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Bernini and Baroque Sculpture


Bernini was nicknamed the “Michelangelo of Baroque.” (But comparing David by both sculptors, you’ll see there’s a big difference.) Rome was Bernini’s gallery where you can see his squares, fountains, and finest statues (like The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Apollo and Daphne, and The Rape of Persephone).

Complete Video Script

[35, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1598–1680, self-portrait; Four Rivers fountain on Piazza Navona, Rome] A great pioneer of Baroque was the dynamic Italian named Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Known as the "Michelangelo of Baroque," Bernini could do it all: he was a great sculptor…a painter…and a ground-breaking architect — he designed St. Peter's Square.

[36, Ecstasy of St. Theresa, 1652, Bernini, Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome] Embracing the theatrical nature of Baroque art, Bernini turned this chapel into a theater. In fact, members of the family who paid for the art got to look on from the VIP box. Using all his artistic tools and 3-D tricks, Bernini invigorates reality with emotion. Center stage, an angel pierces St. Teresa's heart with a heavenly arrow. As the saint famously described her ecstasy: "The pain was so sharp that I cried aloud. But so delightful that I wished it would last forever."

[37, Villa Borghese, Rome] At this elegant Roman mansion, Bernini sculpted several masterpieces for his patron, a wealthy cardinal who invested in great art meant to decorate these very rooms.

[38] Bernini, employing both genius and chisel, masterfully brought marble to life. His Rape of Persephone packs a dramatic punch. Persephone's entire body seems to scream for help as evil Pluto drags his catch into the underworld. His three-headed dog howls triumphantly.

[39, Apollo and Daphne, 1625, Bernini, Borghese Gallery, Rome] Bernini's Apollo and Daphne is quintessential Baroque in how it captures a dramatic moment: Apollo — happily wounded by Cupid's arrow — chases Daphne who's saved by turning into a tree. Bernini captures the instant when, just as Apollo's about to catch Daphne, her fingers turn to leaves, her toes sprout roots…and Apollo is in for one rude surprise. The statue — as much air as stone — makes a supernatural event seem real. This pre-Christian scene — while plenty fleshy — comes with a church-pleasing moral: chasing earthly pleasures leads only to pain and frustration.

[40, David, 1623, Bernini, Borghese Gallery, Rome] By the way, to appreciate the boldness of Bernini's Baroque style, compare his version of David with Michelangelo's Renaissance David from a century earlier. Michelangelo's is poised, balanced, and thoughtful — perfect for the cerebral Renaissance era. Bernini's, on the other hand, is a Baroque action figure — his whole body wound like a spring as he prepares to slay the giant — showing the energy of the age. Bernini was a brash young man of twenty-five when he sculpted this — and the determined face of David is his own.

[41] Bernini inspired a generation of artists whose work is found throughout Rome. In fact, the city of Rome itself is like a Baroque work of art.

[42] Its great churches sport façades with trend-setting Baroque elements: classical columns on a gargantuan scale, Greek-style pediments, and straight lines broken by dips, curls, and decorative medallions.

[43] Interiors, of course, are also decorated to the hilt in the Baroque style. You hardly know where to look. Every inch is slathered with ornamentation — oh-wow spiral columns framing scenes that almost jump to life, cupids doing flip flops, explosive gilded starbursts, and ceilings opening up into the heavens…it's all glorious Baroque.