Baroque Rome in the Footsteps of Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Tamara Thiessen
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Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona, Rome. All photos courtesy of the author.

A s one walks the city of Rome, its major public squares and bridges, basilicas, galleries and other holy places, the work of 17th century sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini appear to accompany the visitor. No other artist, pope or urban planner had a more enduring impact on the look of the Eternal City today. From the colonnades of St. Peter’s Square to the fountains of Piazzas di Spagna, Popolo, Navona and Barberini – Bernini sculpted Rome’s look like no other. xxxxx

A rivaling contribution comes from the architect Francesco Borromini. History has ironically turned these adversaries into allies of a kind—co-creators of Rome’s enduring Baroque beauty.

At the Vatican, I get a glimpse into the reasons behind Bernini power. In the secret archives are notices of payments made to him between October 10, 1669 and February 1670, in the latter years of the virtuoso sculptor’s life. At the time he was in his early seventies – that’s decades after his meteoric rise to sculptor stardom in his early twenties. (Later came a dramatic and near fatal from papal grace, followed by a miraculous creative resurrection).

Such was the level of involvement between certain church leaders and the Baroque epoch’s blistering talent; there was good reason to keep it under lock and key for several centuries. Vatican connections could make or break an artist’s fortunes in the 17th century. They could also change in a wink with a switch of pope – or if the church no longer felt it was banking on brilliance. Which is precisely what happened to Bernini. The Vatican was the hub of his rise to and fall from grace. Despite spectacular early success in the pope’s inner circles, his career and personal life went dangerously off the rails in his late forties …   

Things started exceedingly early for the young prodigy. A year after arriving in Rome in 1605, Pope Paul V hailed him the next Michelangelo. He was just 7 years old. The remark came after watching the artist sketch with velocity the head of St. Paul.

With one of his most famous sculptures David under his belt by the age of 21 –Apollo and Daphne four years later –  the dashing artist captured the hearts of popes and other rich private patrons with his vigorous, soul-stirring, seemingly flesh-and-blood sculptures.    Knighted by Gregory XV in 1621, and henceforth called “il Cavaliere”, Bernini was chummy with the greatest patrons of the era – Cardinal Scipioni Borghese and Cardinal Maffeo Barberini. The latter supported Bernini through his two decades as Pope Urban VIII starting in 1623. A charismatic and clever courtier, Bernini www.artesmagazine.comexcelled at gliding through the political quicksand and scoring commissions, whereas his greatest rival, the brilliant but embittered Borromini, floundered.

In 1624, Urban VIII handed Bernini the plum job of redesigning one of Rome’s most famous religious sites — the 95 foot baldacchino canopy rising up over the papal altar of St Peter’s (left). As with most of Bernini’s architectural oeuvres he again turned architecture to art. Unveiled in 1633, his flamboyant bronze creation stands upon four gigantic, twisted candy columns, festooned with cherubs, laurel leaves and smiling suns. Acanthus leaves entwine the capitals and base.

Bernini toiled nine years on the baldacchino, using 6 tonnes of metal, and “liberally scattering” as the Vatican puts it the canopy with heraldic bees of the Barberini family.  Stone bees, marble bees and golden bees swarm about Barberini-built Rome of the Baroque epoch. A hive of them can be seen on his delightful little Fontana delle Api – the bee fountain (right) – in one corner of Piazza www.artesmagazine.comBarberini. Each was a bee in the bonnet for Francesco Borromini.

Behind the scenes there was rising bitterness about Bernini’s monopolization of 17th-century artistic life. Many artists complained of the difficulty of finding work without his (and the pope’s) blessing. No one was more brooding than Borromini, who lived out his life largely in Bernini’s shadow. Apart from almighty talent, Bernini had the pope’s benediction on his side. “Bernini was made for Rome, and Rome for Bernini,” Urban VIII declared in an official apostolic letter issued in the early 1640s. Borromini always found himself in the lesser role, first working on the Palazzo Barberini — then under Bernini as chief architect of St. Peter’s. Borromini, as a trained architect, felt far better qualified for the job.

For Urban VIII, Bernini was a great asset, “a rare man … a sublime artificer, born by divine Disposition and for the glory of Rome to illuminate the century.” The instinctive, fiery nature faceted Bernini’s work, was almost his undoing which – after he had the face of his model and sculpting assistant’s wife, Costanza Bonarelli, brutally disfigured. (The sculpture is housed in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, in Florence).

… The first major cracks in Bernini’s career coincided with those in St. Peter’s façade.

The assignment in 1637 to add bell-towers to the basilica shot Borromini’s resentment sky-high. When a fissure appeared after the first tower was in place, Borromini feasted on Bernini’s humiliation, accusing him of incompetence and providing evidence to authorities that the towers were doomed, as they had been built on shaky ground. When the tower was demolished in 1646, www.artesmagazine.comso briefly, was Bernini’s golden boy image. His staunchest supporter, Pope Urban VIII, died and the new pope, Innocent X, ushered in his favorite: Francesco Borromini.

Borromini’s glory didn’t last long.

Bernini shot back to favor a year later with a sculpture commission from Cardinal Federico Cornaro, for his family chapel in the Santa Maria della Vittoria church on Via Settembre 20. ‘The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa’ (left), set Rome on fire: the nun with her head tilted back, and mouth ajar in rapture, gowns convulsing in ripples of stone, a smiling angel with an arrow standing overhead. In the Middle Ages, Teresa graphically described having her entrails penetrated by an angel with a flame-tipped spear. Bernini’s masterpiece brazenly confounds religious and sexual ecstasy.

Bernini was back with a vengeance. Innocent X subsequently picked his design over that of Borromini’s for the centerpiece Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona (below, right). The only way to resist Bernini, quipped the pope, was not see his designs. The aquatic theater Bernini designed, with spouting cherubs, playful dolphins, and kneeling tritons trumpeting water through conch shells, was a prototype for many future fountains.

From that point until his death in 1680, Bernini triumphed yet again; he was commissioned to complete St. Peter’s Square in 1655, and in his seventies, the much-loved angels on the Ponte Sant’Angelo. For nearly 2000 years the Emperor Hadrian’s bridge has connected the city to the Castel Sant’Angel and western bank of the Tiber.  Until the late 15th century, it was the main pilgrim way for worshippers heading to St. Peter’s. In 1667, Bernini sculpted his glorious cloud-floating angels which tower over both sides of the bridge (below, left), on the request of Pope Clement IX. The angels seem to float through the air swooning, their wings and faces transformed by the sculpting master of movement.

www.artesmagazine.comToday the Rome visitor will be swooning along with them, on their grand passeggiata di Roma.

By Tamara Thiessen, Contributing Writer

Australian-born, Paris-based journalist and photographer Tamara Thiessen specialises in all things travel and culture. Follow her on her blog, Balades With Tamara, at

Read more about the behind-the-scenes bickering between Baroque’s protagonists in Tamara Thiessen’s Chronicles of Old Rome, Museyon Publishing.  

One Comment

  1. Marc jérusalmi May 5, 2016 7:39 pm

    Very nice and well written. I did not know so many things. Amazing that an Australian journalist can tell us so much of interest about our old continent. Congratulations.

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