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Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini) (December 7, 1598, Naples – November 28, 1680, Rome) was a towering baroque artist in 17th century Baroque Rome, where he is known mainly for his often overlapping skills as a sculptor and architect. He was also a painter, draftsman, designer of stage sets, fireworks displays, and funeral trappings.

Early Works

Bernini was born in Naples to a Florentine family and accompanied his father Pietro Bernini, a capable Mannerist sculptor himself, to Rome. Here the young prodigy’s capabilities were soon noticed by the great painter Annibale Carracci and by Pope Paul V himself, and Bernini could therefore begin work as an independent artist. His first works were inspired by Hellenistic sculpture of ancient Greece and imperial Rome he could study in the new seat.

Among these early works are The Goat Amalthea with the Infant Zeus and a Faun (redated 1609, considered by some authorities a forgery of an antique work) and several allegorical busts such as the Damned Soul and Blessed Soul (c. 1619, Palazzo di Spagna, Rome). In 1620 he completed the bust of Pope Paul V. Under the patronage of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a member of the reigning papal family, young Bernini rapidly rose to prominence as a sculptor. Scipione’s villa chronicles his secular sculptures, with a series of masterpieces:

  • Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius depicting three ages of man from various viewpoints (1619), borrowing from a figure in a Raphael fresco, and perhaps an allegory reflecting the moment when the son attains the skill of his father.
  • Abduction of Proserpine (1621-22), where the young artist creates a monument recalling Giambologna’s mannerist Rape of the Sabine Women, and masterfully dimpling the woman’s marble skin.
  • Apollo and Daphne (1622-1625) shows the most dramatic moment in one of Ovid’s Metamorphosis tale. In the story, Apollo, the god of light, scolds Eros, the god of love, for playing with adult weapons. Eros is angered and wounds Apollo with a golden arrow induces Apollo, upon sight of Daphne- a water nymph who had declared her perpetual virginity, to fall in love. Eros also wounded Daphne with a lead arrow that induces her to reject Apollo’s advances. Apollo pursues Daphne. Just when he captures her she cries out to her father, the river god, to destroy her beauty in order to quell Apollo’s advances. Her father responds by mutating her into a laurel tree. If representative sculpture of human figures metamorphoses a person into a depiction in lifeless stone, this statue doubles the conceit, depicting in stone a life-changing to inanimate tree.
  • Finally, Bernini’s David (1623-1624) is a revolutionary statement. The man coils in his original plinth (see illustration below left). Bernini’s David (illustration, left) is poised to release his rock, in contrast to poses of the Florentine Davids of prior generations, such as the triumphant repose of the famous Michelangelo‘s David or the haughty effeteness of Donatello‘s or Verrocchio’s Davids. The twisted torso, furrowed forehead, and granite grimace of Bernini’s “David” is symptomatic of the baroque’s interest in dynamic movement and emotion over High Renaissance stasis and classic severity. Michelangelo expresses David’s heroic nature; Bernini captures the heroic moment.

His first architectural project was the magnificent bronze baldachin (1624-1633), the canopy over the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, and the façade for the church of Santa Bibiana (1624-1626), Rome. In 1629, before the Baldacchino was complete, Urban VIII put him in charge of all the ongoing architectural works at St Peter’s. He was given the commission for the Basilica’s tombs of the Barberini Pope and, years later, Pope Alexander VII Chigi 1671-1678. The Chair of Saint Peter (Cathedra Petri) 1657-1666), in the apse of St. Peter’s, is one of his masterpieces.

Bernini’s sculptural output was immense and varied. Among his other best-known sculptures: the Ecstasy of St Theresa (1645-1652, in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria Della Vittoria, Rome) and the now-hidden Constantine, at the base of the Scala Regia (which he designed). He helped design the Ponte Sant’Angelo, sculpting two of the angels of his own, while the others were made by his pupils on the base of his designs.

At the end of April 1665, at the height of his fame and powers, he traveled to Paris, remaining there until November. Bernini’s popularity even abroad is showed by the fact he could hardly walk in a street of Paris without being lined by crowds of people pointing at him.

This trip, encouraged by Father Oliva, general of the Jesuits, was a reply to the repeated requests for his works by the king Louis XIV. Here Bernini presented some (ultimately rejected) designs for the east front of the Louvre; his adventurous concave-convex facades were discarded in favor of the more stern and classic proposals of native Claude Perrault. Bernini, however, soon became unpopular in the French court, for he praised the art and architecture of Italy at the expense of that of France: he said, for example, that a painting by Guido Reni was worth more than all of Paris. The sole work remaining from his work to Paris was a bust of Louis XIV: anyway, it set the standard for the royal portraits for a century.

Bernini’s Architecture

Bernini’s architectural conceits include the piazza and colonnades of St Peter’s he planned several famous Roman palaces: Palazzo Barberini (from 1630 on which he worked with Borromini); Palazzo Ludovisi (now Palazzo Montecitorio, 1650); and Palazzo Chigi (1664).

Bernini did not build from scratch many churches, preferring to concentrate himself on the embellishment of pre-existing structures. He fulfilled three commissions in the field; his stature allowed him the freedom to design the structure and decorate the interiors in coherent designs. Best known is the small oval baroque church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale (1658-1671) which includes the statue of St. Andrew the Apostle soaring high above the aedicule framing the high altar. In Castelgandolfo (San Tommaso da Villanova, 1658-1661) and Ariccia (Santa Maria dell’Assunzione, 1662-1664), towns under papal control, Bernini also designed churches.

Bernini’s Fountains in Rome

True to the decorative dynamism of baroque, Roman fountains, part public works and part Papal monuments, were among his most gifted creations. Bernini’s fountain was the Fountain of the Triton (1640). The Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (1648-1651) in the Piazza Navona is a masterpiece of spectacle and political allegory. One anecdote tells that one of the Bernini’s river gods shields his gaze, horrified by the adjacent facade of Sant’Agnese in Agone church designed by his equally talented, but less politically successful, rival Francesco Borromini. However, the fountain was built several years before the façade of the church had been completed.

Bernini’s Marble Portraiture

Bernini also revolutionized marble busts, lending glamorous dynamism to the once stony stillness of portraiture. Starting with the immediate pose, leaning out of the frame, of Monsignor Pedro de Foix Montoya (1621) at Santa Maria di Monserrato, Rome. The once-gregarious Cardinal Scipione Borghese is frozen in conversation (1632, Galleria Borghese). The portrait of his alleged mistress, Costanza Buonarelli (1635), does not portray divinity or royalty; but a woman in a moment of disheveled privacy, captured in conversation or surprise.

In his sculpted portraiture for more regal patrons, Bernini fashioned the marvelous windswept marble vestments and cascades of hair of Louis XIV’s portrait (1665, Palace of Versailles) would suffice to elevate any face to royalty. Similar exuberance glorifies the bust of Francesco I d’Este (Modena, Galleria Estense, 1650-1651).

Bernini’s Other works

Another of Bernini’s sculptures is known affectionately as Bernini’s Chick by the Roman people. It is located in the Piazza Della Minerva, right in front of the church Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Pope Alexander VII decided that he wanted an ancient Egyptian obelisk to be erected in the piazza and commissioned Bernini to create a sculpture to support the obelisk. The sculpture of an elephant was finally carried out in 1667 by one of Bernini’s students, Ercole Ferrata. One of the most interesting features of this elephant is its smile. To find out why it is smiling, one must head around to the rear end of the animal and one notices that its muscles are tensed and its tail is shifted to the left. Bernini sculpted the animal as if it were in the middle of defecating. The animal’s rear is pointed directly at the office of Father Domenico Paglia, a Dominican friar, who was one of the main antagonists of Bernini and his artisan friends, as a final salute and last word.

The death of his constant patron Urban VIII in 1644 released a horde of Bernini’s rivals and marked a change in his career, but Innocent X set him back to work on the extended nave of St Peter’s and commissioned the Four Rivers fountain in Piazza Navona. At the time of Innocent’s death in 1655, Bernini was the arbiter of public taste in Rome. He died in Rome in 1680 and was buried in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.

Two years after his death, Queen Christina of Sweden, then living in Rome, commissioned Filippo Baldinucci to write his biography, (translated in 1996 as “the life of Bernini”, a work which is still well worth reading.

Bernini’s works are featured in Dan Brown’s novel Angels and Demons as markers and Altars of Science.

A touch of “Swan Song” and a dash of “The Stand”…Very good post-apocalyptic tale in the mode and mood of R. McCammon’s “Swan Song” and S. King’s “The Stand”. ★★★★★

Excerpt from Troop of Shadows:

Colleyville, Texas

Dani cursed the weight of her backpack. The final two items from the ransacked Walgreens, crammed in as an afterthought ten minutes ago, might cost her everything. After surviving the last twelve months of hell only to be thwarted now by a can of Similac and a twelve-pack of Zest soap, would be sadly anticlimactic. Despite running at a full sprint down a dark suburban street, dodging overflowing garbage cans while eluding three men who would steal her hard-won tubes of Neosporin and likely rape and kill her in the process, she snorted at the thought of a fictional headline: Young Woman’s Life Ends Tragically but Zestfully Clean.

Damn it, she would ditch the backpack. She could come back tomorrow night for it, but right now staying alive outweighed any future benefit its contents might provide. As her pursuers rounded the corner behind her, she darted across the front lawn of a house and leaped over a cluster of dead juniper shrubs. A year ago, those shrubs had been green, manicured, and providing curb appeal to the upscale neighborhood; they functioned now as a hurdle component in the obstacle course Dani navigated on most nights.

She angled toward the side of the house and around the corner, only to come to an abrupt stop next to a six-foot barricade. Residents of these sprawling bedroom communities situated between Dallas and Fort Worth clung to their privacy fences as fiercely as their rural counterparts did to their firearms. Why all those day-trading dads and cheerleader moms required such secrecy was beyond Dani. She didn’t care. All that mattered was how difficult they made her nightly forages. Only idiots or people with a death wish traveled alone on the streets anymore. The clever ones navigated through backyards and drainage ditches, shadowed easements and alleyway, avoiding open spaces and other humans.

Especially humans traveling in groups.

Stealth and caution were second nature to her now, and she was pissed at herself for loading up the backpack with more weight than she could easily carry at a full run.

Rookie mistake.

She flung the pack into the undergrowth of a once meticulous garden, making a mental note of the enormous red tip photinia which camouflaged the bundle in a leafy shroud. She hoped to be alive the next day to retrieve it.

She clambered up the fence, finding a toehold on a warped plank, and squirmed over the top. A silver fingernail of a moon did little to illuminate the backyard. Weak starlight reflected off the inky surface of a half-empty, kidney-shaped swimming pool. Her Nikes gripped the concrete deck as she skirted the murky water and made a beeline for the back of the yard that was, of course, separated from its neighbor by a privacy fence. It was a tall one too — a full ten feet. There were no bushes or trees to use for leverage either. She scanned the area for anything that might serve as a step ladder.

Of all the yards she could have chosen for her escape, she’d picked one with a damn ten-foot fence.

Her heart raced from the sprint, but not from panic. Gone was the young woman from a year ago, the full-time floundering college dropout and part-time surly Starbucks barista who spent too much time reading books and not enough time looking for a job that would allow her to move out of her parents’ house. She was too smart for her own good, everyone had told her. She should have taken that secretarial position in North Dallas, but she would have lost her sanity in that environment. The tedious filing, the ringing phones, the office politics — in other words, hell on earth for a girl with an IQ over a hundred and fifty.

Despite the recent horrors, she’d come into her own at last, after twenty-one years of meandering through life unfocused and unchallenged. The extra twenty pounds she’d been carrying courtesy of Freddy’s cheeseburgers and Taco Bell burritos were gone, thanks to her newfound self-discipline and endless hours of Krav Maga training with Sam. Not only had she transformed her body, she’d elevated and strengthened her mind as well. Before the power had gone out, she’d watched countless tutorials on T’ai Chi, Qigong, and Buddhist meditation. During that same window — when people were beginning to get sick, but before most of them had died — she’d combed book stores and libraries within a fifteen-mile radius. When the country went dark and people realized that life-saving information was no longer available with a few keystrokes, Dani had amassed reference material on subjects as diverse as hydroponics and combat first aid, ancient meat drying techniques and bomb making. Between martial arts lessons with Sam, she spent every spare minute absorbing the printed esoteric knowledge like a greedy lizard on a sun-drenched rock.

Knowledge was survival.

When the first of the men slithered over the fence into the backyard, she hadn’t found anything to use as a foothold. Another figure followed behind him. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and released it from her lungs, slow and measured, then took off at a full run toward them. While she ran, fingers slid down to a leather sheath secured to her belt. Two seconds before she reached the first of her would-be assailants, a Ka-Bar — the grandaddy of tactical knives — was in her hand.

Dani used momentum and every ounce of her one-hundred-twenty pound frame to slam the first man into the second, knocking both assailants off-balance and unprepared for her next move: a vicious stab to the groin of the first. He collapsed to his knees. She followed with a backhand movement, opening up the throat of his companion. A similar gesture to the man with the injured groin silenced his moaning.

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