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Definition: Bernini, Gian Lorenzo from Philip's Encyclopedia

Italian architect and sculptor. The outstanding personality of the Italian Baroque, his work combines astonishing, flamboyant energy with great clarity of detail. His architecture was splendid in conception, lavish in use of marble and dramatic lighting, and often grand in scale. The favourite of several popes, his large-scale commissions in and around St Peter's include the baldacchino (canopy) above the high altar (1633), Barbarini Palace (1638), Cathedra Petri (1657-66), and (from 1656 onwards) the great elliptical piazza and enclosing colonnades in front of St Peter's.


Summary Article: Bernini, Gianlorenzo (1598-1680)
from The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization

Italian architect, sculptor, and painter, the leading figure in the Italian Baroque period. His major religious work was the triumphal gilt bronze baldacchino over the high altar of St. Peter's (1642-1643) which was inspired by the twisted marble columns of the Old St. Peter's which themselves harked back to the columns of the Beautiful Gate in Jerusalem. The whole structure is over 100 feet high and is surmounted by a wind-blown canopy. His much later Cathedra Petri (1657-1666) shows the four fathers of the church, two Latin, Saints Ambrose and Augustine, and two Greek, Athanasius and Chrysostom, upholding the throne of St. Peter which is illuminated by a brilliant gold stained glass with the image of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.

He was capable of expressing in white marble ecstatic visions of mystics and saints, as in The Ecstasy of St. Theresa of Avila in the Cornaro Chapel in Sta Maria della Vittoria in which the stained glass filters golden light through its gilded bronze rays. Similar devotion dominates his Blessed Lodovica Albertoni (1671-1674). His papal tombs in St. Peter's of Urban VIII and Alexander VII are examples of his bold use of polychrome marble and gilded bronze. From 1633 to 1640 he cut four loggias or balconies surmounted by edicules into the upper part of the piers of the dome of St. Peter's to display relics. Under the loggias deep niches were cut into the piers. One of these niches contained Bernini's own S. Longinus, 14.5 ft high, representing the centurion who pierced Christ's side with a lance.

Bernini's statue of Constantine the Great (1654-1670) is on a landing at the junction of the staircase from St. Peter's with the Scala Regia of the Vatican Palace. The Scala Regia itself was designed by him leading to the great colonnade of the Piazza of St. Peter's. The colonnade is a massive fourfold file of giant columns curved to enclose the space in front of the basilica like a mother's hands embracing the world. It is surmounted by the statues of saints standing as a cloud of witnesses.

Bernini built three churches on the domed central plan: San Tommaso di Villanova in Castelgandolfo (1658-1661) is a cross-in-square; the Assunta at Ariccia (1662-1664) is circular with a colonnaded portico, and Sant' Andrea al Quirinale in Rome (1658-1665), the novitiate church of the Jesuits. The last is an oval church with the door and the altar on the short axis, a colonnaded portico, curved screen walls, and a huge dome. It is plain stone outside, in sharp contrast to the red marble pilasters and columns inside with a richly gilded dome and white marble sculpture.

Bernini had powerful patrons throughout his career. For Cardinal Scipione Borghese he executed a remarkable series of lifelike marble sculptures, including David in 1623, all in the Borghese Gallery in Rome. After the election of Maffeo Berberini as Pope Urban VIII in 1623 Bernini became the principal architect to the Vatican. After Urban's death in 1644 he lost favor as the new pope Innocent X favored Bernini's rival Algardi. He did some work for the new pope, however, including The Fountain of the Four Rivers (1648-1651) in the Piazza Navona. Bernini's fountain and his other statuary changed the face of Rome more than that of any other artist.

After Innocent X's death, and the accession of Alexander VII, Bernini was restored to full favor and given his two greatest commissions, the decoration of the Cathedra Petri (the Throne of St. Peter) and the building of the vast colonnade around the piazza. In his later life, his work included both secular and religious buildings, including the small church S. Andrew al Quirinale.

Bernini shows unprecedented virtuosity in making cold stone seem as supple as flesh. Bernini's biographer said that in his hand stone became soft as wax. He was the last giant of the Baroque and the best monumental sculptor of the century who dominated sculpture in Western Europe well into the 18th century.

SEE ALSO: Art (Sculpture); Baroque; Christ in Art

References and Suggested Readings
  • Avery, C. (1997). Bernini: Genius of the Baroque. Little, Brown Boston.
  • Baldinucci, F. (1966). The life of Bernini (trans. Enggass, C. ). Pennsylvania State University Press University Park.
  • Gould, C. (1981). Bernini in France. Weidenfeld & Nicolson London.
  • Hibbard, H. (1965). Bernini. Penguin Baltimore.
  • Wittkower, R. (1981). Gianlorenzo Bernini: The sculptor of the Roman Baroque. Cornell University Press Ithaca, NY.
  • George Thomas Kurian
    Wiley ©2012

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