I have been working on a new skating program for the past month or so to a song called “Bernini’s Angels”, so I have recently been thinking a lot about the titular sculptor. In the program, I play the character of a young art student who is stuck in a terrible creative rut, travels to Europe, and finally finds inspiration in Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain in the Piazza Navona in Rome. I was already pretty familiar with Bernini and his works; my Baroque art professor in college was a big fan – quite understandably in my opinion – and we studied him a lot in that class. But I wanted to look at his work again to help me develop my story some more, and why not write a little about Bernini at the same time?
For those of you who don’t know, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was an Italian artist from the Baroque period. He was a painter, sculptor, and architect, but he is probably best known today for his sculpture. Bernini was a favorite artist of many of the wealthiest and most powerful Roman families of the time. Since all of these families were extremely influential in religious life – in addition to commissioning religious works to be installed in churches on their behalf, most of these families included popes, cardinals, and bishops in their ranks – Bernini worked extensively for the Vatican. Today, most of Bernini’s work is still in Rome, much still installed in the churches and public piazzas for which it was created. The Galleria Borghese, a former palace of one such influential family, houses some of Bernini’s most important sculptures.
Bernini’s virtuosity with a chisel was so great that he could make a marble leaf look like it would crumble between your fingers or a marble pillow that you really want to rest your head on. He had a gift for creating extremely dynamic compositions as well, particularly where the human body was concerned. His figures often seem as though they are only temporarily frozen in motion and will continue their movement at any moment. Their billowing, swirling drapery often becomes a character of its own.
I remember my professor comparing Bernini’s David to other sculptors’ versions of the same subject and explaining that what made Bernini’s so much more effective was the slightly unsettling feeling that he was about to enter the viewer’s space at any moment. Some of Bernini’s compositions, especially in works depicting two figures, often make me think of things we discuss in skating and dance, like creating lines, volume, counter-rotation, and how two partners create movement together.
In the many large-scale sculptural works, installations, and tombs that Bernini made for the St. Peter’s and other Roman churches, he combined these peerless sculptural techniques with elements of painting and architecture, richly colored marbles, bronze, gilding, and cleverly-placed windows for strategic natural lighting to achieve drama and narrative on a level that could compete with the best theatre ever made. In fact, his Ecstasy of St. Teresa is actually set in a proscenium of sorts and includes seating boxes filled with little marble spectators.
Theatricality, technical virtuosity, dramatic narrative, extreme lighting effects, and dynamic compositions, not to mention sheer excess, are many of the hallmarks of Italian Baroque art as a whole, and Bernini’s success with them is one of the reasons he is considered so emblematic of the period. It isn’t too difficult to put myself in the shoes of my artist character who is so inspired by Bernini’s creations.
The Baroque art textbook I have from college talks extensively about Bernini and includes lots of great photographs of his work. Harris, Ann Sutherland. Seventeenth-Century Art & Architecture. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc., 2008, 85-113. Many thanks to Professor Kuntz as well. She taught me most of what I know about Bernini.