Bernini: And the Art of Architecture

Bernini: And the Art of Architecture

by Tod A. Marder, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Joseph Martin

The work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) virtually defines the Baroque style in the visual arts. The best known example, his Cornaro Chapel of Saint Teresa, is famous for its masterly integration of painting, sculpture, and architecture. But previous discussions have tended to focus on Bernini's sculpture alone. This book is an extensive narrative considering all…  See more details below


The work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) virtually defines the Baroque style in the visual arts. The best known example, his Cornaro Chapel of Saint Teresa, is famous for its masterly integration of painting, sculpture, and architecture. But previous discussions have tended to focus on Bernini's sculpture alone. This book is an extensive narrative considering all of his major architectural achievements and the complementary art at these sites. His colonnades at Piazza San Pietro, his huge Baldacchino within Saint Peter's basilica, and his provocative Scala Regia at the Vatican all pulse with visual energy, as does his Four Rivers Fountain in the heart of Rome. These works have become international symbols of the Eternal City and deserve serious attention as masterpieces on a par with Bernini's figural art.

Editorial Reviews
Gian Lorenzo Bernini is widely recognized as perhaps the preeminent artistic genius of the 17th century, but few scholars have focused on his architectural career. His mark on the city of Rome is indelible: From the Cornaro Chapel of Saint Teresa to the Four Rivers Fountain, his works have become symbols of the Eternal City. In Bernini and the Art of Architecture, noted architectural scholar T. A. Marder reviews the artist's majesterial architectural accomplishments.

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Abbeville Publishing Group
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In recent years the traditional gulf between scholarly writing and popular audiences has markedly diminished. An interested public is now highly informed about specialized topics like the restoration of the Sistine Chapel frescoes, and there is a call for more discussion of broad but neglected topics like Bernini's architecture. Decades ago this subject might have been summarily dismissed, since Bernini's reputation as a figural artist had so overshadowed his architectural achievements in the scholarly literature. Yet the fact remains that Bernini enjoyed enormous fame as an architect, just as Michelangelo did, and the buildings deserve serious attention as masterpieces on a par with the figural art. I have therefore set out to create an extensive narrative considering Bernini's architectural achievements as an aspect of his creative genius.

I began this book as a critical summary of the literature on Bernini's architecture that has appeared over the last two decades. To do so required heavy reliance on still earlier research, and my text throughout depends on the fundamental contributions of Franco Borsi and Francesco Quinterio, Heinrich Brauer and Rudolf Wittkower, Marcello and Maurizio Fagiolo dell'Arco, Stanislao Fraschetti, Hans Kauffmann, Irving Lavin, and Valentino Martinelli, among many others. My goal was to provide useful commentary on existing buildings, and to make them relevant to their original contexts and settings. Eventually the book assumed its own momentum, and much of what appears will, I hope, be recognized as original.

To stay within the publisher's requirements, a rigorous selection of works and a tightened scope was necessary. An overview, not acatalogue, was wanted. As a result some favorite works had to be omitted. Ephemeral commissions, so carefully studied by Marcello Fagiolo (1997) and Maurizio Fagiolo dell'Arco (1998), had to be set aside, while the focus remained on what can still be seen and appreciated in situ. For this I owe a great debt to the photographer Joseph S. Martin, whose collaboration on the project far exceeded his obligations. My editor, Abigail Asher, was a wonder of concentration, creative inspiration, and conscientiousness. Her concern for factual accuracy and consistent argumentation is unsurpassed in my own experience as writer and editor. Joel Avirom's book design matched the power and elegance of the architecture while creating fresh and provocative juxtapositions of images. I also want to thank Joseph Connors, Elizabeth Cropper, and Charles Scribner III for various kinds of encouragement. For their careful reading of the text, I must thank Giovanna Curcio, John Pinto, and Patricia Waddy. Finally, I wish to thank the libraries that facilitated my research on Bernini's architecture over the last twenty years: the Art Library, Rutgers University; the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana; the Bibliotheca Hertziana; the Library of the American Academy in Rome; and the Marquand Library, Princeton University.

T. A. Marder

Rome, Spring 1998


Introduction: Bernini in Context

The architecture of Bernini's Rome was largely shaped in the second half of the sixteenth century. Following the death of Michelangelo in 1564, the most important commission in the city was the design for the Gesù, the mother church of the Counter-Reformatory Jesuit order. Laid out by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola in 1568, the church was designed to facilitate preaching in a vast congregational space, to encourage the celebration of mass in the side chapels, and to ease the taking of communion by providing broad openings next to the main altars under the dome.

The fabric of Vignola's Gesù was largely complete when a separate competition was held for the design of the facade. Surprisingly, the assignment was won by another architect, Giacomo della Porta (1533-1602). Della Porta had inherited most of Michelangelo's unfinished commissions and further developed his organic approach to composition. Instead of defining the bays of the Gesù facade in mechanical, repetitive units, della Porta stepped the walls forward in levels of relief, increasing the visual weight and elaboration of the decorative structure from sides to center. The result is a composition of focus and rank, hierarchic power and concentration, that differs significantly from the balance and homogenized unity of Renaissance ideals.

Such conspicuous opportunities as the Gesù were not frequent in della Porta's oeuvre. He faithfully served the pontificate of Gregory XIII (1572-85), largely as a fountain architect, but was subsequently overshadowed by Domenico Fontana, the favorite of Sixtus V (1585-90). Had Sixtus been more discerning or aesthetically ambitious, the contours of later-sixteenth-century architecture in Rome might have been entirely different. As it was, the five-year pontificate became best known for its feats of engineering, street planning, and huge but undistinguished building complexes. Under Sixtus V, the far reaches of Rome's suburbs were linked by a network of long, straight thoroughfares. These broad roads linked the major pilgrimage churches: Saint Peter's, San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore, San Paolo fuori le Mura, Santa Croce, San Sebastiano fuori le Mura, and San Lorenzo fuori le Mura (later substituted by Santa Maria del Popolo where Bernini would work extensively). And the pope had Domenico Fontana erect four ancient obelisks, beginning at the Vatican, to mark points of major interest along the way.

Fontana's raising of the obelisks originated with the stone that marked the center spine of the Roman circus ruins located to the south of Saint Peter's basilica. Like the others, this obelisk had been brought from Egypt during the Empire and still stood as testament to a glorious bygone era. Seventy years after Fontana re-erected it, this spire became the center of Bernini's new Piazza San Pietro.

In addition to three other obelisks located at San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore, and Santa Maria del Popolo, Sixtus V ordered the construction of a major new aqueduct, the first to be brought to Rome since the barbarian invasions. Called the Acqua Felice after the pope's given name, the new water source made its appearance at a wall fountain composed of a triumphal arch and decorated with Old Testament iconography featuring Moses striking the rock. This program alluded to the achievement of the pope (a latter-day Moses) in extending the settled city to the hills surrounding its center. Across the street in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Bernini would later install his most famous work, the Cornaro Chapel of Saint Teresa.

Stylistically, Domenico Fontana's buildings leave much to be desired. His Lateran palace is a ham-fisted rehearsal of the High Renaissance Palazzo Farnese, and his additions to the Vatican Palace are much the same in character. In the end it was the grandeur of conception that characterized his achievements, and these cannot be lightly dismissed. Fontana's villa for the pope, begun some years before his election, established the type for the extensive country estate residence that would be amplified by the Borghese, Ludovisi, and Pamphili families. The pope's Sistine Chapel at Santa Maria Maggiore became a milestone in the use of decorative marbles. And the completion of Michelangelo's dome over Saint Peter's with della Porta set the stage for completing the entire basilica. In 1591, the often quoted abbot Angelo Grillo summed up the changes Sixtus V brought: "Here I am in Rome, and yet I cannot find the Rome I knew: so great are the changes in the buildings, the streets, the piazzas, the fountains, the aqueducts, the obelisks, and the other marvels with which the glorious memory of Sixtus has beautified this old and ruinous city that I cannot recognize nor find, so to speak, any trace of that old Rome I left ten years ago. . . ."

Shortly after the death of Sixtus V, Domenico Fontana was accused of embezzlement, and by 1594 had fled to Naples. He died in 1607, and his practice was largely inherited by his nephew, Carlo Maderno (1556-1629). Maderno had arrived in the papal city during the rule of Gregory XIII and must have learned both the engineering lessons of his uncle and the more progressive style of della Porta's architecture. Meanwhile, in the 1590s, della Porta himself found favor under the auspices of Clement VIII (1592-1605), working not only as chief architect at Saint Peter's but also at the Campidoglio, where he made significant changes to Michelangelo's designs, at the papal Villa Aldobrandini in Frascati, and at the Theatine church of Sant'Andrea della Valle. When della Porta died in 1602, Maderno also inherited much of his practice.

Like Bernini's, Maderno's first independent work was the renovation of a small church with early Christian connections, Santa Susanna (plate 2). There, clearly under the influence of della Porta, he designed a new facade (1597-1603) that is one of the defining monuments of the era. Maderno's facade of Santa Susanna rises in two stories, high above the nave behind it as an independent piece-like a theatrical scenery flat-with its own formal logic. As with della Porta's Gesù facade, the clarity of vertical emphases is underscored by breaks in the level of wall relief and sections of entablature and punctuated by the development of pilasters into engaged columns that are nearly freestanding at the center. This is exactly the solution that Maderno would employ in 1607 on the facade of Saint Peter's basilica, where he was limited to a single story with an attic in order to merge the arrangement with Michelangelo's side elevations.

At Maderno's Santa Susanna, the composition extends laterally to the brick fronts of flanking convent rooms. These features, partially visible in plate 2, have wall strips matching the size of the pilasters and columns of the stone facade and therefore stretching the design beyond the proper front of the church. These features deeply impressed Bernini, who used the same combination of forms at Sant'Andrea al Quirinale where the brick body of the building, imprinted with wall strips, runs into the travertine front articulated with pilasters and columns. A similar scheme appears on Bernini's church at Ariccia where economy dictated the use of stucco rather than stone or fine brick.

Just as there were other architects of importance in the last decades of the sixteenth century-the names of Ottaviano Mascherino, Martino Longhi the Elder, and Francesco da Volterra come to mind-so too there were others of importance at the opening of the seventeenth century. Especially notable were Flaminio Ponzio, the architect frequently favored by Paul V (1605-21), and Giovanni Battista Soria, the architect sponsored by Paul's nephew Cardinal Scipione Caffarelli Borghese. Ponzio (1559/60-1613) assumed responsibility for the new facade of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura, for Cardinal Borghese's hanging garden on the Quirinal Hill, and for the Villa Borghese on the Pincio, but none bear remarkable features of structure or organization. Ponzio's Cappella Paolina at Santa Maria Maggiore is almost a literal twin to that of Sixtus V on the opposite side of the nave. To Soria (1581-1651) we owe the imposing and handsome, if conservative, church facades of San Crisogono, Santa Maria della Vittoria, and San Gregorio Magno, all of the 1620s and 1630s.

None of these buildings can match the originality and ingenuity of Maderno's inventions for the clever plan of Palazzo Mattei, for the new nave and facade of Saint Peter's, for the dome of Sant'Andrea della Valle, the remodeling of Palazzo Ludovisi (now Chigi Odescalchi), and the construction of Palazzo Barberini. This may explain why Maderno, rather than Soria or Ponzio, attracted the best talents of the next generation to his workshop: Bernini, Francesco Borromini (1599-1667), and Pietro da Cortona (1597-1669).

Of these men, Borromini was the most thoroughly seasoned architect. Already trained upon his arrival in 1619, he joined the shop of his uncle Maderno, thus continuing the lineage that began with Domenico Fontana. Through the early 1620s Borromini assisted Maderno and extended the diversity of his inventions essentially to establish a new style of building manifest in the complex curves of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (begun 1634) and the geometry of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza (begun 1642). Both of these churches were controlled in the smallest detail and developed in plan and elevation by this genius mason, carver, ironmonger, and architect. Cortona, by contrast, appears to have been largely self-taught; and his slow evolution was finally manifest only in the 1630s at Santi Luca e Martina and fully realized at Santa Maria della Pace (begun 1656).

What neither of his most important contemporaries could boast was the fame Bernini enjoyed already in his teenage years under the auspices of Paul V. Undeflected by the estimable talents and aspirations of these architects, Bernini enjoyed a level of professional protection that neither Borromini nor Cortona could call upon. With his knighthood already assured under Gregory XV Ludovisi (1621-23) and with enthusiastic and prestigious patronage, Bernini sailed triumphantly into the Barberini pontificate of Urban VIII (1623-44) and European history. . .

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