Loyd Grossman reveals six interesting facts you should know about one of the greatest sculptors and architects of all time, Gian Lorenzo Bernini
All roads lead to Rome
View of the piazza and colonnade in front of St. Peter's. Image via wiki commons
Bernini’s father was a Florentine sculptor who moved to Naples. It may be hard to believe now, but in the early 17th century, Naples was one of the most populous and richest cities in Europe—much bigger and richer than London. So his father went to Naples to do some work on some churches, and later, he was enticed to come to Rome to work on a basilica, so the young Bernini was probably about four to six when he came to Rome.
Therefore, although he was of Florentine ancestry, he spent his whole life in Rome and, as a result, there's not a lot of Bernini anywhere outside of the city. From a very early age, Bernini was picked up by one of the great Roman noble families and they began giving him commissions. From there, he went on to work for the popes, and so he never really had to leave Rome for work. And there was a huge amount of work to do. Not only was he always busy, but he employed a huge team of people—virtually every well-known sculptor in Rome worked for Bernini.
A favourite of the popes
Bernini was the most famous artist in Europe, which is quite an achievement, considering that his contemporaries were such artists as Rembrandt, Rubens, Velázquez—all people who are much more recognisable household names now than he is, because he fell out of fashion. Yet in the 17th century, this period of all these great superstar artists, Bernini was by far the most famous. I think he owed it to the fact that he had some of the richest, most important patrons in Europe, namely the popes.
"Bernini was one of the few people supported by a whole succession of popes"
The popes had incredible amounts of resources at their command to commission artists to build buildings and carve statues and paint paintings. So they were amongst the greatest patrons in all of Europe. Bernini lived into his early eighties, which, of course, was hugely old for that period. But because of that, he was one of the few people supported by a whole succession of popes, because generally what happened was that when a pope died, a new pope came in and got rid of everyone who the old pope employed because he wanted to bring in his own people.
A master of all trades
Bernini was one of those artists who could turn his hand to anything. He began as the most celebrated sculptor in Europe and soon became an incredibly important architect who also designed and painted very well. So if the pope wanted something decorative for his bedroom, Bernini could design it. If there was a big important procession, pageant or ceremony of which there were many—Bernini could design it. He was just like a cross between an artist, an interior decorator, a set designer, a pageant master. He could do everything that was required.
St Peter's baldachin, designed by Bernini. Image via wiki commons
And not only was Bernini extremely skilled at all these disciplines, he also started at a very young age. He made his first public sculpture when he was 12 or 13! He was a bit of a child prodigy, just like Mozart. As a result, he spent almost his entire life being extremely famous, a celebrity artist.
Clashing with the French
Though Bernini was a great courtier and mostly very diplomatic, he had some notable disagreements with some of his patrons. Louis XIV of France was becoming one of the most important and powerful monarchs in Europe at the time, and he was desperate to get Bernini into France. He kept asking the pope to let him come and do some work for him but the pope kept turning his request down for a very long time.
Bust of Louis XIV by Bernini. Image via wiki commons
Finally, through sheer bullying and brute force, Louis XIV forced the pope to let Bernini come to Paris—which was the only time in his life he left Italy—and create some new designs for the Louvre Palace. All of Louis’s advisors hated the end result, which wasn’t helped by the fact that Bernini was incredibly egotistical and highly opinionated; he was constantly telling the French that the Italians had much better taste, the Italians knew much more about architecture, the Italians this, the Italians that. That was a bit of a failure. Bernini was sent back to Italy, full of rewards and honours, but basically with his tail between his legs, because nothing he drew or proposed when he was in Paris was ever commissioned by Louis XIV.
The torrid love affair
Bust of Constanza Bonarelli by Bernini. Image via wiki commons
When Bernini was in his mid-thirties, he fell desperately in love with a woman called Costanza. He was so in love with her that he carved a marble bust of her. This is quite extraordinary because it's probably the first time in history that a marble bust of an ordinary woman was carved as it's expensive and very time-consuming. The only people who would get a marble bust of themselves would be members of the royal family, some ancient goddess or a mythological heroine. So Bernini was obviously desperately in love with her.
Now, there were two big problems with that. Number one, she was married to his assistant. And number two, she was having an affair with his brother. So she was three-timing in a way. And when Bernini found out, he went absolutely crazy. He tried and failed to kill his brother. Then he hired a thug to ambush Costanza and slash her face with a razor as punishment for being unfaithful. This caused a huge scandal. The pope intervened, the brother was sent away, Costanza was put into a home for “fallen women”, she was made to be the scapegoat. Bernini was ordered to get married and they found a so-called “respectable woman” to marry him.
"Bernini was ordered to get married and they found a so-called “respectable woman” to marry him"
He then settled down to be extravagantly religious and having lots of children. It's interesting how he went from this very lusty guy to someone so pious. It really taught him that he had to behave himself or he wouldn't get the sort of work that he wanted.
Elephant and Obelisk
This statue is a very well-loved landmark in Rome because it's very witty—it's almost like a caricature of an elephant. It's very unusual to be wandering through a Roman square and suddenly see this huge statue of an elephant. A lot of people are puzzled by it—what is it? What is it doing there? Why is there an elephant there? This was Bernini's very personal tribute to his favourite pope, Pope Alexander VII.
In the 17th century, educated people would have recognised the elephant as a symbol of religion. They were reputed to be very spiritual animals because they were so exotic: when an elephant would arrive in Europe, it would go on a big tour people would pay to see it. So there was a big natural curiosity about elephants and Bernini chose it because of its supposed wisdom, religiousness and its unusual nature. It’s just such an arresting obelisk. You can't walk past it. You can walk past the statue of a man standing on a plinth. You can't walk past the statue of an elephant. It just grabs you.
A flair for drama
One of Bernini’s hobbies was writing plays and putting them on. It was a hobby, but one that the Roman aristocracy took very seriously. They would stage these very elaborate plays for special audiences. Bernini had quite a good reputation amongst the upper class of Romans as being a good playwright. He’d also design very elaborate stage sets, which involved all sorts of special effects. There was one where he recreated a flood on the stage and apparently the audience was so terrified that they all ran out of theatre.
Bernini. Image via istock
Not many of his plays survived though. They were quite sarcastic, earthy and racy—they had all these little jokes. Interestingly, the 17th-century Italian aristocracy loved practical jokes and really dirty humour and so Bernini’s plays are full of that. And you know something? I don’t think I would read or go to see one for pleasure. It ain't Shakespeare [Laughs].
As told to Eva Mackevic
Famous as a TV Presenter for MasterChef and Through the Keyhole, Loyd Grossman has also been deeply involved in heritage and art history. His new book, An Elephant in Rome: Bernini, the Pope and the Making of the Eternal City (Pallas Athene) is available now
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