From his early days as a child prodigy until his death in 1680 at the age of 82, Gian Lorenzo Bernini remained unchallenged as the foremost sculptor of his time. His dynamic and exuberant style perfectly embodies the baroque period, of which he has become the symbol. Bernini excelled in every sculptural genre (portraiture, tomb sculpture, religious and mythological representations). He was equally creative in other media, including architecture, painting and drawing. An early practitioner of the art of caricature, he used his quick sketches to poke fun at the Roman papal court. In his all-encompassing virtuosity, Bernini brings to mind another prolific artist who redefined sculpture, Michelangelo.
Born in Naples in 1598, Bernini spent most of his adult life in Rome, a city his numerous architectural projects would eventually transform. In 1606, his father Pietro--himself a talented sculptor--moved the family to the Eternal City, where he secured a number of papal commissions. Rome also provided sculptors with gainful employment restoring antique sculpture, an experience that had an important influence on the young Gian Lorenzo. Trained in his father's studio, Bernini rapidly obtained important commissions of his own. He was in his early twenties when Cardinal Scipione Borghese, Pope Paul V's nephew, commissioned four monumental marble groups for his Roman villa (Aeneus and Anchises 1618-1619, Pluto and Persephone 1621-1622, Apollo and Daphne 1622-1624 and David 1623-1624). The technique and naturalism displayed in these works sealed Bernini's reputation as a master carver who transcended his material and (sometimes with the help of specialist collaborators) turned marble into flesh, foliage, and fur. His fame was compounded by the award of a papal knighthood and his election as principe of the artists' academy in Rome in 1621.
It was, however, Bernini's ties with another papal family, the Barberini, that propelled his career. Cardinal Maffeo Barberini had been a longtime protector of the sculptor. After his election to the papacy as Urban VIII in 1623, Barberini undertook a series of large-scale projects in which Bernini's sculptures played a defining role. One of his first and most important commissions was the Baldacchino (1624-1633), the monumental bronze canopy that marks the site of Peter's tomb in the crossing of Saint Peter's Basilica. Bernini also redesigned the four central piers of the crossing, creating niches for four fourteen-foot-high statues and executing one of them, Saint Longinus (1628-1638).
By then, Bernini was at the head of an extensive team of sculptors, stonemasons, bronze casters, draftsmen, and engineers. Named "Architect to Saint Peter's" in 1629 (after Carlo Maderno's death), he continued to remodel the basilica throughout the following decades, most notably erecting the Cathedra Petri (1655-1666), the reliquary housing Peter's throne located above the main altar. His career survived the humiliating demolition, in 1646, of two bell towers he had remodeled for the façade after cracks appeared in one of them. He went on to devise the circular, quadruple colonnade in the piazza outside Saint Peter's (1656-1667) that radically altered the approach to the basilica by framing the façade and creating an open space for ceremonies.
Bernini's architectural designs are conspicuous in their innovative combination of architecture and sculpture, dubbed bel composto (beautiful whole), as well as in their exploitation of natural light and space. Nowhere is this more apparent than the Cornaro Chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria (1647-1652). While attention always focuses on The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, its effect would be diminished without the setting of multicolored marble, gilt bronze reliefs, stucco and marble portraits, as well as the concealed source of daylight above the central group. This concern for the setting, as well as a taste for theatricality, is also visible in the lavish fountains for Piazza Barberini (Triton, 1642-1643) and Piazza Navona (The Four Rivers, 1648-1651) and in the ten marble angels he designed to stand against water and sky along the Ponte Sant'Angelo, a bridge across the Tiber to the Vatican (1668-1669; the two angels Bernini carved himself are preserved in the church of Sant'Andrea delle Fratte). Interestingly, Bernini was also active as a set designer, playwright, and director.
Though he continued to receive key papal commissions, Bernini never enjoyed the same relationship with successive popes as he had with Urban VIII and sought patronage elsewhere. In 1665, he was invited by the king of France, Louis XIV, to submit designs for a new façade of the royal palace of the Louvre. Bernini's fame ensured that his six-month sojourn in Paris was a major event, though his architectural designs were ultimately rejected and his equestrian portrait of the king (1669-1677) tepidly received. However, the visit marked a watershed moment in Franco-Italian artistic relations and resulted in two important works: the diary kept by the nobleman Paul Fréart de Chanteloup, which recorded Bernini's observations on art, and a dynamic portrait bust of Louis XIV (1665; Palace of Versailles). The bust exemplifies the naturalism, vivacity, and blend of psychological insight with expressions of worldly status that had made Bernini such a sought-after portraitist in Rome. In it, he set the standard, as he did in all other genres, for centuries to come.
The Sculpture Garden will open on Saturday, June 20, with limitations. The East and West Buildings are currently closed to the public. All on-site events are canceled through December 31, 2020. Learn More.