The Italian sculptor Bernini “personified the style and era we call the Baroque.” Many art historians considered him one of the most important artists of the 17th century. Charles Scribner III describes Bernini’s impact in Rome as a “monumental presence throughout the Eternal City …[ as resonant as the ancient ruins. In marble, travertine, bronze, stucco, and gilt; in paint through glass and shimmering water, sculptured space and channeled the indelible stamp of genius.” Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born December 7, 1598 in Naples. He was the son of lesser-known sculptor Pietro (1562-1629) who was of Florentine origin. Bernini’s mother was Angelica Galante who was originally from Naples. In 1605/6 Pietro decided to move his family to Rome to work for Camillo Borghese, who was Pope Paul V. During his reign as pope, he completed the church of St. Peters, “enlarged the papal palace on the Quirinal, and enriched Rome with churches, palaces, and fountains.” But his most significant work was the Cappella Paolina, located in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. This was the specific project that brought Pietro Bernini to Rome, where he worked as a decorator in the chapel. However, Bernini’s brilliance outdid his father’s, and his father would have had little to no recognition without the help of his son. Pope Paul V took notice of Bernini’s talent and, soon enough, Gian Lorenzo Bernini came under the patronage of Pope Paul V’s nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese.
Bernini began to sculpt at a young age; his Goat Amalthea with Young Jupiter and a Faun was mistaken for a Roman sculpture from antiquity for many years. Bernini supposedly sculpted it when he was just eight years old. It was clear that the young Bernini had talent. When he was only in his twenties, he was commissioned to create some of the greatest works of his career. However, sculpting was not his only artistic talent; he was also skilled in painting, drafting, and architecture. On top of this he was also a poet, playwright, and stage designer, and somehow found the time to also have a scandalous love life. This paper will focus on the early works of Bernini, in particular the sculptures he made by commission for Cardinal Scipione Borghese. In this paper I will argue that each sculpture had a primary view to give an element of mystique and intrigue to its viewer.
II. Physical Descriptions of the Four Main Bernini Commissions
Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius Fleeing Troy (1619) was the first large-scale piece that Bernini created at the age of twenty in a commission for Scipione Borghese. The scene is from the second book of Aeneid, by Virgil, in which Aeneas is escaping from the burning of Troy with his old father Anchises and his young son Ascanius. There are three generations shown in this statue, the oldest, Anchises, is holding the household god that he saved from the fire. The religious significance is Aeneas’s embodiment of piety (pietas), which is reinforced by the figural quotation of Michelangelo’s Risen Christ. The figure of Aeneas himself was derived from the positive qualities of Michelangelo’s Risen Christ specifically the muscles, tendons, and veins. It is also important to note the Hellenistic features in the hair, since Bernini was greatly influenced by antiquity in his style of sculpture.
The form of the sculpture is in the style of a Pyramid, which art historians believe was influenced by Bernini’s father, as this shape was more in Pietro’s style of sculpting. “Pietro probably contributed the vestiges of Mannerist torsion and the technical vestiges of Mannerist torsion and the technical ‘engineering’ of the precarious instability that critics have misconstrued as youthful tentativeness on Gian Lorenzo’s part.” There is a cramped, tentative composition in the sculpture in addition to having a very high center of gravity. However, it is also said that the shapes of the unstable figures also evokes a feeling of fear. It is important to notice how well Bernini has mastered working with marble “as if it were dough,” with the different textures of skin from old to young.
Ratto di Proserpina (Rape of Persephone) or Pluto and Persephone (1621-1622) was the second sculpture commissioned for Scipione Borghese, which was started after his fall from power in February 1621. This sculpture depicts the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The story is of the rape of Persephone (the daughter of Ceres) by Pluto, who falls in love with her and takes her down with him into the underworld. The first idea for the form of the sculpture is seen in Bernini’s sketches, which was based on the famous group of paintings by Giovanni Bologna. The amazing detail of this sculpture can be seen in Persephone’s tender young skin struggling against the clutching hands of Pluto, who is sculpted grasping her by the leg. There is a clear physical struggle, a “contrapposto of tenderness and cruelty.”
The original positioning of the statue was in the western part of the northeast corner of the villa, where the Apollo and Daphne later replaced the statue. The viewer would have seen the left side of the statue, where Pluto’s aggressive dominance is seen. “Pluto’s lunging form instantly captures the beholder’s imagination and initiates a drama that unfolds in subsequent views.” The lines and curves sculpted by Bernini draws the eyes around the statue to the struggling Persephone. She is gazing towards the right side, and leads the viewer’s eye to her face, where she is crying out to Ceres. “The pathos of Proserpine’s silent cry and tear-stained face pays tribute also to Guido Reni, as it evokes the ancient Niobes.” From this point of view it becomes evident that she is being taken to Hades (hell), as there is Cerberus, the three-headed dog that is the guardian of Hades. Bernini has a unique way of forcing the viewer to search for more with the original positioning of the statue, “the sum of all the views is the work.”
The Apollo and Daphne (1622-25) was commissioned to replace the Pluto and Persephone after it was given as a gift. The goal of the Apollo and Daphne was to provoke admiration and astonishment. The main action was actually hidden in its original location, as the main view was from behind. The viewer can see only Apollo from this view, as his body hides the body of Daphne. In the story, Apollo is struck by Cupid’s arrow after he chides Cupid for playing with adult weapons, and falls madly in love with Daphne. However, cupid strikes her with a lead arrow, which repels her away from Apollo. Apollo continues to pursue her, however she runs and cries out to the river god for help, who responds to her calls by transforming her into a laurel tree. The toes are sprouting roots, the fingers are growing branches, and the body is turning into bark. The laurel then becomes a symbol of triumph and ovation, and as Apollo declares, a way of declaring his true love because he could never have her in human form.
Bernini truly is able to capture the essence of marble being malleable like wax. The massive leafs between the two figures seem to be floating, and the intricacy and delicacy of the outstretched hands and legs display a truly brilliant piece of work. The moment that Bernini captures in marble is the moment where Apollo has caught up to Daphne and has a confident arm around her. However, his facial expression indicates the beginning of an awareness that something has gone wrong. Hibbard reveres the sculpture as “one of the most successful illustrations of a literary passage ever made.” Besides using his own ideas, Bernini drew inspiration from other artists to create this masterpiece. For the face of Daphne, he studied the transitory emotions usually associated with Caravaggio, while the blank quality of the face is closer to the transformation of Caravaggesque themes by Guido Reni, who was one of Bernini’s favorite contemporary painters. For Apollo, the bare face is borrowed from the classical statue of Apollo Belvedere. He also copied the stance, gestures, and features, but was able to transform the meaning. The Apollo and Daphne is such a complex statue that the restoration took two years to complete; one year was just to study the process and tools that Bernini used himself when he created the sculpture.
The David was the last in the series of commissions made by Bernini for Scipione Borghese. To create this sculpture, Bernini looked back to Classical Greek antiquity as a model, as seen in the tussled hair and facial expression. Bernini was twenty-six when he sculpted the David, and it is evident that it was the last in the series since it is the most physiologically advanced. The expression in the face with the furrowed brow evokes a strong emotion of determination to rid the enemy Goliath, along with the corkscrew shape of the body in action. Bernini drew inspiration from his earlier sculpture of Neptune and Triton, which was “something that occurred over and over in Bernini’s career: the recapitulation of an earlier work with a completely changed meaning.” While there were already famous sculptures of the David already existing, Bernini was the first artist to depict the actual moment of the shot.
According to the earliest guides of Jacomo Manilli and Domenico Montelatici, the David “originally stood in the corner room to the southeast…the statue was situated along the wall contiguous with the villa’s long portico – a location, in other words, that faced neither of the two entrances to the room.” So therefore, the first view the visitor would be able to view was the right side of the statue. However, art historian Howard Hibbard argues that the David was supposed to be viewed from a frontal view. On the right side of the statue, the intention of the action by David is evident in the corkscrew shape of his body, and the positioning of the arms and legs. However, the face is not seen, and it is difficult to see what he has in his hand, until the viewer walks further past the sculptor. Then the face appears, which shows a fierce look of determination.
The way the three statues originally sculpted for his first patron Cardinal Scipione Borghese (David, Apollo and Daphne, and Pluto and Persephone) were not supposed to be viewed in the way they are seen today in Villa Borghese. They were in fact supposed to be placed next to walls. According to art historian Joy Kenseth:
“This discovery together with other, long-held attitudes about Baroque sculpture lent strong support to the idea that the three works in question were composed as images with a single, dominant aspect and that it was Bernini’s aim to make their content comprehensible to the spectator in one dramatic and instantaneous vision. In other words, one of Bernini’s most revolutionary steps as a sculptor was to eschew the principles of those Mannerist sculptures which offer a seeming infinite variety of views and send the beholder around and around their forms in an unsending search for their meaning.
While each sculpture is breathtaking from every angle, there was one particular angle from which each sculpture was supposed to be viewed. However, art historians have yet to agree on exactly which view is the original, correct one. The earliest guides that show evidence of its possible original positioning comes from the guides Jacomo Manilli (Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Rome, 1650) and Domenico Montelatici (Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Rome 1700).
The sculpture Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius Feeling Troy’s function for Scipione Borghese was to display not only his appreciation for the fine arts, but also to signify how grateful he was to have the opportunity to be Cardinal. A popular theme amongst Renaissance humanists was the “sacred transference from Troy to Rome [that] prefigures the subsequent succession of Roman piety by Christianity,” as described by Scribner. This is important to note because not only was Aeneas the founder of Roman people (Romulus and Remus descended from Aeneas), but was also said to have been the founder of the papal succession as well. The sculpture’s connection to Scipione’s propaganda is seen in the familial theme. Scipione was appreciative of his adoption as the papal nephew, and so he commissioned this piece as a symbol of familial devotion. Without his connection to the pope and his love of the arts, it would be unlikely that Scipione would otherwise have become Cardinal. The intended viewers were those who knew Borghese, and were therefore able to have an understanding of Borghese’s appreciation for the arts and papacy.
Soon after the completion of the Ratto di Proserpina (Rape of Persephone), Scipione Borghese presented the sculpture to his rival, Cardinal Ludovisi, who was an avid collector of antiquity. This occurred during a low point in Cardinal Scipione’s career, as his uncle Pope Paul V had just passed away, and he was no longer able to have the privilege of being papal nephew. Also, the new pope, Gregory XV, was not Borghese’s first choice in the conclave. So he presented this sculpture to Gregory XV’s nephew, most likely as a symbol of Borghese’s effort to keep himself in good relations with the papacy. However, he still rewarded Bernini with no less money than if he had commissioned it for himself. Therefore, the sculpture functioned as a mediator for Borghese to maintain himself in papal society, as its intended viewers were those who knew Cardinal Ludovisi and would therefore be able to view Borghese’s peace offering to the Cardinal, as well as the powerful work of Bernini.
Early Roman guides Manilli and Montelatici stated that the Apollo and Daphne was displayed next to the west wall of the northeast corner room on the main floor, “midway between one of the room’s entrances and a fake or illusionist door that seemed to give access to the space occupied by the villa’s spiral staircase.” The viewers would then see the rear of Apollo first, and Daphne would be hidden. The shape of the statue gives the “phenomenon of metamorphosis” with the “the statue’s fluid linear rhythms and merging silhouettes.” The initial view of the rear gives an element of surprise, mystery, and intrigue as it forces the viewer to move closer and around the sculpture. Yet since most of the sculptures were placed against walls, viewers were unable to get a 360-degree view of the sculpture. Bernini’s manages to transform Ovid’s story into a visual form, capturing the moment where Apollo has caught Daphne, but also realizes that her transformation. There is an upward progression of Apollo’s human form to Daphne’s laurel transformation, displaying a clear beginning and end to the statue, just like the story. “It describes all the essentials of the pagan myth but at the same time requires that the sum of its meaning be understood in time.”
The Catholics however saw the sculpture as inappropriate since Scipione Borghese was a cardinal at the time. Therefore, on the sculpture there is “Moral Gloss” on the inscription in Latin in order to counteract Catholic criticism. The inscription reads, “Whoever in love pursues the delights of a fleeting form fills his hands with leaves and plucks bitter berries.” This inscription can be interpreted to function as a justification for Borghese’s commission of such a sculpture, as its morals can be related to those of the Catholic Church.
The David was the last sculpture commissioned by Scipione Borghese, as soon after Maffeo Barberini, a good friend of Bernini, became Pope Urban VIII and appointed Bernini the head of the Vatican’s artistic program. However, Bernini did not fail to complete the David just as successfully, if not better than the other pieces Borghese had commissioned. This powerful emotion of determination shown in the David was something new in art during this period, which was the beginning of the Baroque art movement. Some say that Scipione Borghese himself launched the Baroque period, as he was the patron to some of the great artists of the period.
While Bernini went on to do other commissions for greater and more important societal figures, his sculptures remained in the Villa Borghese and are still highly regarded are some of his greatest works. His reputation as one the greats of the Baroque are attested to in his sculptures. What makes his sculptures so powerful is the quality and attribute each sculpture has, which forces the viewer to constantly search for more. Each one had a specific and intentional view that intrigued the viewer to come closer and examine each sculpture. This quality reveals Bernini’s showman-like personality. However, a unique quality Bernini possessed was his ability to study other greats, but then make his own style and transform each meaning. His insistence on a single point of view related back to Hellenistic antiquity, while “the depiction of a moment of action, or of action about to occur, derives from Bernini’s study of the Farnese Gallery.” Scipione’s appreciation for high quality works of art is appreciated by thousands today who visit the Villa Borghese and find some of the greatest works of the 16th and 17th centuries beyond its doors.
V. Elements of Surprise and Interest
In researching this topic, I was first of all surprised to find out the Scipione Borghese was a cardinal, as the subject matter found not only in Bernini’s sculptures but in the Villa Borghese are loosely, if not at all, related to the Catholic church. Instead, there is a lighter subject matter of mythology and jovial figures. I also found it amazing that Bernini could create such intricate and malleable figures out of marble; unlike any other sculpture I have seen. There is something special about Bernini’s method of sculpting that allows him to create every kind of texture and shape possible, out of a solid piece of marble. I found the subject matter of classical mythology quite interesting, and appreciated that Borghese took interest in mythology rather than creating more religious figures, which probably was one of the reasons why he was considered the “delight of Rome.”
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