Seventeenth-century Roman art at its fullblown, operatic peak often proves too rich for puritanical northern tastes. And no artist was ever more Baroque than Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the supreme maestro of the idiom. But I love his work, which is why, on a spare afternoon in Rome before Christmas, I strolled over to the Borghese Gallery where the largest array of Bernini sculpture ever assembled is currently on view.
Admittedly, the Borghese collection already contains the world’s finest collection of Bernini (1598–1680) and has done so ever since the artist’s lifetime. But on this occasion some 60 loans — including many full-scale marbles as well as paintings and terracotta models — have been added. Given that much of Bernini’s work is immovably attached to the fabric of Roman churches and fountains, this is probably the fullest retrospective that will ever be seen.
It is a feast of creative perversity. The nature of sculpture is to be solid and static, yet Bernini was constantly trying to carve the insubstantial, fast-moving and softly yielding. That is, to make marble and metal do unsculptural things. The hand of the god Pluto, jovially abducting Proserpina, digs into her thigh in a disturbingly tactile manner, turning the stone into flesh. In the same way — abracadabra! — he could transform a lump of mineral into upholstery. His contribution to the restoration of a classical ‘Sleeping Hermaphrodite’ was a marble mattress so cushiony-looking that you feel your hand would sink into it.
The thin and fibrous sling with which his David takes aim is another startling sculptural still life. Bernini’s ‘Cathedra Petri’ — not in the exhibition, but the focal point of the huge basilica of St Peter’s — is the apotheosis of a piece of furniture. The throne of the saint ascends to heaven amid cherubim and fathers of the church in nodding bishops’ mitres and an explosion of clouds and rays of light.
Who else would have sculpted sunshine? Or had a go at carving the flames crackling under St Lawrence’s gridiron? ‘Apollo and Daphne’ — the masterpiece of the Borghese’s own collection — is the most paradoxical of all Bernini’s triumphs. Here is a chunk of metamorphic rock representing the split-second in which the god catches the nymph — and she turns into a tree.
It’s full of things it shouldn’t be possible to sculpt. Daphne’s face is caught at the moment when her eyes dull and her features freeze. Roots sprout from her toes, wafer-thin leaves and fronds from her fingers. This is a magical metamorphosis in more than one sense.
Similarly, the best of Bernini’s portrait busts — of which the exhibition contains a magnificent array — are snapshots in marble. Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the great patron of the artist in his youth, seems to be pausing in conversation on the point of a remark. This is what Bernini’s contemporaries meant when they praised his ‘speaking likenesses’. You feel you’re meeting this amiable, self-indulgent fellow, almost humorously far from religious austerity.
The same is true of the wonderful head of Costanza Bonarelli of around 1635, on loan from Florence. But whereas the Cardinal seems to be holding forth convivially over the dinner table, the bust of Costanza — a married woman with whom Bernini had a long affair — is a love letter in 3D. You feel her whole presence: the passionate glance, the flying hair, and just how strongly the artist felt about her — dangerously so, as it turned out.
A few years after he made this incomparably intimate portrait, he caught her in an assignation with his brother, Luigi. Seeing them together, Bernini utterly lost it. He attempted to murder Luigi with an iron bar and had Costanza slashed with a razor by his servant. Pope Urban VIII forgave him for these crimes — the artist was far too useful to punish. But the servant was exiled and Luigi prudently moved to Bologna for a while.
Clearly, Bernini was capable of appalling behaviour. Another example was his treatment of the assistant Giuliano Finelli whose virtuoso skills produced the laurel leaves in ‘Apollo and Daphne’, not much thicker than a real leaf. Bernini preferred not to acknowledge his contribution so Finelli, feeling slighted, left.
On the other hand, Finelli’s own works are weaker versions of his master’s, while Bernini produced endless fresh ideas. For much of the 17th century Bernini was artistic dictator of papal Rome, so one could spend delightful days tracking his works through the city — almost all of which are still there. With set-pieces such as the ‘Fountain of the Four Rivers’, he dramatised the city like an inspired theatrical designer.
The exhibition at the Galleria Borghese is full of pleasures, but it also hints at Bernini’s limitations. The paintings are not exciting, except for the portraits of himself. The busts of Christ intended for the artist’s tomb are downright vapid. And it is useful to see the statue of St Bibiana, which is usually locked away in an obscure church, as it shows how soppy he could be. The truth is that, although Bernini spent much of his life working for a succession of popes, serious religion feeling was out of his range. He could do fluttering angels, sensual ecstasies like that of St Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria, drama and astounding illusions. But for deep feeling and sublime thinking you need to go to his great predecessor, Michelangelo.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator Australia for less – just $1 for 6 weeks