Breaking Through the Bernini Myth


Detail of Ganges, Fountain of the Four Rivers, Rome. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1651. Photograph by Dale East

by Franco Mormando

One of the more frequent comments made – approvingly or disapprovingly – about my recent biography of that international superstar of Baroque Europe, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, concerns its scandalous content. Why so much scandal, some of it quite shocking, about Bernini, his family, his patrons, and in general, the Rome of his lifetime? Why so much interest in the darker side of their lives? Why so much coverage of their misbehavior, sexual or otherwise? The more cynical among my critics might believe it is simply to sell more books by appealing to the prurient interests of readers. But this narrative choice on my part had a serious motivation: to use of the shock of these revelations to break through the long-enduring myth of Bernini and his Rome: Bernini as the edifyingly devout Catholic artist producing edifyingly devout Catholic art for the greater glory of the edifyingly devout “Roma Sancta.” “Roma Sancta” (Holy Rome) was the Rome of the seventeenth-century Counter-Reformation that had (supposedly) cleaned up its moral act, from top to bottom, after that deplorably decadent Renaissance of the previous century, thanks to the reform efforts of the Council of Trent and its long-term implementation.

This, by and large, is the picture of the artist and his city that long prevailed in the Bernini literature, established by the earliest “authorized” biographies produced in the last years of the artist’s life and reinforced by the abundant ecclesiastical propaganda published in papal Rome throughout the seventeenth century. Of course, few actually swallowed the myth in wholesale fashion, and at least with respect to “Roma Sancta” many people — but still not enough – now know better.

However, with respect to Bernini himself, unfortunately, virtually no one, when writing about his life or his work – I here refer to the many art historians who have dominated the genre of the Bernini biography – made any serious attempt to explicitly dismantle the sanctimonious myth surrounding him and so, by their silence, inadvertently and inevitably reinforced it, especially in the popular mindset.

One sees this most readily in discussions of the artist and his religious faith, the latter supposedly representing the one life-long, determining factor of his artistic production, from the very beginning of his career in early adulthood. This cliché of Bernini art criticism – that his entire art is a direct, intimate reflection of his faith – was first established by the most important of the aforementioned early “authorized” biographies, the Life of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, written by his pious youngest son, Domenico, in the last years of his father’s life. And art historians, as we shall see, simply took Domenico at his word and repeated the cliché from generation to generation. But is it really true? Or, at least, is it as completely and as simply true as Domenico first posited and as many have written of it, even senior art historians?

Now, any discussion of Bernini’s religion, that is, his personal faith and the practice of devotional life, must be prefaced with a word of caution: we have absolutely no reliable, non-partisan (i.e., not coming from Bernini, his family or apologetic biographers) documentation on the topic until 1665, when Paul Fréart de Chantelou began writing his journal, published in English (Princeton University Press, 1985) as The Diary of the Cavaliere Bernini’s Visit to France, which contains many references to Bernini’s piety as witnessed by the Frenchman during Bernini’s four-month stay at the court of Louis XIV that year. In 1665 Bernini was all of sixty-seven years old and clearly a man of devout, traditional Roman Catholic faith. About this there is no dispute. As for the younger Bernini and the nature and quality of his religious beliefs, there is much ground for dispute because all that we now know on the issue is what we find in the aforementioned biography by Domenico Bernini and in the other important but nonetheless “authorized” early biography, The Life of Bernini by Florentine art critic, Filippo Baldinucci, published in 1682, two years after Bernini’s death (and extensively plagiarizing Domenico’s unpublished manuscript).

There are simply no other sources testifying to the nature and extent of the artist’s religious beliefs and practices. His works of art themselves are not reliable sources; even the most non-believing of artists can create stirringly devout works of religious art. (And in any event, it is extremely difficult to extrapolate anything but tentative conclusions about the psyche of an artist from his works of art.)

Self Portrait, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, c.1623

With respect to Domenico and Baldinucci, as I documented in my 2011 edition of the Domenico biography, the same universally recognized idealizing and, indeed, mythologizing forces at work in describing every other aspect of Bernini’s life – it is safe to say – color as well their descriptions of the artist’s faith life. Their claims about Bernini and religion must be subject to the same cautious, reasonable “hermeneutic of suspicion” that we use on every other front.

On the sheer level of documentation, these are the straightforward, sobering facts about the constraints we face in undertaking any discussion of Bernini’s faith and the relationship between that faith and his art, particularly of his earlier life. A further constraint of a different type is the highly subjective nature of “sincere” religious faith: how does one measure what is inside a human being from what we observe on the outside? Complicating matters, it behooves us to note, is, moreover, the highly polemical nature of any discussion of religion. This is especially true in the case of an artist who, for many devout believers, was and is a revered trophy of their institutional faith. The devout, of all creeds, do not like having their “trophies” held under a clinically skeptical and potentially desacralizing light.

Domenico – who spent years as a cleric in minor orders – reveals himself to be, in all of his various published works, of a thoroughly hagiographic, Counter-Reformational mentality and ultra- conservative, pro-papal Catholic piety. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to find that in his account of his father’s life and art, religion is presented by Domenico as an abiding, relevant, all-pervasive factor. More specifically, according to what Domenico says or intimates, Bernini’s art was a direct manifestation of his own personal faith, his deeply poignant works of religious art coming as a result of that faith. This is true from the time of his first major independent sculpture as a young adult, the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, “the first fruit of his devotion,” executed, Domenico claims, “out of devotion towards the saint whose name he bore,” and remains true all the way through to Bernini’s final work, the marble bust of Christ the Savior.

In the intervening years, just to cite one further example of the intimate connection made by Domenico between art and personal piety, there is Bernini’s statue of Santa Bibiana, created during the pontificate of Urban VIII, which “is, for both its tenderness and devotion, indeed, a miracle of art,” and about which the artist “used to claim that ‘it was not he who had created the statue, but the saint herself who had sculpted and impressed her features in the marble’.”

Returning to Domenico’s description of the young martyr Lawrence, who is depicted by Bernini “in the act of being burned on the grille,” our author claims that “[i]n order to adequately reflect in the saint’s face the pain of his martyrdom and the effect that the fire must have had on his flesh, [Bernini] placed his own leg and bare thigh near burning coals. Thus coming to feel in himself the saint’s suffering, he then drew with his chalk, before a mirror, the painful contortions of his face, and observed the various effects that the heat of the flame had on his own flesh.” Yet, in the finished statue, the saint’s face is one of sweet, untroubled beatitude, just as we see on the faces of all depictions of the early Christian martyrs, including Bernini’s Santa Bibiana. It would have been simply unthinkable for any Christian artist, especially Bernini, to have even contemplated depicting martyred saints in a state of pain and suffering, for that was completely antithetical to the orthodox message of such scenes: the Christian martyrs died willingly for their faith, doing so serenely thanks to the heavenly consolation of Divine Providence.

So why does Domenico mention this detail? To cloak Bernini in an air of self-sacrificing piety to be sure, but also to drive home a point about his virtuous adherence to the principle of imitating nature in art through careful, direct observation. And why did Bernini sculpt the Saint Lawrence in the first place? As simply an act of devotion as Domenico claims? Not likely: the young Bernini and his sculptor-father, Pietro (in whose house he still lived) were the principal breadwinners in a family that counted thirteen children and numerous other dependants between relatives, workshop collaborators, and servants. Neither father nor son had the luxury of spending the money on an expensive block of Carrara marble for mere devotion. Not only did every work of their art have to count as a commodity to be sold in order to survive, the young Bernini still had to establish himself as an independent master who could earn a living on his own (and thus marry and maintain a family of his own): the way to do this was to produce a technically and aesthetically prodigious masterpiece that would gain the respect of the artistic establishment but also sell easily on the market. As an expertly carved depiction of a sensual athletic nude male, which dazzled audiences for the amazingly realistic effects it achieved in cold, hard marble, Bernini’s Saint Lawrence fit the bill. Certainly “devotion” went into Bernini’s carving of his Saint Lawrence, but it was far from being simply or mostly of a religious kind.

Another glaring discrepancy between Domenico’s account and historical reality, by the way, is his dating of the episode: he claims his father was only fifteen years old when he sculpted the Saint Lawrence, whereas documentation proves it was several years later, in 1617 when Bernini was nineteen. Still a prodigious achievement for a young artist, but not quite as prodigious as Domenico would have us believe.

Unfortunately, modern scholars, even those coming from strictly secular environments, have not responded to this official, “authorized” picture of Bernini’s religion and art with the necessary skepticism and critical analysis. By and large, Domenico’s version of his father’s faith and the determinant role it played in his art has been accepted without much question. For instance, in a recent biography of Bernini, published in both German and Italian we read, “Bernini apparently sculpted this statue [the Saint Lawrence] for his own personal devotion and veneration toward the Early Christian martyr. And this is probably the case since it is documented that Bernini was a fervent Catholic.” The author of this biography does not identify the documentation in question but clearly has Domenico’s text in mind since Domenico alone gives this report of the origins of that statue. Yet, again it behooves us to point out that no contemporary documentation whatsoever exists, apart from Domenico (if indeed his biography can, on this issue, be called “documentation”), that describes Bernini’s religiosity before he reached the age of sixty-seven, that is to say, when the artist traveled to Paris and had many details of his devotional life recorded by the observant eye of Chantelou.

Even a Bernini scholar of such towering erudition and critical acuity, the late and truly great Rudolph Wittkower, lapses into an unqualified, sweeping statement about Bernini’s religion and art when, in his still much-consulted, and still in-print catalogue of Bernini’s sculpture (Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque), he states:

“It is impossible to divorce Bernini’s views on art from his religious belief. This unity of art and life, work and personality, rational convictions and devout self-surrender finds expression in the exalted vitality of his performance. It is worth recalling that he went to Mass each morning and among other devotions recited the Little Office . . .”

Though likewise supplying no footnote to this pronouncement, Wittkower was in fact citing the testimony of, again, Domenico, who alone among the primary sources reveals this specific information about his father’s devotional practices. But Domenico there (in the reference to daily Mass attendance and recitation of the Divine Office) was describing the older Bernini: do we find no “exalted vitality” in the artistic “performance” of the younger, less pious Bernini? Is his Saint Lawrence or Bibiana or Longinus – all produced, let us note, during his sexually unbridled and, one suspects, religiously lukewarm pre-marital years – any less convincingly or poignantly spiritual than his much later Gabriele Fonseca or Vision of Constantine or Bust of the Savior?

To be sure, the question of Bernini’s personal faith is an important factor to be included in any discussion of his artistic production; it is indeed part of the equation. However, as a thorough, conscientious, and critical study of his life, works, faith, and psychology concludes, there can be no one, simple, all-encompassing formula devised to guide the discussion of the genesis and meaning of so vast an array of works spread across an entire lifetime, certainly not the hagiographical reduction of art to personal religiosity that Domenico would have us accept.

Here, I must make my own confession: when I first took up my Bernini biographical project and for a long time into it (it took eleven years to complete), I too simply accepted the conventional wisdom, the aforementioned cliché about Bernini, his religion and his art. Yet, the more I studied and uncovered the falsifications of Domenico’s biography, the more I discovered the skeletons in the life of Bernini, and the more I read of the darker side of his seventeenth-century contemporaries, be they pope, cardinals, or laymen, the more skeptical I became of the myth of Bernini and of his “Roma Sancta.” Hence, the present call to a more critical approach to the study of Bernini and his art and of his ecclesiastical patrons.

About the Author:

Franco Mormando is Professor of Italian at Boston College, where he also serves as chair of the Department of Romance Languages. He has published several books on various aspects of the culture of Early Modern Italy, most recently, Bernini: His Life and His Rome (University of Chicago Press, 2011). He has also curated two art exhibitions, Saints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image (Boston College Museum, 1999) featuring the first North American appearance of Caravaggio’s long-lost Taking of Christ and Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500-1800 (Worcestor Art Museum, 2005). In 2005, in recognition of his achievements in the promotion of the Italian language and culture, he was inducted by the Republic of Italy into its honorary Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana with the title of “Cavaliere.”