Bernini was star sculptor with entourage of assistants

Posted 7:11pm on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) came blazing out of the sculpture workshop run by his father, Pietro Bernini, and, by age 22, was making spectacular works that brought him to the attention of the Barbarini and Borghese families, who became his patrons.

Cardinal Scipione Borghese commissioned him to create a series of bigger than life-size pieces for his villa in Rome. One of these, Apollo and Daphne (1622), was a tour de force of textures, as the nubile Daphne turns into a laurel tree rather than submit to the advances of Apollo.

Bernini's interpretation of metamorphosis, as in Daphne, and his depictions of saints at their moment of religious ecstasy became hallmarks of Baroque style. His statue of David (1624), also for Cardinal Borghese, renders the biblical hero in dramatic action, midsling. It offered a direct comparison to Michelangelo's (1475-1564) more staid David from 120 years earlier, and won Bernini recognition as the Renaissance master's successor.

In time, Bernini become so sought-after that he needed an army of assistants to complete his commissions. This was especially true when Pope Alexander VII asked him to design the giant plaza for St. Peter's Basilica. In order to complete the huge project, he is said to have employed every sculptor and sculptural assistant working in Rome. To communicate his ideas, he used clay models and drawings, and passed these to assistants to render in stone or bronze.

It was Bernini's architectural and engineering skills, which he combined with his mastery of marble to create complex fountains and altarpieces, that elevated his work into multifaceted masterpieces. It is his use of water and elevation in his Four Rivers Fountain (1648-51), and of natural light that cascades down gold rays onto the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa for the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria (1647-52), that makes these works monumental marvels.

Only Pope Innocent X was less than enamored of his talents, but by Innocent's time, Bernini was in demand across Europe. He decamped to Paris, where King Louis XIV had requested his designs for the Louvre Palace. Bernini did not stay long in France, as he quickly wore out his welcome by comparing French architecture and art unfavorably with that of Rome's. During his short visit, he created a bust of Louis emerging godlike from a billowing cloud of fabric that became a standard for royal depictions for the next century.

Fortunately, Innocent X died in 1655 and Bernini returned to favor under the two subsequent popes.

At his death, at age 81, Bernini had served eight popes and was considered the last of Italy's multitasking geniuses. The Baroque style he helped create was the last Italian style to have international dominance, and with its passing, so ended Italy's artistic hegemony in Europe.

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