I can only give you a glimpse of the spectacular art that awaits you in Rome, but I hope it inspires you to go a-hunting for art next time you're there! First, a crash course in the awesomeness of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and in a second post, other art highlights from our first Roman adventure.
Art history classes were some of my favourite from my undergraduate degree, especially one particular night class focused on Italian art. While campus drained of students who had no more to learn for the rest of the day, I wasted a ridiculous amount of time between my classes anticipating the darkened lecture theatre where I could watch masterpieces come to life on the screen, their histories and mysteries laid bare by my professor.
I've thought of those nights often because I feel I've never seen anything so indulgent and skillful in my life. The thought of going to Rome and seeing the artwork in person gave me butterflies.
Sculpture is a particularly mystifying area of the arts for me. I can draw and paint but sculpting is all sorcery and magic. I once made a concrete sculpture (terrible idea by the way) and it was the ugliest thing I have ever seen. It was supposed to be an elegant tea light holder with a hummingbird on top but ended up a lumpy seagull on a tripod. Don't ask me why I thought concrete anything could be elegant. I was obviously insane. It sat in the front yard of my parents' house until its beak rusted through and my mom asked me if it would be ok to throw it out.
So more than half of my Roman itinerary included gazing in awe at sculptures that were indeed made with sorcery and magic. The most amazing are those by Bernini, who was both a sculptor and architect. His work was the face of Rome in the seventeenth century. Bernini, to this day, is everywhere in Rome, and his influence is felt throughout Europe. He worked with six popes, each with their own personal style and ambitions, and yet all trusted Bernini's abilities and sensibilities. The book 'Bernini' by ATS Italia Editrice says: "Gian Lorenzo Bernini, now as in his own day, remains a peerless figure, the absolute arbiter of the artistic tastes of his time."
That's a pretty powerful thing to say about someone many of us have never heard of! I don't think Bernini is a household name in Canada, but maybe it should be. You've heard of Michelangelo (the non-ninja turtle)? Bernini is the Michelangelo of the seventeenth century.
Why are Bernini's sculptures so special? Bernini had the ability to carve life into his marble. There is always something about the facial expression or the movement of the composition that makes it entirely possible that it could come to life at any moment. The smallest of details betray the spark of life, like the way Jupiter's fingers dig into Proserpina's thigh; David's mouth is clenched with the effort of bringing down Goliath; or, how Daphne's toes merge into roots and hair into leaves as she transforms into a laurel tree to escape the advances of Apollo.
The Borghese Gallery is the place to see some of Bernini's most spectacular sculptures in their intended environment. I'll warn you that it's a bit of a hassle. You must call to reserve your visit in advance, arrive 40 minutes early, and stand in line for your strictly enforced two-hour gallery visit. Very serious security guards kick you out ten minutes before your time is up. But it's worth it.
After you've visited the Borghese Gallery, you might as well appreciate Bernini's work at The Vatican.
St. Peter's Square's "big hug" design was Bernini's. The colonnades extending out from either side of St. Peter's Basilica are topped by 140 statues of saints each 3.1 meters tall!
Everything at St. Peter's Basilica is ridiculous in scale when you find out how tall individual elements are, and yet somehow everything feels in proportion. All the columns in the fours rows look the same, but they change in diameter to preserve the colonnade appearance despite the curved design. It's all a skillful optical illusion, and a marvel of Roman Baroque architectural achievement.
Baroque, by the way, is an artistic style characterized by opulence. Everything is heavily decorated, bright and full of drama. If it looks gaudy and exaggerated, and just too much, it's probably baroque.
Inside St. Peter's Basilica, you will find many more details by Bernini. I'll just touch on a couple and leave you to discover the rest. The focal point of St. Peter's is the bronze canopy which is 28 meters or eight stories high! That it seems to fit perfectly into the basilica despite its bulk and size, comes down to the delicate details echoing fabric, leaves, cherubs and bees (the symbol of the then-pope's family) which draw your eye up and around the whole piece.
As we understand from our guide, two Statue of Libertys could fit stacked under the vaulted dome of the basilica. It doesn't feel this impossibly large in real life because of the seamless scale of design throughout the building.
Behind the canopy on the far wall of the Basilica is the Monument of the Cathedra of St. Peter. Another immense bronze piece, this one contains a chair that was said to have been used by the Apostle Peter. It is surrounded by four bronze statues of the Doctors of the Greek and Latin church which are each 5.35 meters high, and above, the central window called the Dove of the Holy Spirit glows as the light source for the mass of cherubs and clouds surrounding it.
The cross-vault around the canopy was also designed by Bernini, although he only did one of the four sculptures, St. Longinus. The cross-vault contains the most important relics of Christianity: the Holy Lance of Longinus, the fragments of the True Cross, the veil marked with Christ's face and the head of St. Andrew - each located behind the balcony above each statue.
The Funerary Monument to Pope Alexander VII is also one of my favourites. Bernini was the designer and supervisor of this monument, although he did not do the work himself. The skeleton covered by the marble drapery holds an hourglass and helps to disguise a door as the doorway to eternity. The four lower figures in white marble represent Charity (front left), Truth (front right), Prudence (back left) and Justice (back right) and the top figure is Pope Alexander VII. An interesting note is that by the time the work was almost complete, Pope Innocent XI objected to the nudity of Truth, and Bernini had to cover her with an additional bronze decoration. This was not an uncommon occurence in religious artwork, but frustrating for the artists trying to execute their vision.
For a last Bernini treat, visit the Church of Santa Maria Della Vittoria to see his sculpture of The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (of Avila), which he was known to say was his most beautiful work. The church itself is breathtaking, an intimate space where architecture, painting and sculpture blend into one seamless work of art. Bernini's sculpture depicts the moment at which an angel pierces St. Teresa's heart with the burning arrow of God's love.
It's an intense moment, both mystical and sensual as she describes it in her autobiography 'The Life of Teresa of Jesus:'
I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.
The window above is designed to cast a glow on the centre of the sculpture, which, as you can see in the above photograph, you can witness if you visit in the afternoon. This was our favourite church visit in Rome—it was quiet, we got fairly close to the artwork and we left feeling a sense of reverence, religious or not.
It was difficult to pick my favourite Berninis because in Rome we really didn't need to look very far to find him. Bernini was everywhere! Whether you realize it or not, you'll come across him in a fountain or bridge or church. It's just a little more special when you can put a face and a name to the masterpiece that stands before you. Enjoy Rome, and let me know what your favourite is!