Gian Lorenzo Bernini: 11 Facts About The Leader Of Baroque Sculpture

With his passion, talent, and unique grasp of the dramatic, Gian Lorenzo Bernini ushered in a new style of vivid artwork.

Jul 17, 2020By Marian Vermeulen, BA History and Philosophy
rape of proserpina bernini
The Rape of Prosperina by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1622, Galleria Borghese, Rome


Gian Lorenzo Bernini is remembered as one of the greatest sculptors and artists of the 17th century. Utilizing Christian subjects as well as elements of ancient Greco-Roman culture and mythology, he pioneered Baroque sculpture and art in Italy. His work was known for its painstakingly intricate ornamentation and highly dramatized nature. He also worked as an architect, designing numerous buildings and theatrical sets in Rome. Below are 11 facts about the life and career of the father of Baroque sculpture and art. 


Pietro and Gian Lorenzo Bernini: Like Father, Like Son

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Self-Portrait as a Young Man by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1623, Galleria Borghese, Rome


Born in Naples in 1598, Gian Lorenzo Bernini was uniquely placed for success in the world of art. His father, Pietro Bernini, was a gifted sculptor in his own right and encouraged Bernini in the arts. The boy was already a talented prodigy at eight when his father received a papal commission and moved his family to Rome. Bernini assisted his father during this time and caught the eye of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the nephew of Pope Paul V.


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Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1618-19, Galleria Borghese, Rome


Cardinal Borghese patronized young Bernini, who decorated the cardinal’s villa in Rome. Many of Bernini’s works remain on display at the Villa Borghese to this day. At the age of twenty-two, he received his first papal commission. Over the next eight years he also produced four of the sculptures still considered to be among his best; Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius, The Rape of ProserpinaApollo and Daphne, and David. These incredible works catapulted him into success, as did the election of his friend and former tutor, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, as Pope Urban VIII.


One of his Papal Commissions Almost Destroyed Him 

fontana dei quattro fiumi
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of Four Rivers) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1651, Piazza Navona, Rome


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The Pope threw his support behind Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who produced countless commissions for the churches. He was also a key artistic and architectural designer of towering twin bell towers for Saint Peter’s Basilica. However, the façade began to crack in places and the towers had to be abandoned. Bernini fell into deep melancholy over failure, even though later investigations proved the fault was not in his work. After several years of despondency, he returned to the forefront of the artistic community with the design of the Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria and a papal commission for the magnificent Fountain of Four Rivers. He remained prominent and active until just weeks before he died of a stroke on November 28, 1680.


He was a Pioneer of Baroque Sculpture, Which was Originally An Insult

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Blessed Ludovica Albertoni by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1674, Church of San Francesco a Ripa, Rome


Though today the word “baroque” conjures up images of ornate beauty, initially it was a disparagement, labeling a piece of art as grotesque, deformed, or overly elaborate. The Renaissance had fostered a return to the classical artistic principles of ancient Greece and Rome, celebrating the beauty of simple and exact representation. Baroque artists, however, saw the value in the dramatic. They sought to capture the attention of the viewer by presenting the reality of a frozen moment in time. 


In His Hands, “Marble Could Become As Impressionable As Wax And As Soft As Dough”

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Detail of The Rape of Proserpina by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1622, Galleria Borghese, Rome


This quote from Gian Lorenzo Bernini himself was recorded by Filippo Baldinucci, a contemporary and biographer of the famous artist. The boast was not an idle one. Bernini mastered the use of light, shadow, and the consistency of the stone he sculpted. He used his understanding to depict other substances with an eerie realism, including hair, rope, cloth, skin, and steel. Perhaps one of the most startling examples of this is in his work The Rape of Proserpina, where Pluto’s fingers make unsettling indents in the supple skin of Persephone’s thigh as he drags her away. 


It Was That Exact Talent That Brought The Most Criticism

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Sleeping Hermaphroditus, mattress by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (figure sculptor unknown), 1620, The Louvre, Paris


Though Gian Lorenzo Bernini enjoyed great success throughout his life, it did not mean he was without critics, particularly in the era immediately following his death. Proponents of the high, austere style of classical art disparaged his unique ability to make stone appear to be another material. They considered it a betrayal to the integrity of his medium and insisted that his Baroque sculptures overdid the drama, relying on theatrical trickery to capture the attention of his audience. 


His Talent For The Dramatic Was Refined In The Theatre

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David by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1623-24, Galleria Borghese, Rome


Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Baroque sculptures capture emotion like few others, a skill that was indeed developed and refined in parallel with his love of the theatre. He not only wrote, directed, and acted in plays; he also lent his talents to the design of stage sets and intricate machines that brought the stage scenes to life. This fondness for the dramatic influenced his approach to sculpture as another form of performance art. In fact, his familiarity with the theatre, as well as his own abilities as an actor, helped him accurately create the emotions that he immortalized in his works.


Using a mirror, Bernini would himself model the actions and sentiments taking place in the scenes he sculpted. In fact, Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII and long-time patron of Bernini’s work used to personally hold the mirror while Bernini posed as his own model. Barberini was holding the mirror for the creation of Bernini’s David. Caught just before releasing his sling toward the giant Goliath, David is tense, his brow furrowed, jaw clenched, toes digging into the ground for grip. Considered next to Michelangelo’s David, it is a striking example of the differences between classical and baroque sculpture. One is a static, poised tribute to a larger-than-life character, the other a real and visceral moment of the shepherd’s desperate combat.  


Bernini’s Devotion To Accurate Portrayals Went Beyond Physical Modeling

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Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1617, Uffizi Galleries, Florence


At only fifteen years old, Gian Lorenzo Bernini undertook a sculpture of his namesake saint, San Lorenzo, known in English as Saint Lawrence. The saint was a librarian of the early church who was martyred by being roasted alive. In order to achieve a realistic expression of pain on the face of the saint, fifteen-year-old Bernini held his own leg against a hot brazier. He came away burned, but with a sketch depicting genuine agony that he could use as he worked. 


Bernini Popularized The Concept Of “Speaking Likeness” In His Work 

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Bust of Costanza Bonarelli by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1636-37, Musei del Bargello, Florence


Gian Lorenzo Bernini believed that illustrating a person in the middle of a sentence or word was the truest way to capture that person’s personality. As a result, many of his subjects appear with mouths open, either in speech or uttering other cries, whether of fear, agony, or ecstasy. One such “speaking likeness” is his bust of Costanza Bonarelli. Her forthright expression and mouth parted in speech directly contradict the expectations for women of the era.


The Wild Passion That Made His Art Unique Also Influenced His Personal Life

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Altar at Saint Peter’s Basilica by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1633, Vatican City


Costanza Bonarelli was no ordinary woman to Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The wife of Matteo Bonarelli, one of the employees in Bernini’s workshop, Bernini fell deeply in love with her. The two enjoyed a passionate affair until Bernini heard a rumor that Costanza was sleeping with his younger brother, Luigi. Making a surprise visit to Costanza’s house, he found the two emerging from Costanza’s room in a state of undress. Enraged, Bernini tried to murder his brother with an iron crowbar and broke two of Luigi’s ribs. He next attacked his little brother with a sword, and Luigi ran to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore for sanctuary. Bernini’s fury was not limited to his brother, however. He also sent a servant to Costanza’s house, who cut up her face with a razor.


In the aftermath of the chaotic scene, Luigi was sent into exile in Bologna, mainly for his own safety. The servant was convicted and sent to prison, as was Costanza on charges of adultery and fornication. Bernini received a fine, but Pope Urban VIII waived the punishment as long as Bernini would consent to marry. It was hardly a horrifying sentence, as Bernini subsequently married the most beautiful woman in Rome, Caterina Tezio. He seems to have been happy with his new bride, as there are no other records of him engaging in sexual dalliances. He and Caterina had eleven children together. 


One Of His Earliest Pieces Remains Unequalled For Realism Of Movement

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 Apollo and Daphne by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1625, Galleria Borghese, Rome


In the stunning three-dimensional sculpture, Apollo and Daphne, Gian Lorenzo Bernini managed to capture more than just a single moment in time. The myth comes alive as the viewer moves around the piece. Daphne slowly turns into a laurel tree the further one advances. As Apollo grabs her around the waist to stop her, her hair flings around her with a motion and lightness that Bernini himself claimed he never again quite attained. 


Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Self-Proclaimed Favorite Work

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Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1620, Rome


In 1651, after humiliation and rejection sent him into despair, the commission that helped pull him back out was the design of the Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria. The focal point of the chapel is Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, with the cloud upon which the saint rests suspended to give an illusion of floating. Bernini declared it his favorite work with the perfectionism of an artist, saying it was the “least bad thing I have ever done.” The piece has raised controversy in the church due to the sensuality it displays. However, it is an accurate portrayal of Saint Theresa’s own description of her experience:


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The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1652, Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome


“[The angel] “plunged [the flaming point of his golden spear] into my heart several times so that it penetrated all the way to my entrails. When he drew it out he seemed to draw them out with it and left me totally inflamed with a great love for God. The pain was so severe that it made me moan several times. The sweetness of this intense pain is so extreme that there is no wanting it to end and the soul is satisfied with nothing less than God. The pain is not physical but spiritual even though the body has a share in it – in fact a large share in it.”

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By Marian VermeulenBA History and PhilosophyMarian has been a devoted student of the ancient world since primary school. She received her BA in History and Philosophy from Hope College and has continued researching and writing on topics of ancient history from the Assyrian Empire to the Roman Empire and everything in between. She enjoys dabbling in historical fiction, but generally finds the actual true individuals of history and their stories more fascinating than any fictional invention. Her other passion is horses, and in her spare time she enjoys starting young horses under saddle and volunteer training for the local horse rescue.