Bernini and the Unity of the Visual Arts 
by Irving Lavin.
Oxford, 255 pp., £45, October 1980, 0 19 520184 1
Show More
Show More

Bernini’s sculpture of Daphne turning into a laurel tree at the touch of Apollo – completed for Cardinal Borghese’s villa on the Pincio in 1625 – has always excited wonder for the way such lightly-balanced and elaborate figures, such thin leaves, such fine, fluttering drapery and light, flying hair, were ever extracted from the marble block. The sculptor’s taste was as remarkable as his technique. Roots extend from the nymph’s toes and leaves from her fingers, and bark creeps up her legs, but because her limbs are not yet branches she is human enough to be beautiful and for us to share her terror and surprise. Apollo does not grab but touches his intended victim with reverence. In another group of the same period Bernini ensures that Pluto, although behaving in a beastly way, somehow retains the majesty of a god. In an earlier work he even convinces us that Aeneas would have carried his father from Troy in what is (if you try it out) an absurdly precarious position because in that way the old man does not look ridiculous – which he would have done if carried piggy-back, or slung over his son’s shoulder.

In these early works Bernini avoided the grotesque where it was hardest to do so and dignified his subjects in order to engage our sympathies. It is therefore surprising that we have recently been asked to believe that a grotesque and undignified marble group acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in New York is by him. If it is his work, it is perhaps the most important discovery of its kind this century – comparable, say, to an unknown masque by Milton turning up at the Bibliothèque Nationale. It shows two putti half-way up a tree teasing a faun – one of them apparently blowing a raspberry – while between the impossibly wide-stretched legs of the faun a third acrobatic infant plays with the tail of a panther which is gobbling the grapes which fall from (and hence support) the branch upon which the faun’s raised foot rests. It is fun, and it is clever, but so vulgar that it puts one in mind of the ornamental tankards and pipe-bowls beloved of laughing cavaliers north of the Alps. It is not mentioned by Bernini’s biographers but is related in style to his earliest works and came from his house. The obvious explanation is that it is by Bernini’s father, whose work often displays this sort of technical exhibitionism and, on at least one occasion, comparable comedy.

America certainly deserves to be rewarded with an important piece by Bernini for services rendered to his reputation by scholars working there, such as the late Rudolf Wittkower (author of the excellent monograph on the sculpture), Howard Hibbard (author of the admirable Penguin introduction to Bernini’s work in all media) and Irving Lavin, who has so exhaustively investigated Bernini’s work at the crossing of St Peter’s, and who now, in these two handsome volumes, turns his attention to the group of ‘The Ecstasy’ – or, as he is careful to call it, ‘The Transverberation’ – ‘of St Teresa’, and to the chapel of the Cornaro family in S. Maria della Vittoria in Rome where it serves as an altarpiece, and to other works in architecture and sculpture which prepare for it.

Teresa floats upon a cloud moaning ecstatically as a radiant cherub prepares to replunge a golden dart into her vitals. This group was completed about twenty-five years after the ‘Apollo and Daphne’. The sculptor’s style has completely changed, and he has also become an architect, as well as designing stucco and painted decorations. Lavin is chiefly concerned with exploring the relationships between the arts and what he terms Bernini’s ‘wholistic conception’ of them.

As soon as he was given the chance – it was not long before he completed the ‘Apollo and Daphne’ – Bernini created, in the figure of Santa Bibiana above the high altar of the new church he designed for her in Rome, a new sort of relationship between statue and setting. The saint is lit from an opening to one side of the vault above, and this opening is matched by other, painted ones through which we may glimpse heaven and towards which the saint turns in rapture. This much Lavin, like Wittkower and Hibbard before him, emphasises. But I think that Bernini was more specific. The saint’s raised hand and tilted head suggest that she is listening, and in fact (as can be seen in the illustration Lavin provides) the part of the vault to which she looks is filled with angelic musicians.

Lavin’s explication of this sort of relationship, and in particular of what takes place on the Baroque vault, is not always easy to follow. He talks about a ‘kind of stepped-up existence level’, the ‘visio-ideological conceit’ and the ‘principle of “true” illusionism’: phrases which leave one feeling dizzy. For this reason the book cannot be recommended unreservedly to the general reader: but scholars of 17th-century Italian art and religion can only be profoundly grateful for so many interesting interpretations and comparisons, for the catalogue packed with documents, for the valuable references in the long footnotes, and for the numerous plates – especially those of Teresa, her toes, her lips and eyelids, the uncarved back of her cloud, and so on, taken by the late Angelo Carletti of the Gabinetto Fotografico Nazionale under the author’s direction.

Lavin discusses and illustrates the earlier representations by other artists of what happened to Teresa. How nasty most of them make it seem – or how funny! And yet how much less daring they are than Bernini, who, prompted by the saint’s own metaphors, and also, Lavin plausibly suggests, by her interest in the metaphors of the Song of Songs, portrayed her transports in powerfully erotic terms. There is no evidence of any serious controversy, but one anonymous polemic did complain that the chaste virgin was exhibited as ‘una Venere, non solo prostrata, ma prostituita’. Indeed, to emphasise her physical abandon Bernini portrayed the saint prostrate rather than kneeling, and she is also raised upon a cloud: an idea surely influenced by (but not necessarily referring to) the saint’s famous public levitations at Mass. Lavin thinks the saint’s posture also ‘alludes’ to her ecstatic death. So this is a representation of Teresa ‘transverberated, communicant, expirant and espoused’. It is tempting for art-historians to present works of art as riddles which require their learned exegesis. This does, however, help them to appreciate the analogous procedures of the theologians to whom Bernini was surely attentive.

Teresa would originally have been lit far less spectacularly than she is at present even when the electric lighting is off, for Lavin has discovered that the hidden window which enables heavenly light to fall on St Teresa has been considerably enlarged. All the same, the use of concealed lighting, like the dynamic character of the niche itself (which, even if not derived from those by Borromini in S. Giovanni in Laterano, is surely inspired by that architect’s work), is among the most brilliant of Bernini’s inventions. The interrelationship of painting, sculpture and architecture is also highly exciting. But I do not find the whole chapel as visually coherent as Lavin does. Placed in the transept it is too broad for us to feel fully enclosed by it. And then there are, on either side, the highly original effigies of the Cornaro family worshipping, or at least engaged in pious discussion. I cannot follow the relationships between their gestures and the different parts of the chapel which Lavin discovers. And there is no escaping the fact that the furthest cardinal on the right is staring not at the vault, or at Teresa, or at the altar, but at the wall.

This wall is encrusted with marbles and alabasters. Such materials, although often the chief priority of the patron, are usually disregarded by historians of art and architecture. Lavin, to his great credit, identifies them in his catalogue and often distinguishes the colours in the text. It isn’t hard to recognise the most important types of marble, nor to discover which were rare, which hard to cut, which found in large pieces, which available for solid columns and which only used for veneer. It could be done in a few days in Rome if only Marmora Romana, the excellent volume by Raniero Gnoli on ancient marbles and their re-use, were more portable and included an appendix on rival ‘modern’ stones – Siena yellow, rosso di Francia, diaspro di Sicilia, and so on.

The combinations of marbles with streaked, mottled and broken patterns and alabasters, cloudy, blossom-filled and banded (nuvolato, fiorito, listato), which are a success in the Cornaro Chapel are frequently indigestible elsewhere, as, for instance, in the apse of S. Maria in Via Lata, which Lavin has unfortunately discovered to have been designed by Bernini. As a rule, such brilliant and busy patterns are best displayed beside plain colours. Again and again Bernini employed verde antico, but never with the effect achieved by Borromini in the nave of S. Giovanni in Laterano, where it is contrasted, simply, with white and with dark grey. The mass of drapery veneered with alabaster placed below the white marble figure of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni in Bernini’s very late work, the Altieri Chapel in S. Francesco a Ripa, is the most memorable use, because of its isolation, to which he ever put a coloured stone. Moreover, just as the drapery as a whole writhes, so the pattern of the alabaster is agitated in sympathy with the convulsions of the saint. It is part of the subject-matter in fact, although less obviously so than the alabasters and lapis which simulate a cloudy sky behind an ecstatic St Catherine by Bernini’s most brilliant follower, Melchiorre Caffa.

The figure of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni – an exquisite terracotta model of which has recently been acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum – is recognisably by the same artist who created the group of St Teresa almost a quarter of a century before. But there is a vast difference between the group of St Teresa and the sculptor’s early groups. It is true that the carving of a cloud is an unsurprising ambition in an artist who, as a young man, tried to carve flames: but it was with the imitation in marble of the way drapery flutters and flesh yields that Bernini first captivated the world, and the swooning rhythms of Teresa’s habit or the flame-like twisting of the cherub’s dress are no more naturalistic than are the gilt rays behind them.

The style which Bernini had formed by 1650 and gradually developed thereafter was only appropriate for figures in a state of extreme physical or spiritual excitement. The bodies beneath the invariably turbulent drapery are now more loosely articulated than ever before in sculpture and are sometimes altogether lost. There are no moments of beatific composure and little lyricism or physical beauty of the sort relished in Antiquity. The visionary character of many of his ideas made them hard to execute successfully, especially when much of the carving was delegated to assistants. The Altieri Chapel, however, is an unqualified success – which the Cornaro Chapel, perhaps because it is more ambitious, is not. It is to be hoped that Lavin, who has already published fascinating articles on some of Bernini’s late works, will turn his attention to the Altieri Chapel. It would be particularly interesting to have his views on the brilliant theory put forward recently by Anthony Blunt about the difference between the swooning of Teresa and the swooning of Ludovica.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences