In Praise of Power

Alexander Nagel

  • Bernini: His Life and His Rome by Franco Mormando
    Chicago, 429 pp, £22.50, December 2011, ISBN 978 0 226 53852 5
‘Self Portrait’ (1635) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
‘Self Portrait’ (1635)

Franco Mormando has a lot to tell us about Gian Lorenzo Bernini and the Rome of his day, but one lasting lesson is that just about everyone who knew him hated him. The harshest criticism came from his mother, who in 1638 wrote an exasperated letter to Pope Urban VIII’s nephew, Cardinal Francesco Barberini. Bernini had got into a murderous rage when he discovered that his lover Costanza Bonarelli had been having an affair with his brother Luigi. After chasing Luigi into St Peter’s and breaking a couple of his ribs, Bernini resumed the chase, sword in hand, to Santa Maria Maggiore, where Luigi found refuge. A henchman was dispatched to slash Costanza’s face. Mormando’s translation of the letter stiffens somewhat the heated formality of the Italian: ‘His sense of power, it seems, has today reached such a degree whereby he has no fear whatsoever of the law. Indeed, he goes about his affairs with an air of complete impunity, to the great sorrow of his mother and the marvel of all Rome.’

Unfortunately for his mother, Bernini’s employers were both impressed and amused by his ruthlessness. Cardinal Francesco was loyal to his court artist, and that year suppressed the publication of a satire accusing Bernini, then in charge of construction at St Peter’s, of gross architectural incompetence. Bernini’s immunity was an extension of the privilege accorded the gallery of rogues who populated the world of his patrons. Scipione Borghese, Bernini’s first great supporter and client, persuaded his uncle Pope Paul V to make his lover Stefano Pignatelli a cardinal; and Antonio Barberini, Pope Urban VIII’s notorious nephew, was made a cardinal at the age of twenty, to howls of protest, and proceeded to populate the family palace – now famous for its collection of paintings and its frescoes by Pietro da Cortona – with hustlers and young lovers.

The most passionate haters were Bernini’s fellow artists. When he wasn’t subcontracting work to them and passing it off as his own, he was deploying a network of highly placed officials and, occasionally, thugs to ice them out of commissions. The astonishing handling of the various changing textures – leaves and twigs out of hair and flesh – in the Apollo and Daphne in Rome’s Borghese Gallery, uniformly ascribed to Bernini, was done by the brilliant young sculptor Giuliano Finelli. Even in his twenties, the wildly successful Bernini was developing the Bernini brand, which could easily absorb the work of other artists.

Rubens was doing the same thing around the same time, and Titian and Raphael had done it earlier. But the persistent sound of gnashing teeth in the records suggests that Bernini had a uniquely poisonous way with collaborators and colleagues. Raphael’s pupils continued to revere him after his death, even as they went on to become some of the most successful artists of the next decades. Van Dyck manoeuvred himself out of Rubens’s workshop and shadow while maintaining good relations. But Finelli was so disgusted that he severed all ties with Bernini in 1629, effectively consigning himself to the oblivion where he languishes today. Francesco Borromini, a superior architect whom Bernini employed at St Peter’s for the expertise he himself did not possess, never forgave Bernini for taking the credit due to him for the great bronze baldachin over the basilica’s high altar, and eventually committed suicide in despair at his thwarted life. The only artist to hold his own in Bernini’s sphere was the painter and architect Cortona, who was Bernini’s match in ruthlessness. The contemporary sculptor Orfeo Boselli said that the two of them were ‘the most insatiable politicians ever in this business, because they keep away all those who can work on a level equal to them, and they give opportunities to work either to those who depend on them or to their pupils and eulogists.’

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[*] They posted these statements on Pasquino, the ‘speaking statue’, a torso of an ancient sculpture close to Piazza Navona, and still today the mouthpiece for anonymous political critiques and satires, called pasquinades, usually written in doggerel and appended to the statue.