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Bernini’s Brilliance: Sculpture or Architecture?

Alyssa Llanos

Strength, passion, and history combine into sculptural and architectural masterpieces. The sculpture slightly moves, the muscles begin to tense, and the viewer is overwhelmed with emotions. As an important architect and leading sculptor of his time, Gian Lorenzo Bernini worked most of his life in Rome and at the young age of twenty-three he was knighted by Pope Gregory XV. He was a remarkable man of many trades, but many argue whether his career as a sculptor or as an architect was more influential. “His creative genius led contemporaries to think of him as being touched by divine power.”[i] In this paper I will discuss Bernini’s process and execution of sculptures and compare and contrast to his architecture. I will use the sculptural examples of Apollo and Daphne and The Ecstasy of St. Teresa as a basis for mythical and religious pieces and the church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale as an architectural example for comparison. Essentially, I am asking if his architecture responds to the same issues as his sculptures. In some cases, as in many churches, these lines start to blur when his sculptures start to transform into architecture. Where is this line drawn and how/are the sculptures with religious undertones different than the others? Through site visits and article-based research I will investigate these relationships and my own interests further.

According to Bussagli, the work that most astounded Bernini’s contemporaries due to its incomparable genius is Bernini’s version of Apollo and Daphne. He depicts the most dramatic and dynamic moment that was one of the stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.[ii] The sculpture depicts the moment when Apollo finally captures Daphne, however, once he touches her she begins to transform into a laurel tree.[iii] This piece was one of four that Cardinal Borghese commissioned Bernini to create for Borghese’s villa. “The four sculptures commissioned by Cardinal Borghese not only highlighted Bernini’s astonishing technical and stylistic progress, but are also milestones in the development of Baroque poetics, mixing together spectacular effect, emotion, and truth.”[iv] Bernini’s Borghese sculptures were the epitome of talent. All of his sculptural techniques were combined to create precedents that were used for centuries to follow. He took from art, architecture, theater and literature to enhance his designs. This mythical piece is more than a sculpture. It completely captures a moment in time; it freezes a part of the story. Still, the whole story is comprehensible from that one moment; the story unfolds in front of the spectator.

Originally, this piece was to be displayed against a wall, and Bernini never intended for viewers to see substandard rear views. Bernini was extremely critical of his work being placed in the middle of the room, opposite of what he intended as designing. As in the case of many other pieces including The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Bernini originally aimed to make the information clear to the spectator in one extraordinary vision. “In other words, one of Bernini’s most revolutionary steps as a sculptor was to eschew the principles of those Mannerist sculptures which offer a seeming infinite variety of views and send the beholder around and around their forms in an unending search for their meaning.“[v] Some critics believe that the front and backsides of the sculpture are obvious. However, with that view, most still think that the complete work and details all around are impressive. Without knowing this information, though, the typical viewer would not be able to pick out which side was supposed to be the front or back. As a whole, the body language speaks for itself. “The rising arc of Daphne’s long legs and torso directs our attention to her face and hands: we see her cry out and find that her fingers have changed to leaves.”[vi] Her facial expression, with her mouth slightly open, reveals her surprise and dismay that Apollo finally caught her. Apollo’s face is full of concentration, his body, tight and muscular. You can feel both of their pain, simultaneously. “Thus, the transformation that Bernini portrays is not only that of the object but also of the means of knowing that object: sight and distance, with their sweet promises, give way to touch and proximity, with their harsh realities.”[vii]

As common in most of his sculptural pieces, this was also made of white marble. With the surrounding dark walls and dim lighting, the bright, milky marble is now illuminated with a few spotlights. The material gives the sculpture a clean and smooth finish and the details read well in the light-colored material. The piece stands eight feet tall without the base, and is very proportional to the typical human body.

The story behind The Ecstasy of St. Teresa is a more complicated one. There is much discussion over whether Bernini portrayed the real story of her experience of mythical ecstasy, or his own version that is more aesthetically pleasing, and yet very controversial. Call explains, “What may seem a rather cut-and-dry task of devising an appropriate monument to venerate a newly canonized saint actually required an unusual amount of innovation from an artist who had built his reputation on just such challenges.”[viii] Cardinal Federico Cornaro commissioned Bernini requiring that he include the appropriate amount of awe while sticking closely to Teresa’s account.[ix] Warma goes on to say that Bernini recognized that Teresa needed to be represented in a way that the objectives intended were achieved without sacrifices.[x]

Bernini chose a certain viewpoint from which observers should view her story. He wanted to control the viewer’s experience, making sure that every aspect down to recognizing the detail of Federico’s pupil meeting the viewer’s, did not go unnoticed. The viewer is invited to participate in this experience. It is hard not to be captivated by it, to feel her emotion and her pain. “The sculpture also clearly demonstrates Bernini’s desire to make a theatrical set of the altar, an eternal stage on which the great spectacle of faith and revelation is played out.”[xi] Bernini not only used this technique here, but also in many other sculptural and architectural pieces. Bernini, “who was also a comic playwright and theater set designer- seized the opportunity to experiment with the theatrical potential of placing a statue in a niche emphasized with special lighting.”[xii] The Cornaro’s became the spectators in stage boxes with front row seats to witness Teresa’s transverberation, adding another dimension to the story. The amount of detail Bernini included in this piece is never-ending. Each aspect could be picked apart with a story as to why and how he depicted each as he did. Her pain is obvious from the look on her face; her eyes closed tightly, her body inclined backward and hanging lifelessly, and her mouth slightly open as if she was moaning. While her body lies lifeless, there is still a tension in her hands and feet as if her body tightens before she feels the pain. The angel smiles over her, with an almost smug-like expression as he prepares to wield the arrow into her.

Not only did Bernini involve the viewer as a participant, but he also chose materials that were very particular to this piece and bring Teresa’s story to life. This piece was/is still considered by many critics to be one the sculptural masterpieces of the high renaissance through today. The Cornaro Chapel occupies the left transept of the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria and measures approximately forty-five feet high, twenty-four feet wide, and eleven feet deep. The rectangular opening in which Teresa is displayed is ten feet high, eight feet wide, and six feet deep (again sticking close to human proportions). The sculpture is again made of white marble and set in an elevated aedicule in the Cornaro Chapel. It is an obvious centerpiece with the bright material contrasting with its darker surroundings. Bernini also designed the setting of the chapel in marble, stucco, and paint. The aedicule, wall panels, and theater boxes were made of colored marble. He also uses light as a material and the white marble is illuminated by natural light that filters through a hidden window located in the aedicule’s dome above. There are also gilded stucco rays of light that are illuminated in the background to focus attention to the center.

Even though Bernini’s first vocation was a sculptor, his architectural accomplishments were many. According to Bussagli, “he and Borromini are the two leaders of Italian Baroque.”[xiii] In multiples articles, it is said that Bernini considered the church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale to be his masterpiece. He spent hours inside of it, marveling at its glory and appreciating what he had achieved. The intimate interior is rich in polychrome marble. He again uses light as a material to brighten up the space, which tends to get pretty dim on cloudy days. The plan is original. As Norburg-Shultz has commented, “instead of using the long axis of the oval for achieving an ‘easy’ longitudinality, Bernini thus introduced a pronounced tension between the main directions, at least seemingly.”[xiv] As he used the expression of tension in his sculptures, he also tried to incorporate this principle into his buildings. This also blocks the movement for the visitor and there is no conflict of direction. He makes the viewer move from the entrance to the altar just as he creates a specific viewing point for his sculptures. The congregation becomes witnesses to the theatrical narrative of St. Andrew, which begins in a chapel and culminates in the dome. Andrew is shown again as a white marble sculpture framing the high altar. Again, Bernini uses a combination of painting, sculpture, and architecture to visually display St. Andrew in a spiritual theater.

Halfway between sculpture and architecture, is Bernini’s Baldacchino in St. Peters. “The central theatrical purpose of the Baldacchino was, at least as far as the eye was concerned, to bring the plan of the basilica back within the canons of centrality.”[xv] The Baldacchino, or bronze and gilded canopy, is the first thing one sees upon entering St. Peters Basilica. It is the key attraction that draws attention to a major part of the building, the sacred point where St. Peter was buried. There are many symbols and meanings in the various parts of the Baldacchino. The four columns stand sixty-six feet tall, not including the base or capital. Unlike in other Bernini projects, there really is no front or back to this piece, and even though it is first seen from the front, is viewed from all sides. To the common visitor, this piece stands big and bold and evokes the feeling of being something important, but other than that, the visitors have little information. The spiral columns are representations of Solomonic columns and appear as is the architecture is moving. However, a moment in time is not captured as in the case in the other projects discussed.

Now that all this is said, I believe his architecture does respond to the same issues as his sculptures. However, I also believe that his work as a sculptor has been more influential on people; on the visitors whom experience that moment that he has captivated. I could not help but feel the character’s emotion, to connect with their feelings. The amount of detail he puts into both cannot be argued, but his sculptural work is much more personal. His architecture has a more grand feeling, and you are overwhelmed more with the scale and materials. He does a great job of creating a theatrical atmosphere in all his projects, and it is successful because the viewer is able to participate during their visit. Incorporation of many different forms of art together can showcase the artist’s talent and in Bernini’s case, with proper use, makes his projects stronger.

In the case of the Baldacchino, where it is part architecture and part sculpture, I feel like things start to get a little messy. That’s not to say that it isn’t a beautiful piece, but I feel like Bernini is more successful when he creates either architecture or sculpture. Maybe it’s the story of the Baldacchino, that leaves the viewer feeling a little left out. They cannot participate in it as actively as his other pieces, and this style has become a trademark for Bernini. Without it, the work loses meaning and history. “It is this type of visual rhetoric that succeeds in persuading the faithful of the marvelous nature and importance of all they have come to see.”[xvi] The issue might also be that its scale seems too big to be a sculpture. In comparison with Apollo and Daphne and The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, which are more human-like and human-scale, the Baldacchino is extraordinarily larger. In the church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, his architecture works well in combination with the separate sculptures inside. The problem, for me anyways, lies when he starts to combine the two into one piece.

Controversy tends to follow religion. So in terms of the differences between mythical and religious sculptures, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa was and still is very controversial piece. The use of the terms ecstasy or rapture seemed to frighten people, so Teresa often substituted the word suspension. Bernini was challenged because Teresa was considered a potentially dangerous woman. If her story was taken the wrong way, it could undermine the very principles that were the center of the Counter-Reformation. “In fact, Teresa had three strikes against her: she was a mystic, a woman, and a ‘conversa’ (of Jewish descent).”[xvii] In terms of mythical pieces, like Apollo and Daphne, the stories they are based off of are fictional and more playful. People do not get too serious or upset over these topics because it has less to do with beliefs and more to do with myth. The material of the actual sculptures is the same and the incorporation of natural and artificial light plays a role in both. Besides the story behind the pieces, the execution, look, and feelings of Bernini’s mythical and religious sculptures are very similar.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s success as an architect, theater set designer, sculptor, and painter did not come easy. He worked hard from a young age to develop a skill and style that carried him to the top. It will be debated for centuries whether his most popular works as an architect or sculptor were more successful. Bernini’s most popular sculptural works not only transform the viewer into a participant, but also make them feel the same emotion the characters feel at that moment. His most successful architectural works also involve the visitor and have an extra layer of depth because of it. By challenging the conventional uses of materials and techniques, Bernini’s Baroque style was revolutionary for his time.

[i] Marco Bussagli, Rome, Art & Architecture (Cologne: Könemann, 1999).

[ii] For more information on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the story of Apollo and Daphne, see Jeffery Wills, “Callimachean Models for Ovid’s ‘Apollo-Daphne’”, Materiali e discussioni per l’analisi dei testi classici, no. 24 (1990): 143-156.

[iii] For more information on the story of Apollo and Daphne, see Marco Bussagli, Rome, Art & Architecture (Cologne: Könemann, 1999).

[iv] Marco Bussagli, Rome, Art & Architecture (Cologne: Könemann, 1999).

[v] Joy Kenseth, “Bernini’s Borghese Sculptures: Another View,” The Art Bulletin 63, no. 2 (1981): 191-210.

[vi] Joy Kenseth, “Bernini’s Borghese Sculptures: Another View,” The Art Bulletin 63, no. 2 (1981): 191-210.

[vii] Andrea Bolland, “Desiderio and Diletto: Vision, Touch, and the Poetics of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne,” The Art Bulletin 82, no. 2 (2000): 309-330.

[viii] Michael J. Call, “Boxing Teresa: The Counter-Reformation and Bernini’s Cornaro Chapel,” Woman’s Art Journal 18, no. 1 (1997): 34-39.

[ix] For Teresa’s letter, see Marco Bussagli, Rome, Art & Architecture (Cologne: Könemann, 1999).

[x] Susanne Warma, “Ecstasy and Vision: Two Concepts Connected with Bernini’s Teresa,” The Art Bulletin 66, no. 3 (1984): 508-511. Bernini desired to depict not only the piercing of her heart, but also the depth of her experience through the inner penetration of her soul. In ecstasy: one remains in the same physical position during an ecstatic state as prior to its onset, probably because one is unable to move.

[xi] Marco Bussagli, Rome, Art & Architecture (Cologne: Könemann, 1999). The central niche and tabernacle, which houses the sculpture, allude not just to the Eucharist, but also to the place where the mystical event occurred.

[xii] Marco Bussagli, Rome, Art & Architecture (Cologne: Könemann, 1999).

[xiii] Marco Bussagli, Rome, Art & Architecture (Cologne: Könemann, 1999).

[xiv] Christian Norberg-Schulz, Baroque Architecture (Milan: Electa, 1986).

[xv] Marco Bussagli, Rome, Art & Architecture (Cologne: Könemann, 1999).

[xvi] Marco Bussagli, Rome, Art & Architecture (Cologne: Könemann, 1999).

[xvii] Michael J. Call, “Boxing Teresa: The Counter-Reformation and Bernini’s Cornaro Chapel,” Woman’s Art Journal 18, no. 1 (1997): 34-39.