As an eight-year old boy, Gian Lorenzo Bernini drew a perfect sketch of St. Paul under the astonished eyes of Pope Paul V. The Pontiff predicted that the young Gian Lorenzo would become the Baroque Michelangelo. Truer words were never spoken.
Bernini was Chief Architect of the Fabbrica of St. Peter’s for over 50 years and nobody else transformed Rome the way he did, with his sculptures, fountains and buildings.
He revolutionized art with his unique way of viewing the relationship between the artwork and its surroundings, along with his incredibly ability to represent movement in the plastic arts.
Despite being born in Naples in 1598, Bernini always considered himself a Florentine. This was due to his father’s Tuscan origins and the artistic tradition of the Florentine Renaissance, of which he considered himself a descendant.
He moved to Rome in 1606. It was his father, a sculptor himself, who introduced young Bernini to the art world. He also attended Annibale Carracci’s academy, and was 16 years old when he sculpted his first full length statue, the Martyrdom of St Lawrence.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s talent was so pure that it was not long before Pope Paul V introduced him to two important patrons, Cardinals Maffeo Barberini and Scipione Caffarelli-Borghese. For the latter, who was also the Pontiff’s nephew, Bernini sculpted some real masterpieces. To this day, his sculptures of the Rape of Proserpina, David, and Apollo and Daphne are preserved in Villa Borghese, home of the Cardianal. What is incredible in these works is the way in which Bernini achieved a sense of dynamism and movement in the figures’ positions.
Saint Peter’s Basilica – architecture as scenography
In 1623, Bernini’s first patron, Maffeo Barberini, became Pope and took the name of Urban VIII. The new Pontiff considered Bernini his Michelangelo; a universal artist who could leave a real mark on his era. For this reason, he wanted Bernini to excel not only as a sculptor, but also as an architect and painter. While Bernini’s paintings remained in the private sphere, the same cannot be said about his architectural work.
His first assignment inside St. Peter’s Basilica was to create a monument for the altar of the Cross. It was to be placed directly above the tomb of Saint Peter and needed to occupy a sizeable portion of the space between the pavement and the incredibly high cupola.
So, Bernini set about designing a magnificent 29-metre tall bronze canopy. Despite weighing 63 tonnes, the structure appeared slender thanks to its wonderful twisted columns. In order to have the necessary amount of bronze for its construction, the Pope had the beams removed from entrance of the Pantheon. This was a controversial and heavily criticised decision, that gave rise to the saying “What the Barbarians did not do, the Barberini did”
In 1629 Gian Lorenzo Bernini was appointed Chief Architect of the Fabbrica of St. Peter’s Basilica. While it was already home to many important artworks, the Basilica looked very different to the one we know today.
Bernini had the brilliant idea of attributing meaning to the four large pillars of the cross. Each one was dedicated to the four main vestiges housed in the Basilica: The Veil of Veronica, the spear of the Roman soldier Longinus, the fragment of the true Cross discovered in Jerusalem by St. Helena, and a relic of St. Andrew. A statue of one of the fours saints was placed at each pillar.
Another of Bernini’s intuitive ideas was that of repeating the multi-coloured marble flooring of the altar throughout the entire Basilica.
Of the many sculptures in the Basilica sculpted by Bernini himself, the funerary monument for the tomb of Pope Alexander VII is particularly significant.
As there was not enough space in the chapels, the sculptor chose to use a niche containing a door of the south transept. The door could not be removed as it was often used, so the “Michelangelo of the Baroque era” transformed this problem into the focal point of the monument, developing the structure above and around the doorway. Alexander VII appears on his knees; an unusual position, but one that reflected the Pope’s great humility. At the Pontiff’s feet is a golden skeleton holding an hourglass and lifting a drape made of travertine and red-orange jasper. The doorway, topped by this representation of death, was thus transformed into an integral part of the monument, symbolising access to the underworld.
One of Bernini’s most important contributions to Saint Peter’s Basilica is without a doubt the colonnade in St Peter’s Square which, in his own words, embraced visitors “in the arms of Mother Church”.
Rivalry with Borromini and other stories
The rivalry between Bernini and another great Baroque architect, Francesco Borromini, is famous.
Their conflict began with the death of Carlo Maderno, the chief architect of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Borromini had been his assistant, and it was assumed that he would have taken his place. However, Pope Urban VII preferred his beloved Gian Lorenzo Bernini, despite the fact that he was probably a less experienced architect.
Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers is located in front of the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, a work by Borromini. It is said that two of the statues of the fountain are covering their faces in fear that Borromini’s church might collapse on them, and that their poses were Bernini’s way of mocking his eternal rival. This was, in fact, only a legend, as the fountain was built before the church.
There is one work located inside the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica that encapsulates Bernini’s artistic arc. It is the Throne of St Peter in Glory: a bronze monument that contains the ancient chair of St. Peter and a golden cloud in which the angels and the rays of light blend together. When the work was presented, the Pontiff was so moved by it that he fell to his knees and started to pray.
Half a century earlier, Bernini had visited the Basilica with his teacher, Annibale Carracci. Looking at the empty apse, Carracci stated that one day a worthy artist would have adorned that space.
At that moment, Bernini felt the intense desire to become the artist to accomplish that goal.