Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (December 7, 1598, Napoles – November 28, 1680, Rome) was a sculptor, architect, draughtsman and painter, son of Pietro Bernini. Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini is considered the most outstanding sculptor of the 17th century and a formative influence on the development of the Italian Baroque style. His astonishing abilities as a marble carver were combined with an inventive genius of the highest order.

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini
"David" by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini

Bernini was born in Naples but his father, Pietro, was a Florentine sculptor who taught his gifted son all he knew at the earliest age. When the boy was seven the family moved to Rome, to work for the powerful Borghese and Barberini families; and at eight he was already hard at it with his chisel. At ten Bernini produced his first authenticated work, a decorative piece for the garden - The Goat Amalthea with the Infant Jupiter and a Faun (Rome, Borghese), an astonishingly accomplished work for anyone, let alone a child of his age. In Rome, Bernini was able to absorb not only the new realism of Caravaggio, which remained the basis of all his work whatever the nature of his designs, he always sought to achieve total verisimilitude in their parts but the revived classicism of the Carracci. Bernini later paid tribute to their example and said that, as a boy, he had done endless drawings of the Greek and Roman statues then to be seen in Rome. Indeed, his feeling for Greek art was such that, until recently, one of his works was classified as Hellenistic from 300 BC. By the age of twenty-two years, Bernini completed the bust of Pope Paul V.

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini

"The Angel with the Crown of Thorns" (1668-1671) by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini

Bernini's sculptural output was immense and varied. At the end of April 1665, at the height of his fame and powers, he traveled to Paris, remaining there until November. Bernini's international popularity was such that on his walks in Paris the streets were lined with admiring crowds.

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


Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini
"Borghese Hermaphroditus" (Louvre) by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini

Bernini's first architectural project was the magnificent bronze St. Peter's baldachin (1624-1633), the canopy over the high altar of St. Peter's Basilica, and the façade for the church of Santa Bibiana (1624).

Bernini did not build many churches from scratch, preferring instead to concentrate on the embellishment of pre-existing structures. Bernini 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 which includes the statue of St. Andrew the Apostle soaring high above the aedicule framing the high altar. Bernini also designed churches in Castelgandolfo (San Tommaso da Villanova) and Ariccia (Santa Maria Assunta).

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini
"Apollo and Daphne" by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini

True to the decorative dynamism of Baroque, Roman fountains, part public works and part Papal monuments, were among Bernini´s most gifted creations. Bernini's fountains are the Fountain of the Triton and the Barberini Fountain (Fontana delle api). The Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) in the Piazza Navona is a masterpiece of spectacle and political allegory. An oft-repeated, but false, anecdote tells that one of the Bernini's river gods defers his gaze in disapproval of the facade of Sant'Agnese in Agone (designed by the talented, but less politically successful, rival Francesco Borromini). However, the fountain was built several years before the façade of the church was completed.

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini
"Fontana del Moro" (Piazza Navona, Rome) by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini

Bernini also revolutionized marble busts, lending glamorous dynamism to once stony stillness of portraiture. Bernini believed in total realism, so the likeness had to be exact. But he wanted the truthful face to emerge from a swirl of hair and upper garments, to give dynamism and movement to what is otherwise a static form of art. Bernini was always thinking of how to make marble live and speak.

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini
"Damned soul" (1619) (Spanish embassy, Palazzo di Spagna, Rome) by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini

Bernini also gained royal commissions from outside Italy, for subjects such as Louis XIV, Cardinal Richelieu, Francesco I d'Este, Charles I of England and Henrietta Maria. Virtuosity of design and conception was complemented by a willingness to use different sorts of marble, as well as both painting and architecture to enhance sculptural form.

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