A Bernini Exhibit in the City That Is an Everyday Retrospective His Work

Detail of Bernini’s David (K065167/Dreamstime)
The sensory riot of a show at the Galleria Borghese in Rome is a visual and scholarly triumph.

Bernini, at the Galleria Borghese in Rome, is the long-awaited retrospective of the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680). No one since the artists and architects who gave us the Roman Forum and the Colosseum have had more impact on the look and feel of the great city. The show is a visual and scholarly triumph. The catalogue is superb. Its technical and intellectual findings both challenge and enhance 300 years of Bernini and Baroque studies.

To say the young Bernini was precocious is an understatement. He was a prodigy on the order of Mozart, sculpting at age six copies of the work of his father, Pietro. Among the groundbreaking aspects of the show is new thinking on Bernini’s childhood milieu in the family workshop of Pietro Bernini (1562–1529). Pietro was a busy, occasionally bold artist working in Naples, where his son was born, and, after 1605, in Rome. His most famous work is the Fountain of the Old Boat at the foot of the Spanish Steps, a whimsical, clever, and cooling feature of the central plaza.

Pietro worked in a mainstream aesthetic. The great Michelangelo had been dead for nearly a generation, and his majestic, muscular style seemed to have petered out. While late 16th-century sculpture in Rome never lost its bulkiness, its pathos and bombast declined to mere charm. Pietro subscribed to this enfeebled mainstream. He ran a solidly successful, full-menu shop, doing garden decoration, religious sculpture, fountains, and busts. By age ten, Bernini was working with his father. The show charts his steps from copyist to polisher, apprentice, collaborator, and partner.

The heart and soul of the show are Bernini’s four life-size figure groups, all done in Rome before he was 25. A new genius was in town. It’s not shocking to learn that after 1617, Pietro was working for him.

The earliest of the four is Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius, from 1618–19. Bernini was still a teenager. A robust Aeneas, thought to be the founder of the Roman state, carries his elderly, emaciated father from Troy, definitively vanquished, to Rome. It’s an unusual topic but tailor made for Bernini’s longtime patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577–1633). Much as Aeneas supported his father, Scipione saw himself as the brick bolstering his uncle, Pope Paul V. Though it’s a complicated composition, the figures are contained spatially by the boundaries of its base. It’s literally pedestrian. Bearing his father on his shoulders, Aeneas moves slowly. It’s pedestrian, too, in feeling, daring but not too daring. It’s also Bernini’s tribute to Michelangelo’s Christ Carrying the Cross at the Santa Maria sopra Minerva church in Rome.

In the next five years, Bernini hit his avant-garde stride. It’s best to start with his David. David is propellant and aggressive as he launches the missile that kills Goliath. It’s action time. Though a single figure, he’s always considered part of Bernini’s “groups” because he evokes an entire narrative. Goliath’s present even if we don’t see him. The young Bernini put his marker on territory covered by Michelangelo when he sculpted his David a century before. Michelangelo’s David is poised, cool, and calculating. Bernini’s is a human catapult. The figure types are different, too. Michelangelo’s David, though a teenager, is built like a football player. Bernini’s is lithe and nimble like a track athlete. Michelangelo’s men are sternly, ruggedly handsome. Bernini’s are beautiful, not androgynous but with a full-faced, soft look we still see in men on the streets of Rome. Bernini was his own model, at least for David’s face. This sculpture isn’t a tribute to Michelangelo. It’s a declaration of triumph over his style.

Apollo and Daphne (1622–25) is one of Bernini’s — and Rome’s — best-known sculptures. Eros, angry at Apollo, fired two arrows, one at Apollo, infecting him with love for Daphne, and another at Daphne that inspires her to hate him. It’s an early case of unwanted advances leading to blatant harassment. Not having Gloria Allred on speed dial, Daphne turns herself into a laurel tree. Draconian, yes, but pictorially rich, without a doubt.

Bernini depicts the moment bark begins to cover her skin. Her fleeing feet become roots. Branches grow from her arms and hair. In Daphne, Bernini got in stone what no one could get in painting: the subtle transition from flesh to laurel leaves and wood. It’s emotional, too. Daphne looks frightened and horrified. It’s the moment she fully understands what she’s done to herself. She’s paying a steep price. Still smitten, Apollo looks with a mix of bewilderment and wonder. It’s a sexy work of art, notwithstanding the outcome. Apollo still manages to find some soft flesh where he greedily presses his fingers.

In a final group, The Rape of Proserpina, another woman encounters yet more pesky man problems. Here, Pluto seizes her for who knows what in the Underworld. Bernini’s Apollo is young, slender, and unmuscled. His Pluto is massive and muscular, more like Michelangelo’s on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. These traits are better suited to the cruelty and violence at hand. Bernini’s work is still drastically different. Michelangelo excels at awesome fixity. There’s not a lot of movement. Bernini’s figures twist and turn with high drama and flair. They’re positively aerodynamic.

The show can be maddening. In that respect, it’s typically Italian. The Galleria Borghese is a museum housing part of the collection assembled by the cardinal-patron Scipione. While much of the art on view was his, the gallery includes things collected by subsequent owners, including Camillo Borghese, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, and the Italian government, which now owns and operates it. The accretion of objects and the sumptuous wall and ceiling frescoes and carved gold moldings create a sensory riot into which the curators plunked the Bernini show. To some, it’s confusing and incongruous, but it makes sense if the viewer can get beyond the art neither Bernini, Pietro or Gian Lorenzo, created. Almost all of it, including furniture, is by Bernini’s contemporaries, so viewers see the art environment of his time. Still, this isn’t easy.

The exhibition is called “Bernini,” but that’s a misnomer. It’s really two shows, maybe two big shows and two little, half-hearted shows. The main attraction should be more correctly “Young Bernini and His Father.” It concerns the artist’s relationship with Pietro and how thoroughly he invented a new sculptural style when still in his early twenties.

Another show on the gallery’s distant second floor displays Bernini’s “speaking likenesses,” marble and bronze busts mostly of ecclesiastical heavyweights. These are splendid, to be sure, placing Bernini in the ranks of his contemporary Velázquez as a great portraitist. Never before had marble conveyed the spontaneity and presence of Bernini’s bust of Scipione (1632). His eyes are both weary and intensely focused. His plump, soft lips open slightly. The zigzag composition evokes movement. One of his buttons is askew and his biretta tilts backward. It feels like a snapshot. There are some missing busts, like the flamboyant Francisco I d’Este, sculptures that evoke not quite focused conversation but rather imperious command and spark. They are at the extreme end of the volubility and animation scales but aren’t well represented.

The entire city of Rome is an everyday, ongoing retrospective of Bernini’s work.

There’s a big group of Bernini’s paintings, all small, quickly done head portraits. These aren’t great things, and Bernini wasn’t a committed painter. Two or three would have made the point both that he could paint and that he liked immediacy and focus. An artist like Bernini offers a big challenge for curators doing a career overview. Things like the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona obviously can’t travel. Neither can his tomb sculpture and other works fixed to a wall. The curators succeed in envisioning this work through big and small models by Bernini, mostly in terra cotta. There’s a room of small models that’s nice, but one or two as a prelude to the big, highly finished models would have sufficed. None of them is a show-stopper, again, because the very best ones, owned by Harvard and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, weren’t there.

A disciplined edit of the work of Pietro, his son’s juvenalia, the paintings, and the small terra cottas might have allowed the show to fit on one floor, making it more coherent. It also would have more closely integrated the speaking likenesses with the figure groups.

The entire city of Rome is an everyday, ongoing retrospective of Bernini’s work. Much of his architecture and immovable sculpture is accessible to the public. On its own merits, the exhibit at the Galleria Borghese is an important show. It’s also an elegant, essential springboard to exploring the greatest of Rome’s Baroque stars citywide.

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