Bernini: His Life and His Romeby Franco Mormando
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Sculptor, architect, painter, playwright, and scenographer, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) was the last of the great universal artistic geniuses of early modern Italy, placed by both contemporaries and posterity in the same exalted company as Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo. And his artistic vision remains palpably present today, through the countless statues, fountains, and buildings that transformed Rome into the Baroque theater that continues to enthrall tourists today. It is perhaps not surprising that this artist who defined the Baroque should have a personal life that itself was, well, baroque. As Franco Mormando’s dazzling biography reveals, Bernini was a man driven by many passions, possessed of an explosive temper and a hearty sex drive, and he lived a life as dramatic as any of his creations. Drawing on archival sources, letters, diaries, and—with a suitable skepticism—a hagiographic account written by Bernini’s son (who portrays his father as a paragon of virtue and piety), Mormando leads us through Bernini’s many feuds and love affairs, scandals and sins. He sets Bernini’s raucous life against a vivid backdrop of Baroque Rome, bustling and wealthy, and peopled by churchmen and bureaucrats, popes and politicians, schemes and secrets. The result is a seductively readable biography, stuffed with stories and teeming with life—as wild and unforgettable as Bernini’s art. No one who has been bewitched by the Baroque should miss it.
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BERNINIHIS LIFE AND HIS ROME
By FRANCO MORMANDO
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE NEAPOLITAN METEOR
A Twelve-Year-Old Pregnant Bride
Pedophilia is what we would call it today—a man of twenty-five marrying a twelve-year-old girl—but in premodern Europe, it was, if not common, nonetheless perfectly legal. It had been perfectly legal as far back as anyone could remember and was to remain so for generations to come in the eyes of both church and state. Once the two parties had reached puberty—twelve for girls, fourteen for boys—the law allowed the contracting of marriage, no matter how great the difference in years between husband and wife. And so, in a private, at-home ceremony in Naples, on January 17, 1587, Gian Lorenzo Bernini's father, Tuscan sculptor Pietro, born in 1562, was joined in matrimony with the Neapolitan maiden Angelica di Giovanni Galante. Angelica, according to their marriage registration, was "about twelve years old." Choosing for one's spouse a much younger girl, a child-bride with an impressionable mind and pliable will, was in those days considered by men to be practical and praiseworthy: all the easier to shape her into the perfect wife—silent, submissive, patient. The chances were that her virtue was also intact—in other words, she would still be a virgin. Furthermore, her youth and vigor would guarantee years of successful childbearing and efficient housekeeping, especially given the frightfully low life expectancy for women back then. The church, too, seemed to actively encourage marriage between a young girl and a vastly older man. After all, did it not unceasingly offer as marital role models the "perfect" wedded couple, Saint Joseph and his bride Mary, mother of Jesus Christ? Today with the Christ Child, they can be seen depicted in ecclesiastical art in every corner of Catholic Europe as "The Holy Family," he an old man with white hair and wrinkled skin and, she hardly more than a blushing adolescent.
However, though legal in the eyes of the state and licit in the eyes of the church, marriage at twelve (or fourteen) years old was in fact not common at the time and would have raised some eyebrows, to be sure. So why did Pietro risk public ridicule by robbing the cradle to secure a bride? What was it about her charm, or perhaps, her dowry? The record is silent on the latter question, but a small detail in the surviving documentation suggests a compelling scenario: the obligatory banns announcing a future marriage between engaged persons are normally published on three separate occasions over a broad stretch of time. But here, in the case of Pietro and Angelica, these notices were hurriedly compressed by the parish priest into the brief span of just one week, right before the ceremony itself: January 4, 6, and 11. In this Catholic time and place, in the absence of imminent death or departure for war, this could only mean one thing: the bride was already pregnant and the marriage was one of face-saving reparation. This is never a happy way to begin a marriage. Yet, despite its hasty beginning, the union between Pietro and Angelica proved long-lasting and was, we presume, reasonably content; it ended only with death (his in 1629, hers in 1647), having produced thirteen children. How ironically fitting, nonetheless, that one of the first things we know about Gian Lorenzo Bernini's family history should be this fact of slightly disordered sexual conduct. The artist himself would play out a similar dynamic in his own adult life.
Having been rushed perhaps unwillingly into marriage, poor Pietro was soon to learn that his first-born child was not a son who would proudly carry his name forward and hopefully marry into a rich family higher up on the social scale. Instead it was a daughter, a burden of a child, who would need to be married off at the price of an exorbitant dowry or else sent off, kicking and screaming if necessary, to a nunnery—which even then meant paying out a dowry, albeit somewhat smaller. Pietro could not have been pleased. In any case, the infant girl was baptized Agnese and, like the early Christian martyr whose name she bore, was unfortunately to have a short life: she died in Rome in October 1609, as wife of a Tuscan painter of note, Agostino Ciampelli, future collaborator and foe of Gian Lorenzo's on major projects such as the Baldacchino in St. Peter's Basilica. Poor Pietro for not having gotten immediately his first-born son, but poorer even still Angelica, who had to keep producing children until the arrival of a male heir, and then some. After Agnese came an unbroken, anxiety-raising series of four more daughters (Emiliana, Dorotea, Eugenia, and Giuditta) and then, at long last, on December 7, 1598, the first boy, our Gian Lorenzo. He was followed by two more girls, Camilla and Beatrice, but the final issue was all male: Francesco, Vincenzo, Luigi, Ignazio, and Domenico. These last four children were born in Rome, where the family had moved in late 1606, Angelica giving birth to the last of her thirteen children, Domenico, in December 1616. Of all his siblings, Bernini would be closest to his younger brother Luigi (born 1610), at least professionally. The talented engineer-sculptor Luigi would serve as Gian Lorenzo's indispensable right-hand man throughout his career, despite the violent emotional storms that erupted in their relationship at a couple of junctures.
Since Gian Lorenzo was born after a series of five daughters, Pietro, fearing he would get no further male heirs, gave his first son two names, that of his own grandfather and father, Giovanni (John) and Lorenzo (Lawrence). However, as an adult, our artist seems to have considered his real name simply Lorenzo. The most detailed contemporary biography of Bernini—compiled during the last years of his life by his youngest son, Domenico—tells us that one of the first, mature sculptures of Bernini's early artistic adulthood was executed (in 1617) as an "act of pious devotion" in honor of his patron saint, Saint Lawrence on the fiery grill. Saint Lawrence's feast, August 10, Bernini considered his "name day," as he was to later mention to his Parisian friend, the diarist Paul Fréart de Chantelou. Bernini's first name, Giovanni, in the surviving documentation, is usually reduced to the minuscule abbreviation, "Gio.," or, often enough, simply omitted. Eventually, sometime after his death, "Gio. (or Giovan) Lorenzo" gave way to the smoother "Gian Lorenzo," the form by which he is today most commonly known.
As for the family name, Bernini—or more often in contemporary sources, Bernino—derives from Barnini, which is how we find Pietro's last name spelled in his 1587 marriage documents. Barnini, in turn, comes from "del [or di] Barna," that is, "child of Barna," short for Barnabas. Barnabas was then a popular name in Tuscany, ever since Saint Barnabas the Apostle had, from heaven on high, miraculously helped secure for the Guelfs a decisive military victory over their Ghibelline enemies in 1289. Heavenly Providence Most High was also at work on December 7, 1598, declares the aforementioned Domenico in his Life of the Cavalier Gian Lorenzo Bernini, when it sent to Pietro and Angelica their first-born son. Marveling over his well-formed body, and especially the intensity of his observant gaze, the proud parents undoubtedly began weaving fanciful hopes of great expectations for the infant Gian Lorenzo. Little did they know that they had just become the parents of a rare prodigy who, as sculptor, architect, painter, playwright, and scenographer, was destined to take his place in history as the greatest artist of his age, worthy successor to the already legendary Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo. He was also to be the last of the universal artistic prodigies produced by Italy in its glorious Renaissance and Baroque centuries. With his death in 1680, a four-hundred-year era of Italian cultural supremacy effectively came to an end.
"Don't think Destiny's more than what's packed into childhood," wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in the seventh of his Duino Elegies, and that sentiment has found much resonance in modern psychology, from Freud onward, as it has explored the mysteries of the human person. Unfortunately we know little about everyday details, public or private, of Bernini's first years, beginning with the figures of his parents. What kind of people were they? How did they relate to their children? Like many of the wives and mothers of important men in European history, Angelica Bernini is all but invisible to us today, despite so much recent research into our artist's life. Little is known about her beyond the few bare facts already given. At one point, probably in the 1620s, Bernini painted a portrait of his mother in oil, as we know from the family's household inventory, but that portrait is now lost, perhaps hanging in some private collection in Italy, its sitter's true identity unrecognized. Apart from her last will and testament, a single, undated letter by Angelica (but probably written down for her by someone more literate than she) is all that remains of her personal effects. But what a letter: written most likely in 1638, it is brief yet eloquent, opening up for us a rare, honestly revelatory window onto the character of the young Bernini in his bachelor days. Bernini would be quite annoyed by the unlucky fact that of all the letters written by his mother and father, it would have to be this one that survived the thousand accidents of nearly four hundred years. Angelica's letter is a humble but desperate plea to papal nephew Cardinal Francesco Barberini, Bernini's employer at the Fabbrica (Office of the Works) of St. Peter's Basilica, begging his help in reigning in her wild son Gian Lorenzo. Gian Lorenzo, she says, simply thinks he is "padrone del mondo," master of the whole world, and is misbehaving in the most appalling, even criminal, manner. What that misbehavior was, and what else Angelica says of her son in that letter, we shall see in our next chapter.
As for father Pietro, though better known to posterity than Angelica, he too has long resided in the shadows of history, which has allowed only glimpses of his person and his activity in the world. In the past few decades, however, thanks to many new discoveries of both written documentation and sculptural works from his own hand, Pietro has emerged a bit more fully and more stably into the light, at least as a public persona. He was the son of peasant-cobbler Lorenzo and his wife, Camilla Boccapianola (who in 1609 was still alive and living with her son in Rome). Pietro was born and raised in Sesto Fiorentino, a small town just six miles northwest of Florence, where the simple stone house in which he was born still stands.
After an artistic apprenticeship in Florence, Pietro moved to Rome in 1580 where he remained for four years, only to move further south to Naples, his home for twenty years, except for a short interlude back in Florence in 1595. Initially Pietro, it seems, was a jack-of-all-trades as an artist, but eventually passion and talent made him focus on sculpture. To date, apart from collaborative pieces, some thirty sculptures in marble—Madonnaand- Childs, saints, angels, allegorical figures, small mythological scenes, decorative elements for fountains and gardens—have been identified as works from his hand. In terms of art historical categories, Pietro's work is usually labeled Late Mannerist, Mannerism being that diverse stylistic interval between High Renaissance and Baroque, whose precise definition art historians have never succeeded in establishing to the satisfaction of all. In any case, a "mediocre artist" who produced "monotonous, derivative works" is how Pietro was described and summarily dismissed by two prominent art historians in 1969; it was a judgment widely shared by their colleagues, Italian or otherwise, before and after, in the twentieth century.
For his contemporaries, however, Pietro was an artist "of no ordinary acclaim," as we are told by Filippo Baldinucci, noted Florentine art connoisseur and author of the first published (1682), book-length biography of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Baldinucci's claim is confirmed by the fact that Pietro succeeded in securing prestigious commissions starting in the 1590s in Naples in both the city's cathedral and the magnificent Certosa di San Martino (the Carthusian monastery church), then under the patronage of the Spanish viceroy. These were followed later and even more significantly by work in the famous Pauline (or Borghese) Chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, a commission from the pope himself. In his brief account of Pietro's life (1642), Roman friend and painter Giovanni Baglione (the same man who sued Caravaggio for libel in 1606) praises Pietro unqualifiedly when it comes to the self-confidence and sheer technical skill with which he carved marble, as he himself had witnessed: "Pietro handled marble with complete ease, having few peers in this skill." Another art biographer in Rome, Baglione's younger contemporary Giovanni Battista Passeri, also praises Pietro as an artist "of talent and good reputation," adding, too, that he was also a "good, decent gentleman." There were too few of the latter in the cutthroat competitive art world of Baroque Rome!
More recently Pietro's good reputation has begun to be restored to him—thanks to the rediscovery or reexamination of several of his works showing a more versatile, more original, more refined talent over a longer span of time than previously thought, as well as a more positive reevaluation of the long-disparaged Mannerist sculpture in general. So much so that, in the estimation of some art historians today, Pietro stands out as "one of the greatest exponents of Late Mannerist sculpture," with his greatest masterpieces, the two monumental reliefs for Santa Maria Maggiore, the Assumption of the Virgin and the Coronation of Clement VIII, having wondrously challenged "all expectations of what a historical relief should be," to the admiration of their original audiences, including his papal patron. Scholars may not be able to agree on an all-encompassing assessment of Mannerism, but that style as exemplified by Pietro at his best did accomplish bold, new things in sculpture in terms of movement, space, and compositional complexity: these qualities undoubtedly inspired the boy Gian Lorenzo, as he watched his father at work. These qualities were also to be at the center of the Baroque revolution that the mature Bernini was to bring about in his own sculpture.
We Pause to Talk about Our Sources
To be sure, no matter what further discoveries are made about his art, Pietro will never make it to the "Top Ten List of Best Italian Sculptors." But we need to insist a bit on Pietro's above-ordinary talent and contemporary reputation. This insistence is necessary not only because of the long eclipse he has suffered in modern art history, but also to counteract the lukewarm impression of Pietro's vital contribution to the development of his son's artistic talent left by the earliest and most influential published sources of Bernini's life. These sources either ignore Pietro or vastly understate the role he played in Gian Lorenzo's formation. This impression of Pietro, moreover, has its origins in his own son Gian Lorenzo. Through the fanciful, self-mythologizing accounts of his earliest artistic training and production that he consistently dished out throughout his adult life to patrons, friends, and members of his family, Gian Lorenzo all but wrote his father effectively out of the picture.
One of those family members was Gian Lorenzo's youngest son and last child, Domenico. While Bernini was still alive, Domenico wove his father's autobiographical reminiscences—some fact, some fiction—into the long, anecdote-filled biography, The Life of the Cavalier Gian Lorenzo Bernini, which we have already cited and will be often citing in the pages that follow. In writing his narrative, Domenico made use of a short biographical sketch (which I call for convenience the Vita Brevis), composed by his eldest brother Monsignor Pietro Filippo, another invaluable source for Bernini scholars. Included among the hundreds of family documents sold by the Bernini heirs to the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris in the 1890s, it has finally been published in English translation.
Excerpted from BERNINI by FRANCO MORMANDO Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Franco Mormando is associate professor of Italian at Boston College and the author of several books.
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