Genius and Patronage

by James F. Cooper

<i>Pluto and Proserpina</i>, 1621–22 <br/>Galleria Borghese, RomeThe city of Rome has been sacked several times during the last 2,000 years, most notably in the sixth century, by the Ostrogoths, who depopulated the city and burned it to the ground. It was occupied by foreign armies too numerous to count—the last being the Germans and Americans during World War II—but each time rose from the ashes, the Eternal City. The last great pillage of Rome occurred in 1527, when the Imperial army of Emperor Charles V overran the city and massacred the Swiss Guard protecting Pope Clement VII, who scampered to safety down the passetto di Borgo, the secret tunnel which still links the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo. Thousands were slaughtered, churches, shrines and monasteries burned to the ground, the papacy humiliated, the pope eventually imprisoned, and the population of Rome reduced to less than 10,000. Yet Rome would again rise, more prosperous, as a city of more than 100,000. The papacy was restored, and the city experienced a monumental spiritual and cultural transformation.
The impetus would come from within the Church itself at the Council of Trent. The nineteenth Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church, invoked by Pope Paul III, convened in Trent during twenty-five extended sessions between 1545 and 1563. The Council addressed major issues raised by Martin Luther’s Reformation and growing recognition, from within the Church it self, of the need for reform. Michelangelo anticipated this soul-searching process with his searing Sistine Chapel fresco The Last Judgment (1534–41), unveiled by Pope Paul III, the same remarkable leader who had instituted the Council of Trent and sanctioned the establishment of the Jesuit order. One of the major findings of the Council was the confirmation of the importance of art, architecture and music in shaping religious faith. Whether one agrees or disagrees with art critic Robert Hughes’s caustic observation, in American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (1997), that there is no connection between art and spiritual values, the Counter Reformation agenda and Church patronage transformed Rome and fostered the exuberant style we now call the Baroque.
“No one with an ounce of historical feeling or philosophical detachment can be blind to the great ideals, to the passionate belief in sanctity, to the expenditure of human genius in the service of God, which are made triumphantly visible to us with every step we take in Baroque Rome,” wrote Kenneth Clark in his book Civilization.1 The principal creator of the artistic movement that dominated seventeenth-century Western culture was the multi-talented Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680), a prodigy who, at the age of sixteen, was already in the employ of the Borghese, the most powerful, influential art patrons of Rome. Before he was twenty, Bernini had been commissioned to do a portrait of the Borghese Pope, Paul V. For the next sixty years, Bernini would pour forth an unprecedented torrent of architectural works, sculpture, painting, even opera and plays that shaped Baroque Rome and the Vatican as we know it. We get a small glimpse into the mind of this protean wunderkind in the traveling exhibition “Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture,” recently on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Francesco di Carlo Barberini, 1623 National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.Any traveling exhibition of Bernini’s work is necessarily limited, given that his greatest achievements are built into the churches, monasteries, palaces, bridges and fountains of Rome and the Vatican itself. This is the first major exhibition of Bernini’s work in North America, co-organized by the Getty Museum and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. The exhibition is also the first comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s portrait busts, which include some of the early works that first attracted the attention of Roman nobility and clergy. Bernini’s major works remain essential, and they are in Rome: Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (c. 1647–50) in Santa Maria della Vittoria; the angels he designed for the Ponte Sant’Angelo; the Baldacchino over the high altar at St. Peter’s Basilica; the statues he created for the Villa Borghese under the patronage of Cardinal Scipione, Pluto and Proserpina (1621–22), David (1623–24) and Apollo and Daphne (1624); the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (1651) in Piazza Navona and Blessed Ludovica Albertoni in San Francesco a Ripa. Yet the relatively small marble and bronze life-size portraits are a revelation of the highest aesthetic refinement, psychological power and beauty.

Gian Lorenzo’s father, Pietro Bernini, was a good but unexceptional sculptor who encouraged his young son to work with him in his studio. An early collaboration is Antonio Coppola (1612), a searing portrayal of introspective old age, with sunken cheeks and a melancholy expression furrowing the subject’s brow. The elegant marble hand that firmly grips the folds of the vestment across the bust, however, betrays the touch of a much younger man, perhaps because Gian Lorenzo was only thirteen years old when he sculpted him. The Getty catalogue refers to a note written and signed by the precocious artist, age eight, to a bust of Giovanni Battista Santoni, an aide to the pope, drawing this comment from Pope Paul V: “This young man will be the Michelangelo of his time.”2

A bronze portrait of Pope Paul completed by Bernini in 1622 had been privately commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the pope’s nephew. The year before, Borghese had commissioned from Bernini a portrait of the pope to be done in marble. It was a pattern repeated frequently; as Bernini’s fame spread, he was overwhelmed with commissions from the most powerful and wealthy. His sculpture studio expanded rapidly, and talented assistants such as Giuliano Finelli were sought after when Bernini was unavailable. Finelli’s fine marble portrait Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1632) might be confused for a work by Bernini. Finelli even incorporates his master’s distinctive open-mouth—the sitter caught in the act of speaking—style.

Among the thirty portraits in the exhibition is Bernini’s own portrait of Borghese (illustrated), completed only a few months after Finelli’s. Both portraits show the Cardinal wearing the same vestment and the square, three-cornered biretta; the general pose is the same. Finelli’s Borghese, however, looks directly at the viewer, while Bernini has shifted the Cardinal’s head and eyes slightly to the right. His left eyebrow is arched imperiously, as if he had just asked a question and were waiting for an answer. Bernini’s portrait suggests a more complex, intelligent man. Even the biretta, the cardinal’s hat, worn exactly the same way in each portrait, looks different. Bernini’s crisp hat bristles with energy; its corners knife through space like the prow of a fast-moving ship. Finelli’s hat seems doughy and soft in comparison. The most remarkable difference lies in the composition. Both busts are essentially triangles, of course, tapering from the heavy base of the chest to the head. But Bernini has composed the volumes and lines so that they appear to be rising, while Finelli’s appears to be sinking. Cardinal Borghese’s discerning eye could obviously tell the difference. Indeed, it is easy to imagine his cool, appraising expression, his lips slightly parted as if breathing in admiration. 

Cardinal Scipione Borghese, 1632 Galleria Borghese, RomeOne of the works Cardinal Borghese commissioned from Bernini was David, shown as if he were confronting Goliath. Of course, comparisons with Michelangelo’s David (1501–04) must have occurred to both patron and artist. Michelangelo’s David, commissioned by the Medici, came to symbolize the Florentine Republic, threatened on all sides by powerful enemies, and its serene confidence set the standard for public art for the next century. Bernini’s style is very different. His David twists and strains, biting his lip in concentration. Their methods were different as well. Bernini worked up in scale, from “thumbnail” clay sketches and modellos to full size. In contrast, Michelangelo “liberated” his figures full-size from the marble block, a process which can be observed in the unfinished slave series at the Galleria d’Accademia in Florence. Despite their scale, Michelangelo’s works are intensely introspective. Like his poetry, they reflect his struggle to create. Bernini’s work is theatrical, even in an intimate setting. His virtuosity sometimes seems at odds with the religious fervor of the Counter Reformation, which found its deepest expression in the dark, moving paintings of Caravaggio. But Bernini embraced the Council of Trent’s recommendation that art should be clearly and unambiguously persuasive in order to “teach, delight and move” the faithful.
Bernini involved himself in every aspect of Roman cultural life, from designing churches to composing operas and set designs. He excelled in architecture, painting and sculpture. He became the arbiter of public taste, and kings and popes vied for his attention. Many artists who enjoyed contemporary success do not stand the test of time. Bernini does. His portrait busts, created early in his career, are the work of a master. This beautifully installed exhibition, which also includes a few works by contemporary rivals such as Alessandro Algardi, is arranged chronologically. Bernini’s skill is evident from the beginning, in two bronze portraits of Pope Paul V and Pope Gregory XV, both finished in 1622, when the artist was only twenty-four. Both works were commissioned by Scipione Borghese, who tried to monopolize Bernini’s time with a flood of commissions, including the celebrated mythological statues at the Villa Borghese. Baldinucci writes that “all of Rome rushed to view [Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne] as though it was a miracle. When he walked about the city, the young artist…attracted everyone’s eye.”3

Borghese had many rivals for the attention of the young sculptor. Maffeo Barberini, who would later become Pope Urban VIII, commissioned a bust of his formidable-looking mother, Camilla Barberini (1619), when the artist was only twenty-one. In his portrait of Francesco di Carlo Barberini (1623), Maffeo’s deceased uncle, Bernini has captured, in the obdurate material of stone, the thin, pliable sagging skin and the soft, velvety tufted beard of the old man. Although many commissions of Barberini’s deceased ancestors were studies taken from paintings, Bernini invested them with the breath of life. Francesco’s bust sits upon a socle ornamented with a particularly beautiful cartouche; its undulating shape clings to the socle as if it were a vine, a single bee perched between the upper scrolling flaps. Such beautiful organic details can be observed in much larger forms by Bernini, such as his design for the façade of the church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, Rome. Bernini brought a plastic inventiveness and an innate sense of proportion to his architecture, as the subtle concave and convex rhythms of Sant’Andrea demonstrate. The intricate traceries of the pedestal for Francesco Barberini are visually reinforced in the delicate puckered crinkles of the linen surplice, which are revealed between the deep, heavy folds of the mantle. The eye of the viewer is guided along the contrasting themes, invested in the rough and smooth, intricate and tactile stone surfaces. This portrait is a compositional unity as carefully configured as any full-figure sculpture or painting. Twenty years later, Bernini would sculpt a bust of Pope Urban VIII.  

Costanza Bonarelli, 1636–38 Museo Nazionale, FlorenceThe only sculpture Bernini ever made for himself was Costanza Bonarelli (1636–38), a portrait of his mistress. She was not only the wife of another sculptor, but was discovered in flagrante delicto with Bernini’s own brother Luigi. After savagely beating his brother, Gian Lorenzo handed his servant a razor and ordered him to slash Costanza’s throat. The relaxed vivacity of the portrait is striking when compared to the formal pose, pedestal and iconography, usually reserved for Bernini’s more famous sitters. Costanza is a beautiful woman, her sensuality suggested by the luxuriant hair tumbling about her neck and her chemise, open to reveal a tantalizing glimpse of a full bosom. But it is her deliciously parted lips that attract everyone’s attention, even the renowned art scholar Rudolph Wittkower. Yet Bernini had no trouble reconciling his sensuous nature with his faith and devoutly practiced St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.
At age twenty-six, Bernini was appointed by Pope Urban VIII as architect of St. Peter’s and began work on the enormous bronze Baldacchino over the high altar and tomb of St. Peter. Rome is filled with his saints and angels. Pope Innocent X, who succeeded Urban VIII and was no friend of Bernini, observed ruefully: “he who desires not to use Bernini’s designs, must take care not to see them.” Innocent used Bernini infrequently, but eventually posed for his portrait in marble. Bernini’s 1650 portrait captures the baleful intensity of the man, familiar from one of the greatest portraits of all time, painted by Diego Velázquez the same year. Neither seems as malevolent, however, as the forbidding Innocent X (c. 1650), executed by Bernini’s greatest portrait rival, Alessandro Algardi, in bronze as black and supple as licorice.
During Innocent X’s papacy, Bernini accepted an invitation to travel to Paris to do a marble portrait bust of Louis XIV (1665), cast in bronze in 1700. The heavily wigged Sun King gazes out imperiously to the right, his mailed chest awash in a cloudy flourish of drapery. Each one of Bernini’s portraits is unique in its own way. Some of them have finely crafted iconography signifying high office and accomplishments; others, such as Pope Alexander VII Chigi (1657), have highly textured patterns tooled into their vestments; some are relatively spartan. Alexander VII commissioned Bernini to create the colonnade of Saint Peter’s square. All of the works at the Getty, which span much of Bernini’s long career, are characterized by remarkable insight into the character of each sitter, a superlative sense of design and craftsmanship and an almost miraculous ability to capture in marble the texture of flesh, cloth, hair, metal, vegetation and even moisture. Bernini was remarkably normal in his appetites and interests. Little of the eccentricity and self-doubt that shadowed Leonardo or Michelangelo colors his oeuvre. He even had time to sire eleven children. He was the confident of popes and kings. Pope Urban VIII was said to have remarked to Bernini that it was the artist’s good fortune to have a private audience with him, “but We are even luckier that Bernini lives at the time of Our pontificate.”
One of the smaller galleries in the exhibition displays the type of tools used in Bernini’s workshop. The iron chisels, rasps, drills and roundels seem too heavy and blunt to produce such exquisitely refined work. The cord drill, for instance, used for delicate details such as the space between fingers or to create lace-like traceries, required two assistants to operate—one to pull the ends of the cord which rotated a shaft with a steel bit, while a second assistant guided the bit into the marble surface.
Rounding out the exhibition are two dozen portrait paintings and drawings by Bernini. Though they clearly reveal his talent, none exude the kind of artistic quality and refinement one associates with a painting or drawing by a sculptor such as Michelangelo. Bernini was not that interested in drawing or painting. He regarded them as ancillary, merely part of the preparatory process for work in another medium. His painting Pope Urban VIII (1632) is not a masterpiece in terms of composition and formal qualities of tone, color, line and texture. The phlegmatic brushstrokes and monochromatic red in the pope’s garments suggest a nineteenth-century oil sketch. Bernini’s paintings and drawings focus primarily on the features, psychology and character of each sitter. One of the most striking drawings captures the intense, intelligent, piercing gaze of a young Bernini in a black-and-red chalk Self-Portrait (1625). Only 320 drawings made over a period of sixty-five years have been attributed to Bernini, relatively few when you consider his numerous projects.
This exhibition raises timely questions about patronage, particularly in our own time, when talented artists lack the enlightened support of individuals and institutions. They also lack a cultural milieu that inspires and nourishes genius. It is fitting therefore that the exhibition is appearing at the Getty Museum. Architect Richard Meier has shown remarkable inventiveness and sensitivity to form, materials and textures. The 110-acre mountaintop site has been transformed into a strikingly handsome acropolis of organic structures, modern yet classical buildings and formal gardens with spectacular panoramic views of Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean. Meier demonstrates how an architect can draw on both contemporary and ancient idioms to create an inspiring, functional space. He combines primal shapes and materials with state-of-the-art technologies. Most importantly, the galleries were designed to exhibit art rather than to merely call attention to themselves. I also highly recommend the handsomely produced catalogue, Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture, published by Getty Publications. All the major portraits have been photographed from various angles, and the illustrations are accompanied by informative essays by Andrea Bacchi, Catherine Hess, Jennifer Montagu and Steven F. Ostrow.
“Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture” opened at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center, Los Angeles, 1200 Getty Center Drive. Telephone (310) 440-7300. On the web at The exhibit travels to the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (November 28, 2008 to March 8, 2009), 380 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Canada. Telephone (613) 990-1985.


1. Kenneth Clark, Civilization (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 167.
2. Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture, edited by Andrea Bacchi, Catherine Hess and Jennifer Montagu. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2008), p. 85.
3. Filippo Baldinucci, cited, ibid., p. 187.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2008, Volume 25, Number 4