Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was a worthy successor of High Renaissance’s greatest painter, Michelangelo. He got the talent, skill and philosophy that swept off the feet of his art patrons and contemporaries, creating monumental works that could survive over several centuries. Bernini was a famous painter, sculptor and architect and he was particularly famous for his contributions to beautifying the city of Rome.

Bernini’s sculptures and architectural works also served instrumental in the development of Baroque architecture in Rome. His sculptures had Baroque characteristics with his use of lighting, layered detailing and dramatic narratives that evoke transformative experience (in the spiritual sense).

He had great a talent in unifying three art forms into a coherent whole; painting, building design and sculpting. He was the man behind the creations of Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1651), Memorial to Maria Raggi (1651), Bust of Louis XIV (1665), St. Peter’s Baldacchino (1633) and the Four Rivers Fountain.

Early Life

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born (and raised) in Naples, Italy on December, 7 1598. His father, Pietro Bernini, had a successful career in sculpture during the Mannerism period. Pietro was originally from the republic of Florence and he was married to Angelica Galante.

Little is known about Gian Bernini’s early years but records show that he had once worked for Annibale Carracci, a Baroque painter. Carracci took notice of Bernini’s raw talent when he was still young but despite the young age, this didn’t stop the master from recommending the artist to Cardinal Scipione Borghese as his potential court sculptor and painter.

Early Success

The patronage of Cardinal Borghese was the beginning of Bernini’s rise to prominence. His commissions were largely related to sculpture, in which he had created décor pieces for rebuilding the garden of Villa Borghese. In this decoration series, he executed The Goat Amalthea with the Infant Jupiter and a Faun, Blessed Soul and the Damned Soul. It is believed that Bernini was only in his early 20’s when he executed the said sculptures.

After a couple of years, he had proven himself enough to be worthy of the Pope’s commission. Thus, he received his first Papal commission under which he had to create the Bust of Pope Paul V. It was a successful feat that it established Bernini’s reputation and career in Rome. This was followed by another commission by Scipione which involved a four-part sculptural work such as Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius, The Rape of Proserpina, Apollo and Daphne and David, all of which had been executed from 1619 to 1625.

These four works revived the grandeur and magnificence of Renaissance Roman sculpture. It embodied the Renaissance art characteristics plus the energy of Mannerism period, revolutionizing new concepts and styles in carving religious and mythological figures in marble. The great thing about these sculptures is the display of Bernini’s talent in depicting narrative points through the dramatic expression and gesture of his characters. Each work definitely portrays a story that is true to the doctrine of Roman history.

Bernini’s approach makes it easier for the viewers to understand the characters’ state of mind, which is important to having a more accurate comprehension of the story behind it. For example, in the Apollo and Daphne sculpture, Bernini tried to evoke fear and shock by carving Daphne’s mouth wide open. All of these four monuments are now on display in the Galleria Borghese, Rome.

Working as a Papal Court Artist in Rome

Ending Bernini’s employment with Cardinal Borghese paved an opening for an opportunity in the court of Pope Urban VIII, or Maffeo Barberini in his birth name. His ties with wealthy art patrons and colleagues broadened as he took a higher level of stage in his career. Bernini was appointed to being a curator of the Pope’s art collection and assumed other positions such as being the Commissioner of the Fountains of Piazza Navona and the Director of the Pope’s foundry at Castel Sant’Angelo.

Holding such prestigious positions in Rome was an opportunity for Benini to display his artistic skills. In 1629, he received what could be the greatest achievement of his career; he became the Chief Architect of St. Peter’s at the time that the Pope wanted to rebuild the city. His concepts, visualizations and plans would be significant in the aesthetics of Rome, and he did not disappoint.

The Baldacchino di San Pietro was the focal point of Bernini’s creations while at Rome. It is a humongous canopy made in bronze for the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. It served as a centerpiece of the Basilica placed under its dome. It has four pillars that stand 30 meters and cost around $8M today. It is unarguably a one-in-a-million art work that remains unmatched over the centuries. The Baldaccchino was Bernini’s token of success in the Vatican together with several of his massive statues around the Basilica such as the St. Longinus.

Pope Innocent X as the Next Art Patron

Bernini’s employment with Pope Urban VIII ended by a faulty reason. He wanted to build two large bell towers on each border of the Basilica’s façade around 1641. The first tower went unsuccessful as it began to incur cracks that weakened its foundation, thus its building should be stopped. However, the blame wasn’t on Bernini entirely because the foremost foundation of the façade had already been designed and built by Carlo Maderno. It just so happened that the façade was unable to support the first of the two massive bell towers.

Unfortunately, even if that was the case, Bernini’s career suffered as he no longer received further commissions by Urban VIII. And art historians thought that his rivals had contributed to this temporary downfall. In an unexpected turn of events though, the newly elected Pope Innocent X assumed the position in 1644 and he rehired Bernini to continue on his plans for rebuilding the city. With renewed motivation and energy, he continued working on St. Peter’s; from its flooring, pillars and marble statues. He also went as far as building the tomb of Urban VIII, which made a lot of impact on winning a major commission by the Vatican. He was the man behind the Four Rivers Fountain that was placed at Piazza Navona.

Alexander VII’s Patronage

Around 1655, Alexander VII assumed the Chair of St. Peter and he served as another major art patron of Bernini. Together, they had plans on beautifying Rome on a higher level; from pre-existing edifices, streets to its piazzas. He had large-scale architectural and building projects, one of which was the piazza that he built at the front of St. Peter’s.

Prior to the building of the said piazza, the space it had now occupied was nothing but a barren land. Through Bernini, it now has two gigantic colonnades in semi-circular shape. Each row of the colonnades had four white columns to effect an oval shape overall. It looked like an aperture of the St. Peter’s where the Pope would welcome and appear before the people from his balcony.

This semi-circular piazza appeared like a pair of welcoming hands, symbolizing the acceptance toward anyone who would enter the basilica. This design and building became a significant part of the history of Roman architecture.

Private Commissions

Aside from his public commissions, Bernini had also managed to create sculptural works for private clients. This gave him some room for further improvement in his style and technique, particularly in portraiture. He continued refining his style that would soon raise the bar higher in Roman sculpture, as his ability to depict personal stories of his characters through his art works evolved.

For example, the Two Busts of Scipione Borghese evidenced the improvement on Bernini’s ability in creating expressive and innovative art works that could affect a transformative experience. Art historians also see this work as one of the earliest presentations of the Baroque movement.

Another notable portrait by Bernini is Costanza Bonarelli which he executed in 1637. The model of this work was Costanza herself, and it connected to Bernini at a personal level as historians believed he had an affair with the same woman. However, Costanza had a relationship with Bernini’s brother at the time that they were still together and so he beat him while one of his servants was asked to disfigure her face with a razor. The Papal office found out about this but Bernini was only asked to pay some fines.

Bernini’s popularity seemed to soar past the borders of Italy as he also received major commissions by Cardinal Richelieu of France, Charles I of England, Francesco I d’Este and Henrietta Maria. These international clients did solidify his mark on the late Renaissance as a very significant artist.

In 1665, he traveled to France as requested by King Louis XIV to complete some works for the beautification of the Louvre Royal Palace. However, his first couple of designs for the palace was rejected because they looked too Baroque in style as perceived by his financier, Jean-Baptise Colbert. He had made portraits in bust form for them, which served as an inspiration to younger artists.

Bernini’s talent and skill were somewhat belittle by court’s artistic advisors. He received a series of rejections by them except for his Chantelou work and the Bust of Louis XIV. He went back to Rome and enjoyed much of his success there.


Bernini had eleven children with his wife, Caterina Tezio, whom he married in May 1639. He died on 1680 in Rome and his remains were buried in the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica.