the saint anticipates her death.
It is not only a tour de force of sculpting skill to make marble appear as malleable as wax, but an artistic coup as well. Saint Teresa realizes that she is about to leave this world and enter the next and the moment of transverberation, the point of contact between earth and heaven, is almost orgasmic in its intensity. While Bernini probably intended this scene to represent divine joy, it is still quite shocking to find such an obvious expression of desire within the walls of a Catholic church.
We've reached the end of my Bernini tour of Rome and I hope it has left you wanting more! Now it's on to Paris and a whole new trove of artistic delights. Arrivederci, till the next time!