But first who was Bernini?
Bernini was a Baroque artist, who was born on December 7, 1598. His father was also a sculptor, who sought to have Bernini do as much art as possible. Bernini arrived with his family in Rome in 1606 (around the same time Caravaggio was filling Rome with his best works). He was declared by the pope to be the next Michelangelo after seeing his sketches at the age of 8.
Bernini’s legacy can be seen throughout the streets of Rome and the Vatican. His depictions of the Bible did not prevent him from following in the footsteps of fellow Italian artists in breaking the law. Luckily for Bernini, he and Pope Urban VIII were close friends, which allowed him to get out of trouble. Bernini was a good-looking, charismatic man who disregarded the rules. In his eyes, he was too talented for the rules to apply to him.
Bernini’s Love Affair
Trouble would really begin when in the 1630s, Bernini began an affair with Constanza, one of his assistant’s wives. He even sculpted her face (which now resides in Florence) in a highly sexualized manner (which hadn’t been done since ancient Rome). Constanza continued her affair with Bernini, but he wasn’t the only one.
Their passionate love affair would take a bitter turn as rumors began to circulate that she was satisfying her cravings by also sleeping with his younger brother.
Bernini found out and had to ask himself…. what is a sane, rational person to do?
He found the answer quickly. He would set a trap for the younger brother to find out if the rumors were true.
Bernini told his lover that he was out of town and watched from the bushes as his younger brother headed to Constanza’s house. His fears were confirmed and he chased his brother down the streets with a crowbar, trying to murder him, but ended up only breaking his two ribs. That evening Bernini sent a servant to Constanza’s home to destroy her face, so no man would desire her again.
Portrait of Constanza. Bernini’s wife made him get rid of it.
So Bernini was locked up for life; his art career ruined.
Kidding! These events did not end Bernini’s career as an artist or lover. His art career would take a turn at a later point in his life but not until much later (see the sites below).
Bernini was fined, but never had to pay it since he was friends with the Pope. Instead, he was sentenced marry to the most beautiful girl in Rome (tough, I know). Constanza was sent to jail while Bernini’s younger brother was banished.
Bernini would die on 28 November 1680. He remained active in his old age, until he suffered a stroke.
Bernini not only led an interesting personal life, but created interesting and revolutionary art work as well. His art is a staple of the Italian city can be seen at every turn in Rome. He would play an instrumental role in Baroque sculpture and would be one of the leading artists of his time.
Bernini’s Top 5 Sites in Rome
No, not Michelangelo’s David. Baroque art stepped away from the perfection of the Renaissance and reintroduced a sense of liveliness. The sculpture interacts with the space around it and is not a stand alone piece. (for those fellow art nerds… this had not been seen since the Hellenistic era.) David was created between 1623-1624 and was created for Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s villa.
What it depicts
In the Bible, David beats the giant Goliath when the Israelites were at war with the Philistines. Definitely impressive.
Where: Galleria Borghese
St. Peter’s Baldachin
This is the large sculpted bronze canopy in St. Peter’s Basilica. It marks where St. Peter’s tomb is and was commissioned by his best friend, Urban VII. Rumor has it that these columns were brought by Emperor Constantine from Solomon’s (first King of the Israelites) Temple in Jerusalem.
Borromini actually drew the plans for this, but Bernini received the commission since he and Pope Urban were best friends. Bernini wasn’t as good an architect convinced Borromini to design it for the good of the church. Borromini received no credit for his work, which did not leave him very happy.
Borromini would have the last laugh and had his revenge once the bell tower designed by Bernini cracked. The cracked bell tower would lead to a decline in commissioned artwork for Bernini, who would become sick and depressed after the public failure.
Where: St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City (see this the same day at St. Peter’s Square below. They are right next to each other)
The Fountain of the Rivers
The fountain sits in the Piazza Navona. It is decorated with 4 allegorical sculptures which represent major rivers from the 4 known regions of the world:
- Danube (for Europe)
- the Nile (for Africa)
- the Ganges (for Asia)
- Rio de la Plata (for the Americas)
I already mentioned that Bernini and Borromini hated each other. Next to the Fountain of Rovers stood St. Agnes Church. Although another architect is credited with this church, Borromini directed the construction of this church between 1652- 1657 before ultimately quitting the project. Bernini could not resist an opportunity to mock his rival and his allegorical figures shield their eyes from the church. The Rio de la Plata is shielding itself in an attempt to protect itself from the building. The Nile hides under a piece of cloth so its eyes do not have to see Borromini’s “ugly” church.
Where: Piazza Navona
It hurts my eyes!
Ecstasy of St. Teresa
Talk about scandalous. This piece was commissioned later in Bernini’s life and depicts the saint experiencing religious ecstasy (or orgasm). She is being pierced by a spear from an angel. As she said, “I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God.”
You very often have to pay to see artwork in good lighting. The churches are generally free, but the lights are dim. Wait for another tourist to pay the small fee to light up the monument to save some change. Either that or bring some coins with you.
Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittori, about a 16 minute walk from David
St. Peter’s Square
Even though Bernini’s bell power was knocked down, his contribution to St. Peter’s Basilica is even more famous. The angels overlooking the square and the arms of the colonnades gather people into the church. This is one of Bernini’s most famous contributions to Rome and a must-see if you are in the City.
SDanck and I chilling in St. Peter’s Square
Have any other favorite Italian artists in Rome? Any other pieces by Bernini you think are missing from the Top 5? (There are a lot!) Leave them in the comments below!
Also, for more information on the artist (and other artists), check out Simon Schama’s Power of Art.