Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Italian sculptor and architect
Born: Naples, Italy
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The world of art would never be the same after the arrival of star sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. During a lifetime marked by the giddiest of heights (including knighthood and close friendships with popes and royalty) as well as the most dismal of lows (dramatic professional failures and a homicidally tumultuous love life), Bernini forever changed the face of the city of Rome and single-handedly launched the style that would dominate seventeenth-century Italian sculpture.
Heralded by many in his lifetime as the heir of Michelangelo, Gian Lorenzo Bernini worked primarily in a steady stream of critical success. As one of the foremost architects of the Baroque style, naturally Bernini had his fair share of devoted followers. From contemporaries who worked directly under him or competed with him for commissions, up to modern artists who looked to his use of emotional multimedia design for inspiration, a multitude of artists can thank Bernini for the development of their own styles.
Bernini’s career spans the height of the Italian Baroque. Baroque art is profoundly tied to the religious and political context of 16th and 17th century Italy: after the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church launched its own Counter-Reformation to reaffirm its power and attract more followers to the faith. In order to do so, the leaders of the church called for artistic spectacles that would captivate the attention, stimulate the senses, and elevate the soul. Consequently, Baroque art tends to the massive, dramatic, and theatrical.
Bernini’s sculptures are recognizable for their engaging drama, dynamism, tension, texture, and naturalism. The last two criteria (texture and naturalism) are perhaps the most particular to Bernini: no one can make stone convey soft skin, curling hair, or crinkling fabrics the way Bernini can. His sculptures are also unique for the careful attention he pays to the effects of light and shadow, effects which are traditionally more important to the painter than the sculptor.
Many elements of Bernini’s style reveal the influence of Mannerist and Hellenistic sculpture.
However in the backlash against the Baroque that occurred with the advent of Neoclassicism, the accolades faded into harsher criticisms. Bernini’s reputation was only restored in the second half of the twentieth century and today he is recognized as one of the most spectacular geniuses in Western art history.
Practically since his birth in Naples in 1598, Bernini’s sculptor father Pietro was determined to pass his art on to his son. At the age of 8 Gian Lorenzo was taken by his father to Rome, where they were awarded an audience with Pope Paul V who, according to legend, declared the boy the next Michelangelo.
Bernini had already established himself as a prodigious artist by his late teens, when he received his first major commissions from rapacious art lover Cardinal Scipione Borghese. The early works executed for the Cardinal won Bernini such acclaim that praise and accolades began to pour in. In 1621, Bernini was knighted, and in 1629, he was named the Official Architect of Saint Peters, one of the highest honors an artist could wish for. The artist frequented papal and royal circles, and was fervently admired even outside of Italy.
Things took a turn for the worse when a series of events in his personal and professional life led the artist to attempt to murder his own brother and brutally mutilated the face of his married lover in 1640, after discovering that the two were also having an affair. Even worse, in 1646, the bell tower Bernini created for the façade of St. Peter’s had to be demolished after it developed worrisome cracks, and the shame of this failure proved almost too much for the artist to bear: contemporary sources say Bernini took to his bed and fasted almost to the point of death.
Both due to the religious fervor of Bernini himself and the fact that the majority of his commissions were given by religious figures, a high percentage of his work was religious by theme. However, perhaps due to the influence of the classical collections of Scipione Borghese, one of his first patrons, Bernini also had a persistent interest in mythological figures. Additionally, due to the patronage that he was driven by, Bernini executed a series of portraits, both in painted forms and sculpted busts.
Drawing from the influences of Mannerist artists, Bernini created swirling, dynamic compositions in his sculptures that were meant to be viewed from all directions, inviting the viewer to be a part of the scene.
Bernini is famous for portraying the most poignant moment in a story and for communicating that event in the most dramatic way possible, by means of exuberant movement, emotive facial expressions, and feats of technical mastery.
Whether it be billowing swirls of fabric, luxuriously curling locks of hair, meticulously veined leaves, the roughness of tree bark, or the supple softness of skin, Bernini paid texture a great deal of attention in his sculptural works.
Although his figures are always somewhat idealized, like a perfected version of reality, Bernini manages to bestow them with individualized features and imbue them with human emotion, and never neglects the careful details that help to bring his sculptures to life.
From the spiraling columns of the Baldachin that draw the eye heavenward to the flutters of the fabric in his portrait busts, all of his works give the sense of being a snapped moment of stillness in the frenzy of motion.
Through the combination of sculpture, architecture and painting he created a new idea of what an artwork could encompass.