By the age of ten, Gian Lorenzo Bernini had garnered so much attention for his talent, he was presented to the Pope in Rome. And on seeing the young prodigy draw in his presence, the Pope declared Bernini would grow up to become the Michelangelo of his age. Maybe it was a tall claim to make for a boy of ten but ultimately one Bernini would live up to.
No other single artist has shaped a city as much as Bernini did for Rome in the 17th Century. “Bernini, you were made for Rome and Rome for you,” Pope Urban VIII famously declared. As principle architect for the church, Bernini had his hand in designing pretty much every corner of the city and came to define the Baroque movement itself.
With a personal life as fascinating as the works he produced, it’s no wonder this artist has continued to capture our imagination through the ages. So let’s take a look at seven of Bernini’s most groundbreaking works that earned him his claim to fame.
1. Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence
Born in 1598, Bernini got his start under the mentorship of his father, Pietro Bernini, a famous artist commissioned to work for the Pope. Pietro’s influence and guidance is readily apparent in the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, which Gian Lorenzo completed in his teen years.
The sculpture depicts the moment when St. Lawrence is burned alive on a gridiron. The work was praised for the fact that fire, metal, skin, and cloth were all rendered in one piece. It’s a textural challenge artists didn’t attempt too often at the time.
The solid work earned Bernini’s reputation as a prodigy. Later in life, Bernini would play down his father’s role in these earlier works in order to fuel the storyline that his young genius sprang up organically. As gifted as he was, he was never known for being too modest about his talent.
2. The Rape of Proserpina
Bernini had a way of making viewers forget they were looking at sculptures made from stone. Completed in 1622, the rape of Proserpina is one of the best examples of this fact.
The sculpture depicts the climactic moment when Pluto captures the object of his desire, Proserpina (Persephone), to take back to the Underworld as his bride. In true Baroque style, Bernini put a supreme focus on the drama of the scene and used realism as a means for eliciting an emotional reaction from the viewer.
Proserpina has a look of true terror on her face. Even teardrops carve their way down her cheeks. Meanwhile, the pursuer in this game of cat and mouse, Pluto gives off a shudderingly sinister grin. Most stunning of all may be the way Pluto’s fingers press into the flesh of Proserpina’s thigh so that we feel viscerally his lustful grasp on her.
Bernini’s statue of David is very much a response to Michelangelo’s version in Florence. Here, Bernini turned David into a full-grown man full of vitality and emotion. His brows are furrowed and his gaze intensely focused. Every muscle in his body is tensed and wound up, ready to sling the stone against an imaginary Goliath somewhere behind the viewer. Like in his other works, Bernini maximized drama by catching the subject in its most climactic moment. A moment later and all of David’s strength will release.
4. Apollo and Daphne
Bernini caught this pair right at the turning point of their story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Relentlessly pursued by Apollo, Daphne resorts to praying to her father, a river god, to turn her into a tree in hopes this would finally make him relent. Though in the story, he still didn’t.
In the sculpture, Daphne’s arms begin to transform into branches and her feet turn into roots. Begun in 1622, Bernini didn’t complete the piece until 1625 and employed a lot of help to sculpt it. Much of the tree portions and Daphne’s hair were done by his apprentice, Giuliano Finelli.
Bernini regularly relied on the help of apprentices and often delegated his work. For this reason, he holds a reputation not just for his creative talent but as a businessman and a sought after employer in Rome.
5. Two Busts of Cardinal Scipione Borghese
While the two busts of Cardinal Scipione Borghese are impressive to look at, the story behind why Bernini created two is even more intriguing. Late into carving the first version, Bernini found a prominent flaw in the marble that ran right across the Cardinal’s forehead. So in just two weeks, he began and completed the second version secretly. When it came time to present the bust to the Cardinal, he first unveiled the flawed sculpture. The Cardinal was impressed but couldn’t hide a bit of disappointment in seeing the line across the forehead. Then Bernini revealed the second bust to the Cardinal’s complete shock and delight.
6. Bust of Costanza Bonarelli
The most intimate of all Bernini’s works was not well-received by the critics of his day. The bust was modeled after Bernini’s mistress and the wife of one of his apprentices, Costanza Bonarelli. Her animated countenance, seemingly frozen in mid-speech, carries a tenderness and warmth to it that immediately creates a sense of familiarity with the viewer. But Bernini’s choice to depict a common woman, with her blouse scandalously undone and her hair disheveled, proved too much for the public to handle. Bernini may have been too far ahead of his time with this sculpture as it better reflects the style of the century after his.
Unfortunately, their affair wouldn’t end happily and Bonarelli would pay a heavy price. One day, Bernini learned Bonarelli was having an affair with his younger brother and in a rage, he sent his servant to Bonarelli’s house to slash her face with a razor. Amazingly, this was a somewhat common tactic for men at the time to retaliate against women who slighted or rejected them.
Bernini’s servant would be sent into exile for the crime while Bonarelli was jailed for adultery. But Pope Urban VIII intervened on Bernini’s behalf so he’d receive no punishment. Instead, the Pope urged Bernini to settle down with a wife. He acquiesced and married a Roman woman, Caterina Tezio, with whom he had 11 children.
7. Ecstasy of Saint Teresa
Bernini himself acknowledged the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa as his greatest work when he described it as “the least bad thing I have ever done.” The grand display incorporates architecture, sculpture, and painting in perfect harmony.
Many were scandalized by the sculpture and it’s easy to see why. It depicts an episode described by the nun, Teresa of Avila, when she was visited by an angel from God who thrust a golden spear into her heart and filled her with an orgasmic love of the Lord. In order to maintain piety, Bernini transferred much the sexual undertone of the story into Teresa’s clothing. The folds of her cloak ripple down her body like stormy ocean waves and cry out the same ecstasy as on her face.
The work is housed in the Carnaro family chapel. It was one of many private commissions Bernini completed after falling out of favor with the sitting Pope and losing his status as the principle architect of the Church. Though Bernini had formed a close alliance with Pope Urban VIII, the new Pope Innocent X favored the works of his rival Borromini – another genius architect of Rome and one of Bernini’s former apprentices. Bernini’s reputation was further tarnished when the bell tower at Saint Peters, one of his earlier projects under the former Pope, was demolished after showing major cracks in the walls.
But the Ecstasy’s completion in 1652 became the catalyst for Bernini’s career comeback. The undeniably stunning work brought him back to work under the Pope and solidified his legacy as Rome’s greatest sculptor of the 17th century.