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Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was a famous Italian artist, architect, sculptor, and painter, but also a stage designer, poet, and dramatist. His talent and splendid works made him one of the major artists of all time and the most important figure of the Roman Baroque.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini – Self Portrait

Image source: by irinaraquel

About his life

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born in Naples in 1598. He became a successful artist just from his teens when he worked for the most powerful families and the popes of Rome. Soon he became famous across the whole of Europe. There was King Charles I of England and King Louis XIV of France among his royal patrons. Being simultaneously sculptor, architect, painter, stage designer, poet, and playwright, Bernini created unique dynamic monuments that combined the art of painting, sculpture, and architecture into a single whole. His career lasted until he died in 1680.

St. Peter Baldachin in St. Peter’s Basilica, 1623 – 1634

Image source: by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

What were his major works?

  • St. Peter Baldachin in St. Peter’s Basilica, a sculpted gilded-bronze canopy, was the first truly Baroque monument. It was developed during the pontificate of Urban VIII.  It was intended to mark the place of Saint Peter’s tomb underneath. The structure is architecturally imposing: its height, for example, was greater than that of many buildings. But the execution relied primarily on sculptural gifts. Bernini was able to make hard material seem soft and malleable, giving a dynamic aspect to a static form.
  • The Fountain of the Four Rivers was built in 1648 in Piazza Navona in Rome. It was commissioned by Pope Innocent X to glorify the Pope and his family. It supports an ancient Egyptian obelisk surrounded by marble sculptures, which represent four major rivers of the four continents that were known at that time.
The Fountain of the Four Rivers, Bernini, 1648-1651, Piazza Navona, Rome

Image source: by George M. Groutas

  • Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria is the greatest Bernini masterpiece, created in the mature period of his art. Its main attraction is the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1645–1652), the sculpture which depicts the mystical experience of the great Spanish reformer of the Carmelites, Teresa of Avila. The use of light, trompe l’oeil frescoes, as well as marble, gilded wood, and gilded bronze materials, have created an incredible visual effect in this spatial structure.
‘Saint Theresa’s ecstasy’ (1644-1652) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini – Santa Maria della Vittoria Church in Rome

Image source: by Carlo Raso

  • The colonnade surrounding the square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica is the greatest architectural achievement of Bernini. It consists of 284 Doric columns and 88 pilasters, situated in four rows. At the top of the colonnade, there are 140 statues of popes, martyrs, evangelists, and other religious leaders. All these statues were created by Bernini and his students.  Bernini’s talent is especially noticeable if you carefully examine the location of the columns. The ellipsoidal colonnade of 2 semicircles (Piazza Obliqua), generally traditional for the Baroque, was turned 90 degrees so that the long transverse axis was not perpendicular but parallel to the façade. The rhythmic alternation of a fountain, an obelisk, and another fountain, clearly dictates to the viewer’s mind that this is an ellipse. But the eye, accustomed to accurately determining the horizontal distance, still sees the circle.
Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican

Image source: by Argenberg

  • Cathedra Petri structure, also known as the Chair of St. Peter or Throne of St. Peter, was designed to display the chair on which, according to ancient tradition, St. Peter sat and taught Roman Christians. Pope Alexander VII had the ivory-covered chair put into the gigantic bronze cathedra, with the statues of the Doctors of the Church, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine of the Roman Church, and St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom of the Greek Church. The religious significance is extremely clear. The Doctors of the Church were always consistent with Peter’s teachings as they expounded theological doctrine.
The Chair of St. Peter, Bernini, 1657–66, St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

Image source: by Carlo Raso

How can we identify Bernini’s Style?

  • Bernini, perhaps more than any other artist of his period, was responsible for defining the Baroque style of sculpture.
  • Whether in his sculpture, architecture, or multimedia works, Bernini’s pieces can be recognized by their meticulous attention to detail, grandiose theatricality, and ornate design.
  • A high percentage of his work was centered on the religious theme.
  • Bernini in his culptures has created swirling, dynamic compositions visible from all directions, inviting the viewer to be part of the scene.
  • His figures are placed diagonally, characteristic of Baroque sculpture.
  • Bernini paid close attention to the plot in his sculptural works. In addition to being a visual experience, his works are also a tactile experience.
  • His figures are always somewhat idealized.
  • A work of Bernini is never static, but there is always the illusion and the sense of movement.
  • Using a combination of sculpture, architecture and painting he created a new idea of what a work of art could encompass.
  • Bernini used a casting method called the lost-wax method.
Bernini’s first work at St. Peter’s was to design the baldacchino

Image source: by Northfielder

Sant’Andrea al Quirinale Church (1658-1671) in Rome by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Image source: by Carlo Raso

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