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Bernini Phenomenon

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Few artists have ever come close to Giovanni Lorenzo (or Gianlorenzo) Bernini in status and fame. He was the sculptor, architect, artist and designer of Rome as we know this city. For popes and kings, he was more than an ordinary artist, rather, a minister with whom they dined and communicated on an equal footing. Bernini was so important that when the Sun King Louis XIV wanted him to come to work in France for a few months — it was the only time the sculptor left Rome for a long time in the prime of his career — it became the subject of difficult diplomatic negotiations.
Bernini was not only a friend of the rulers, but also a popular superstar. When he left Rome for France, whole crowds saw him off, and mass celebrations continued in Paris. The artist said that he felt like a travelling elephant, an exotic animal that everyone wanted to see.

Bernini’s projects for the Louvre never materialized due to the antagonism between the Italian artist and some French courtiers. However, the portrait bust, which was the result of a more personal relationship between the king and the sculptor, was completed and called "the greatest portrait of the Baroque
The baroque style replaced the Renaissance, and it sought to shock the soul, in contrast to the Renaissance art, which kept the distance between an artwork and the audience. It surely succeeded: the pictorial pearls of those times are the true treasures. Read more
era".
Bernini has always been an object of admiration. He seems to never have had bad periods. The prodigy child was born in 1598 in Naples into the family of Angelica Galante and the mannerist sculptor Pietro Bernini from Florence. His career brought his father to Rome, where he took Giovanni Lorenzo with him, his sixth of thirteen children. There, the boy of about ten years old, was introduced to Pope Paul V. The Pontiff looked at his drawings, declared him a new Michelangelo and allowed him to take as much gold from the bag as the children’s hands could hold.

This determined the nature of Bernini’s entire life — to work for successive popes, to endure his comparison with Michelangelo and receive money. He died at 82 in wealth and honour.
According to the life rules, he should be forgotten now. The artist himself predicted that he would cease to be appreciated after death — and that was until the 20th century. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, he was considered a careless and eclectic artist. This is most vividly illustrated by the story of The Rape of Proserpina, a sculptural group that Bernini completed when he was only 23 years old.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The abduction of Proserpina (detail)

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. The Rape of Proserpina (detail). Borghese Gallery, Rome

The dynamic new concept that he introduced in this scene defined the sculptural canons for the next 150 years. Connoisseurs noted the realistic effects that the artist achieved on solid marble — the texture of the skin, the strands of hair, the tears of Proserpina and most of all, the pliant body of the girl.

"I subdued marble, I made it plastic like wax.." Bernini wrote. And his son and biographer Domenico called the scene "an amazing contrast of tenderness and cruelty".

However, in the 18th and 19th centuries, critics looked for errors in the statue and found them. The Frenchman Jérôme de Lalande allegedly wrote: "Pluto’s back is broken; his figure is extravagant, characterless, it lacks nobility of its expression and features poor outlines; the woman is no better." Another of his compatriots, who visited Villa Ludovisi, where the work was located, said: "Pluto's head is vulgarly pederastic; his crown and beard make him funny, the muscles and posture are emphatically expressive. This is not a true divinity, but a decorative god…"

But in the twentieth century, the riot and expression of Bernini’s art were again called the quintessence of the High Baroque
The baroque style replaced the Renaissance, and it sought to shock the soul, in contrast to the Renaissance art, which kept the distance between an artwork and the audience. It surely succeeded: the pictorial pearls of those times are the true treasures. Read more
. Today Bernini is on a par with Rubens, they are the greatest maîtres of the style.
Perhaps Bernini can be called a propagandist of the Counter-Reformation and a devoted servant of authority and absolutism, but there is something personal in his art, even the most public one. "Bernini shaped the very fabric of Rome, he designed imposing religious and public spaces, icons of saints and monarchs; nevertheless, there is something intimate, subjective in the fixed centre of his vortex aesthetics, which speaks at a very frank and simple level," said British art critic Jonathan Jones.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Thomas Baker

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. Bust of Thomas Baker (1638). Victoria and Albert Museum, London

For example, consider the bust of the elegant British courtier Thomas Baker (it is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London now). This nobleman was sent to Rome with the triple portrait of Charles I by Anthony van Dyck. The artist depicted the king from three points of view, so that Bernini, who had never met the ruler, created his bust that would embody the dignity of the absolute monarchy and the Catholic faith as its consequence (before his death, Charles II converted to Catholicism).

In the Eternal City, Baker commissioned Bernini his own image in marble as well. The result is a playful, friendly portrait of the foppish gentleman. Most likely, an apprentice sculptor completed it. However, the statue is, in fact, a work by Bernini — due to the masterly work on marble. The royal bust was destroyed in a fire at Whitehall Palace in 1698.

"Bernini's religious art was so passionate because it was also personal," Jonathan Jones wrote.
In the first half of his career, Bernini argued that he had neither time nor need for a wife, he was not going to have an offspring, and his only children were his sculptures. However, everything changed when an assistant of the sculptor Matteo Bonarelli, accompanied by his wife Constanza, arrived in Rome in 1636. Bernini began a heated romance with her, until in 1640, the artist discovered that his younger brother Luigi also visited his beloved. An enraged jealous man spied on the relative after a night meeting.
Along with the "mundane", the sculptor was a devoted member of the Jesuit laity, believed and practised ardent, dramatic Catholicism, identifying himself with Saints Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila.

This may explain the sudden disturbing intimacy of Bernini’s most famous sculpture, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. The composition is the focal point of the artist-designed Cornaro Chapel in the Roman church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. The viewer feels as if in a theatrical space: in the centre of the "stage" are the main characters — the saint and the angel, who are watched as if from boxes from the right and left by the members of the Cornaro family, imprinted in marble.
The figure of St. Teresa, lying in ecstasy on soft clouds, is flooded with beams of golden light (additional radiance to the sculptural group is given by light from the window behind the altar tympanum, decorated with white and yellow glass). An angel on her left directs a spear into her heart. The saint faints with a groan, the folds of her clothes flow like water, it seems that the body is melting, dissolving.

When Salvador Dalí, in his surreal collage, The Phenomenon of Ecstasy, pointed out the similarity of Catholic images of holy ecstasy with orgasm, he deliberately did it blasphemously. 300 years ago, Bernini was absolutely orthodox. His sculpture is an accurate visualization of the vision of a Spanish saint. In her autobiography, she describes a little angel with a golden spear "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 Counter-Reformation Church needed such legends to win the hearts of the spreading Protestantism: the secret of St. Teresa’s ecstasy lay in her more personal relationship with God, which became available only through her perfect devotion to the Church. Bernini himself believed that he had such a relationship.
He took the idea of suffering in art to a new level. As Domenico Bernini, the son and first biographer of the sculptor, testifies, at the age of 15, he set fire to his own leg to capture the expression of pain on his face on the sketch
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
for the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence sculpture. Contemporary art critics admit: whether this episode is true or not, it was "typical of Bernini".
Bernini’s religious art made the church he served organic, lively and sensual. The same can be said about his architecture. While designing the square along which pilgrims walked to St. Peter’s Basilica, he described it as "the embrace of the church, embracing the faithful". Instead of the classic straight arcade sides, he proposed a vast space with semicircles of colonnades, which enveloped the square and made it seem smaller and more comfortable.
He was the author of the public fountains, which became the magic "brand" of Rome.

During the Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
, fountains were the luxury of private princely gardens. Bernini created such a masterpiece in his early period — Neptune and Triton (c. 1620/1), which adorned the pond in the Roman villa of Montalto until 1786. The sculpture was later bought by an Englishman, and now it is exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Bernini democratized fountains. He invented a new kind of visually compact impressive source to bring city squares to life. His Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) in Piazza Navona is an allegory of papal power, four rivers, four quadrants of the globe, faithful to the Pope. And at the same time, it is a gift to people, pouring fresh cool water all year round over a fantastically skilfully cut stone crowned with an Egyptian obelisk. Bernini said that he loved water, that he was happy watching it flow. He turned it into symbolic blood running through the veins of Rome.

Bernini made the city a place of eternal celebration, making architecture move and live with his fountains, as if he wanted to sculpt water, being not content with bringing stone to life. Today, these fountains remind us of the artist’s lost, short-lived theatrical performances that amazed his contemporaries. In his Tiber Expansion action, the nearby river suddenly burst out of its banks. It was only when it was magically "drained" that the panicked fled public realized that it was a "performance".

Bernini was a revolutionary, an artist close to us. He abandoned the Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
idea that the various arts were rivals — he considered them as an ensemble instead. He practised his own version of installation art in the 17th century. His most striking theatrical performances were performed in the amazing interiors of St. Peter’s — only there he could design large enough decorations that looked harmonious under Michelangelo’s amazing dome.

Bernini was the man whose unconscious has accumulated and poured out in cascades of stone and water all over Rome, who was able to combine his own fantasies with public space. This is why his art is still so exciting, amazing and delightful. Bernini left us a self-portrait in the form of a fairytale city.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Saint Sebastian

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. Saint Sebastian (1617). Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid

In the autumn of 2019, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna decided to conduct a dialogue between the works of Bernini and another great artist who lived in Rome, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The curators wanted to showcase how strong emotions such as fear, horror, surprise, and passion have suddenly become a theme in painting and sculpture. 70 exhibits from the leading public and private collections demonstrated how body movements were determined by the inner impulses and feelings of the subjects.

One of the central pieces at the exhibition was the Saint Sebastian, an early sculpture by Bernini. The unstable, fragile balance of the pose of the hero shot by Roman soldiers reflects the transition between life and death that he experiences. His upward, calm face with parted lips and closed eyes, as well as finely carved marble veins and partly tense body muscles are a prime example of the deep connections between emotional and physical movement that Bernini was researching.

The Caravaggio and Bernini exhibition opened in the Austrian capital on 15 October 2019 and ran until 19 January 2020.