Bernini’s Genius: How One Man Created Many Top Attractions in Rome

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), was an Italian artist who is widely loved and respected. His 70-year career includes fountains, vases, grand palazzi, and office buildings. He designed churches and painted portraits. His mother was Neapolitan, and his father Florentine. But Bernini was most closely connected to Rome where he lived and worked almost his entire life.

Bernini’s most famous works include the stunning collonade right in front of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Fountain of the Four Rivers at Piazza Navona are some of Bernini’s most well-known works. Also, the huge baldachin above the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa are just a few of the hundreds of other artifacts scattered throughout Rome, Florence and beyond.

Bernini, a sculptor and painter as well as an architect, was one of Rome’s last true Renaissance men. However, his work actually belongs to the Baroque period. This was just after the Renaissance, and marked the abandonment or rationality in favour of emotion, movement and drama. Although Bernini did not invent the Baroque style of painting, he helped to popularize it. It is one of the most important cultural expressions of 17th century Italy. His vision of Rome, both architecturally and artistically, is what you will remember when you think about Rome today.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Self portrait painted between 1630-1635. Photo from the Galleria Borghese

How is it possible that Bernini created so many structures and sculptures that are still a top attraction in Rome? His wild and sometimes chaotic life was filled with passion and religious devotion. Below, you will find the locations and stories of his most notable works.


The child prodigy


Pietro carved the Fontana della Barcaccia near the Spanish Steps. Photo by Steve Johnson.

Pietro Bernini, Bernini’s father was a sculptor and tutored him from an early age. At just eight years old, Bernini was recognized for his talent by the Pope. The artist quickly gained wide recognition and was soon awarded major commissions.

The Fontana della Barcacia, located at the foot the Spanish steps, is a great place to see the work of the young Bernini. While his father is the one who has the credit for the fountain, many believe that Bernini was also responsible. He also created the magnificent Baldacchino while still in his 20s. The enormous altar canopy is made of bronze from the Pantheon and may be a tribute to Barberini Pope Urban VII. It is a must-see, regardless of your feelings about it.


The family man

Bernini, the sixth of 12 siblings, must have grown up in a large family. He later had 11 children with Caterina Tezio, his young wife. In fact, Bernini was very “old” for the 17th century when he married Caterina Tezio in an arranged marriage. He was 41 years old and his wife was only 22.

These were not great years for Bernini as a professional. His work was attacked by Innocent X, a rival Pamphili politician. Urban VII had previously loved him. You won’t be able to see Bernini’s most well-known work during these years. He constructed two bell towers to support the facade of St. Peter’s Cathedral, but cracks started to develop in them the year he got married. Both bell towers were torn down, despite him being exonerated later. But you can’t keep a man like Bernini down forever. He rose to fame after the bell-tower disaster and won the commission to design a fountain to replace the family’s recently renovated plaza, the Piazza Navona. The Fountain of the Four Rivers was his masterpiece and is still one of the most popular attractions in Rome.


The Philanderer


After posing as an actress, Costanza Bonarelli was made into an artist’s mistress. Photo by Sailko, via Wikicommons.

Bernini was involved in a passionate affair before he married Costanza Bonarelli. Bernini, the wife of one his assistants fell in love with her after she was his model. Costanza’s sensual and suggestive bust sculpture, which he carved with wavy hair and parted lips and an open neckline is a testament to his passion for the subject.

The whole thing came to an abrupt halt when Bernini witnessed Costanza leave the home of his brother Luigi one morning. The sculptor pursued his brother with the crowbar and broke bones, before following him with a sword. Luigi, who had sought refuge in Santa Maria Maggiore, was saved. However, Costanza sent a servant to Bernini, where he slashed Costanza’s face with a razor. Bernini was punished but eventually forgiven by Pope Francis because he was too important for the art world at the time. His servant was blamed, Luigi ran for cover and Costanza, who later became a well-known art dealer in Rome, took the blame.

The famous Bernini lover’s bust is not located in Rome, but in Florence’s Museo Nazionale del Bargello. For a similar depiction by Bernini of an unhappy love affair, visit the Borghese Gallery to see his Apollo and Daphne. This is a groundbreaking depiction that shows a young nymph becoming a tree in order to escape the predatory eye of Apollo, the sun god. The gallery also features the beautiful and heartbreaking Pluto and Persephone. This depicts another licentious god, the eponymous Pluto. He kidnaps a terrified woman to return to his underworld home.

The devout Christian

Bernini was a Catholic despite his actions of crowbarring his brother and sending an assassin using a razor blade to his lover. Bernini attended mass every day, followed the instructions of St. Ignatius, Loyola’s spiritual exercises, and sought out spiritual guidance from priests. It is evident that his close friendship with the Jesuit head had a significant influence on his art, especially towards the end of his career.

You can see some outstanding examples of Bernini’s religious works by looking at the Ponte Sant’Angelo statues of angels as you cross the Tiber towards the Vatican from Central Rome. These Bernini-designed angels, which were actually carved in his class by Bernini’s students, were nicknamed the “Breezy Maniacs”, shortly after their creation. This is apparently due to the holy wind that threatens to blow them off of the bridge. The originals now sit in Sant’Andrea delle Fratte.

The patriot


Bernini might not have loved France, but he was able to create a magnificent bust of King Louis XIV. Photo by Louis le Grand

Bernini visited Paris, France in 1665 to discuss designs for the Louvre. Louis XIV was then the most powerful monarch in the world. Bernini had never left Rome since his arrival. He was already eager to return home less than six months after his arrival. He believed he was surrounded by cultural barbarians, and made constant comments to anyone who would listen about the inferiority of Paris compared to Rome. His behavior, as you can imagine, didn’t win him any friends – French friends anyway – and his plans were ultimately never used.

However, he did create one outstanding work during the trip. His bust depicting King Louis XIV is widely regarded as one of his most important sculptures. It also stands out as a great example of Baroque art. This is even more remarkable when you consider that Bernini completed it within 40 days. He apparently managed to get 20 meetings with the king, where he watched the young monarch and worked on the marble. The Palace of Versailles currently displays the bust.


The Renaissance (Baroque) man.

Bernini was almost comically prolific in his art. Bernini was responsible for defining the architectural style and artistic style in Rome and Italy. He also wrote and staged numerous plays at the Barberini Palace Theater, Rome. He not only wrote the plays, but he also performed in them. His set designs and special effects were notable. Many of these were not common at the time. His plays featured rising platforms and flames that destroyed one set, but showed another behind it, and floods from Tiber River that threatened the audience before disappearing down an invisible drain.

Bernini’s spectacle was witnessed by an Englishman, who wrote in 1644 his diary, “Bernini…gave public opera wherein the scenes were painted, cut the statues and engines invented, the music composed, the comedy written, and built the theatre.”

Even though none of his stage designs survived, it is possible to appreciate Bernini’s theatricality in the Elephant Obelisk at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. The elephant smiles and looks back as if it is about to leave a gift for someone. It was probably done so because the hind end of the elephant faces a Dominican monastery nearby, which was Bernini’s rival for the commission. The rival claimed that the elephant could not support the weight of an obelisk. So the design was altered with a “saddlecloth”, which hides a large stone support block. Bernini felt it destroyed the sense of wonder he had intended to instill with his design. He retaliated by directing the business of the elephant who was fecating towards the monastery.


The maker of some of the most dangerous religious sculptures in Christendom.


The Ecstasy Saint Teresa was a radical departure from religious art of the past. However, once critics had overcome their shock, the sculpture became widely recognized as an extraordinary depiction of the past and a work of art. Photo by Napoleon Vier

Bernini was a pioneer in Baroque art that emphasized the emotive and humanistic style. This shocked both common people as well as connoisseurs. His art was extraordinarily sensual and lifelike and a scandalous contrast to the Classical and Renaissance styles which adhered to rigid rules regarding how religious figures should be depicted.

Bernini’s masterpiece, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is the culmination of this sensuous-to-the-point-of-blasphemy style. It is located in Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. It depicts an angel thrusting his spear into Saint Teresa’s breast. This brings the saint, who is swooning and rapturous, into the heavens in a scene that’s akin to religious ecstasy. There is nothing erotical to be seen here, siree.

The statue is lit by hidden windows and golden sunbursts, which reminds the viewer of Bernini’s love for stage design and theater. The carved statues of Cornaro relatives watching the Saint, as though in a theatre, are even more shocking than his apparent physical joy. They did, however, commission the work.

The scene is one of the most popular religious sculptures in Rome. It’s so striking that even Bernini’s most staunch skeptics at the time admitted that he had a rare talent in the West.


Are you a Bernini fan? Or are you interested in seeing more of his work in Rome? Please leave your comments.