Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini
Italian Sculptor and Architect
Summary of Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini
Passion, above all else, ruled Italian sculptor and architect Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. His extreme religious piety combined with a lifelong study of the sculptural form led to the introduction of a dynamic and exuberant style, focused on emotional expressionism, which perfectly embodied the Baroque period. Like Michelangelo before him, he became a master of marble, while remaining equally fluent in other media. His manner and vision was so innovative, it pioneered a new era in European sculpture that has influenced the form to this day.
Bernini was also a leading figure in the emergence of Roman Baroque architecture along with his contemporaries, the architect Francesco Borromini and the painter and architect Pietro da Cortona. His designs helped restore Rome to its former architectural glory through an extensive urban planning project taken on under his patronage by the powerful Roman Popes of the time.
- Bernini's insistence that beauty should be found in observing humans and nature instead of studying Classical statues or Renaissance paintings was a move away from the traditional ways of creating work. His progressive focus on human emotion and sensuality became important to later artists all the way up to the modernist period. His dramatic depiction of the flesh was also new in art, introducing a technical expertise that continues to be studied.
- Bernini popularized the concept of "speaking likeness" in his work. He felt that capturing a person in mid-conversation, or just at the moment of uttering a word was the truest way to capture the authentic personality of his subjects.
- Bernini transformed the purpose of sculptural busts, which in the past were limited to serving as formal portraits for tombs. In his hands, they became an art form to present informal portraits of the living, a practice that hadn't been widely used since Ancient Rome.
- Bernini changed the way sculptures were presented. He oftentimes created them "in the round," meaning works that stood alone in grand spaces, meant to be seen on all sides from different perspectives by the viewer, enhancing the overall experience and intimacy with a piece.
- Heavily inspired by the theatrical, Bernini wrote, directed, and acted in plays, especially carnival satires. This flair for drama not only influenced his architecture and sculpture, but also led to his designing of stage sets and theatrical machinery, as well as a wide variety of decorative art objects including lamps, tables, mirrors, and even horse-drawn coaches epitomizing the Baroque love of detail and the ornate. This contributed to the artist's ability to synthesize sculpture, painting, and architecture into a coherent conceptual and visual whole.
Biography of Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini
Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini was born in 1598, the sixth of thirteen children of Angelica Galante and Pietro Bernini. Bernini's childhood was spent in Naples and he began sculpting from an early age working closely with his father, a successful Mannerist sculptor who carried out prestigious commissions in Naples and later Rome. Bernini was a deeply religious Catholic and created his first work at the age of eight. His father encouraged his skill, recognizing early the prodigy he would become. In fact, he was presaged, "the Michelangelo of his age," according to Giovanni's son and biographer Domenico Bernini. This lifelong dedication to practice would lead to Bernini's development of his own style which would go on to greatly contribute to the Baroque movement.
Important Art by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini
This bust was created early in Bernini's career when the artist was twenty one years old. It shows a man's screaming face, his features contorted with a wild expression of terror or even agony.
This piece was commissioned alongside another bust Blessed Soul, which portrays a young beautiful woman looking up in blissful joy. When placed together, these sculptures juxtapose a duality of human emotion, the opposing spectrums between being blessed or being damned. As this piece looked down toward hell, the other represented looking up toward God.
Damned Soul is believed by some to be a self-portrait. Bernini would have looked in a mirror and some believe he even cut his arm to produce the agonized expression on his face. Although produced early in Bernini's career, these works brought together many elements that would remain present in all of Bernini's future works such as religious salvation, intense human emotion, and technical skill in sensual depictions of the human body.
This dramatic depiction of the flesh was also new in art, contrasting to previous Mannerist styles, which often attempted to recreate ancient Roman and Greek traditions. In contrast to this, Bernini and other Baroque artists like Caravaggio and Rubens paved the way for a new way of depicting the human body with a new focus on sensuality.
This sculpture depicts a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses in which Pluto falls in love with the goddess Proserpina and abducts her, taking her to the underworld where he reigns as king. Pluto is shown with a regal crown and scepter while the three-headed dog, Cerberus, is behind ensuring no one interferes. Pluto grabs Proserpina around the waist and thigh while she struggles to escape; she is pushing away his head while her other arm reaches out with helpless abandon.
In this work Bernini shows his fascination with depicting scenes in dramatic mid-action, inviting the viewer to witness the piece and become fully absorbed. His son Domenico described it as an "amazing contrast of tenderness and cruelty," seen in the details of Pluto's fingers pressing into Proserpina's thigh, creating an extraordinary illusion as the hard and cold marble seems soft and delicate in contrast with the violence. Art historian Daniele Pinton points out that the work is characteristic of Bernini's sculpture in "depicting not a figure but an event." Bernini attempts to freeze a moment in time and the action is suspended in the midst of the drama. His work was also often created with the purpose of being shown in the round in a large space, so that people could walk around it and encounter it through various perspectives. This was highly innovative for the time and infused a breath of fresh air into the genre.
This work is now seen as a Baroque masterpiece and has been referenced by contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons who recreated a stainless steel sculpture in its likeness.
Apollo and Daphne was completed when Bernini was twenty-seven and is similar to his The Rape of Proserpina as it shows a moment of violence. It depicts the instance, from Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which Apollo, the God of Light and Poetry, is pricked with one of Cupid's arrows, causing him to fall madly in love with river nymph Daphne. Daphne was devoted to the goddess Diana and had pledged to remain a virgin for life, so when Apollo pursues her she calls to the river God for help. This sculpture shows the climax of the story when she is aided by the Gods and is transformed into a laurel tree to avoid Apollo's capture. According to the story, "Torpor seized on all her body, and a thin bark closed around her gentle bosom, and her hair became as moving leaves."
Bernini's mastery of movement and drama between the two beings was unparalleled in his time. His sculptures broke the tradition of previous Renaissance sculptures as Apollo's robe whirls around the figures encouraging the viewer to follow it around and the composition shows the progression of Daphne's transformation. Daphne is shown as a woman made of flesh and skin from behind, but only by walking around the sculpture can the viewer see that her hair and outstretched arm are growing leaves and roots. This creates a theatrical effect, a moment of intense action and emotion that shows Bernini's skillful handling of the marble.
Artist Peter Rockwell said that, "any sculptor who looks at Bernini's Apollo and Daphne can only come away astonished." His technical skill and innovation has inspired countless modern artists such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, who drew directly from this sculpture in his work of the same name.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini
- BerniniOur PickBy Andrea Bacchi and Anna Coliva
- Bernini and the Excesses of ArtOur PickBy Petersson, Robert Torsten
- Bernini: Sculptor and ArchitectOur PickBy Daniele Pinton
- The Life of BerniniBy Fillipo Baldinucci
- Bernini: Genius of the BaroqueBy Charles Avery
- Bernini: His Life and His RomeBy Franco Mormando
- The Art of EcstasyBy Robert T. Petersson
- Art and Visual Culture 1600-1850: Academy to Avant-GardeBy Emma Barker / Chapter 1 - Bernini and Baroque Rome
- The Story of ArtBy E.H. Gombrich / Chapter 21: Power and Glory I: Italy, Later Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
- Concepts of Modern Art: From Fauvism to PostmodernismBy Nikos Stagnos / For the influence of Baroque art on Modern art see chapter on Expressionism
- Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)By Catherine McCormack / The Architectural Review / 19th August 2014
- When Stone Came to LifeBy Simon Schama / The Guardian / 16th September 2006
- How Bernini Captured the Power of Human Sexuality in StoneBy Alexxa Gotthardt / Artsy / 13th April 2017
- Bernini: He Had the TouchBy Ingrid D. Rowland / The New York Review of Books / 4th June 2015
- Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Comeback ArtistBy Clive James / The Atlantic / January 2013
- Bernini: The Power of ArtOur PickBBC4 Documentary by Simon Schama about Bernini's art and life, 1 hour with excellent details of Bernini's sculptures
- Bernini: DavidOur PickSmarthistory / Dr Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris talk about Bernini's David compared with Michelangelo's David in Galleria Borghere, Rome
- Bernini, Apollo and DaphneOur PickSmarthistory / Dr Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris talk about Bernini's Apollo and Daphne
- Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint TeresaOur PickSmarthistory / Dr Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris talk about Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa
- The Real Bernini: Lecture by Charles ScribnerOur PickLecture at the Met Museum, 2007, about the art and life of Bernini, 56 minutes