Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born on December 7th, 1598, to Pietro Bernini and Angelica Galante, in Naples. His father was already an established artist and, after receiving a papal commission to work on the marble relief in the Cappella Paolina of Santa Maria Maggiore, relocated with his family to Rome. After founding a workshop near the basilica, he invited his son to work alongside him. It wasn’t long before his skill became known to the Pope’s nephew Cardinal Scipione Borghese (Born 1557 – Died 1633). This would start a long relationship between the pair, with the Cardinal commissioning some of Bernini’s greatest works.
He was also admired by the Barberini family and the ascent of Cardinal Maffeo Barberini (Born 1568 – Died 1644) as Pope Urban VIII in 1623, marked the start of a long patronage of the Pope. After being commissioned on various projects of sculpture and architecture throughout Rome, he was appointed Chief Architect of St. Peter’s in 1629.
Though in 1644 the death of Pope Urban VIII saw the installation of Pope Innocent X (Born 1574 – Died 1655), an enemy of the Barberini family. Due to Bernini’s connection with the family, his career suffered. However, he did not lose the positions granted to him underneath Pope Urban VIII and he was allowed to carry on work at St. Peter’s Basilica. Furthermore, Pope Innocent X’s predecessor Alexander VII (Born 1599 – Died 1667) had no such issues commissioning Bernini in his plan to finish the work that had begun in the Renaissance. As chief architect, Bernini worked on making Rome one of the most memorable cities in the world.
Bernini died in 1680. His legacy as an artist has been cemented in history with many considering him to have developed the Baroque Style. Below are three of my favourite works.
Apollo and Daphne
Apollo and Daphne is one of four sculptures that currently reside in the Galleria Borghese. Commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1622 and completed in 1625, this is considered one of Bernini’s masterpieces. The work is inspired by Classical mythology. The story of Apollo and Daphne features in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphosis and begins when Apollo, the God of poetry, boasts about his unmatched skills in archery.
Insulted, Cupid strikes him with a leaden dart. This dart forces him to fall in love with the first person he sees which happens to be Daphne a woodland nymph who had pledged her life to the Goddess Diana and the hunt. After being chased by an unrelenting Apollo, she calls upon the Goddess of the Earth Gaia to save her and protect her virginity. Gaia hears her and, at the moment Apollo’s fingers reach Daphne, she is turned into a tree. It is this final moment that Bernini captures in exquisite detail. However, it must be noted that he was assisted by his student Giuliana Finelli (Born 1601 – Died 1653) who carved some of the foliage.
Colonnade of Piazza San Pietro
Whilst Saint Peter’s Basilica was consecrated in 1626, the space in front of it remained open and empty. When ceremonies took place, temporary passageways were created and covered with awnings to lead the way from the Apostolic Palaces to the basilica, in order to protect from the elements. However, Pope Alexander VII (Born 1599 – Died 1667) wanted a more permanent solution to this, and Bernini was commissioned with the task. His solution was the Colonnade. One of his biggest and most ambitious projects, it was created between 1656 and 1667. The Colonnade itself consists of 284 doric columns and pilasters. These are joined by an entablature topped with 140 statues of saints. Describing the Colonnade as the arms of the Mother Church which are always open to the world regardless of belief, Bernini truly created something spectacular.
Cathedra of Saint Peter
Saint Peter’s Basilica is filled with the work of Bernini, and it was hard to pick one to focus on. However, the Monument of the Cathedra of Saint Peter is exemplary. The giant bronze structure encases a wooden throne that is believed to have belonged to the Apostle Saint Peter. Completed in 1666, it shows a host of angels surrounding a glass window split into twelve as a tribute to the twelve apostles. At the center of the windows is the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. At the base four figures, each 5.35 meters high, depict two Doctors of the Greek Church and two of the Latin Church.
Thousands of tourists visit Rome each year to view, and be wowed, by the work of Bernini. From great works of architecture and piazza fountains to sculpture, Bernini is significant in the development of Rome as one of the most culturally, historically, and aesthetically influential cities in the world.
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