This past Thursday, for the second time in two years, I visited Rome’s Galleria Borghese to worship the works of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Here is the text of an email I sent to an Italian friend while I was there. “All well here. Hotel very nice. Bernini is God.”
By now, you are sure I am exaggerating. I hope to convince you otherwise. Sort of.
A little background
Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born in Naples in 1598. His sculptor father got work on some important Papal projects and took the family to Rome when Gian Lorenzo was eight years old. Inspired by the classical sculptures of antiquity, he was soon earning commissions of his own. At the age of just 23, he was knighted by Pope Gregory XV for his artistic genius. Over his lifetime, besides great sculptures, he produced paintings, wrote plays, created surpassingly wonderful buildings and outdoor spaces, and designed theater sets.
The whole story in one moment
Bernini began his sculptures with one intention. For his portrait busts, he chose to portray the exact second when the subject was about to speak. You see it immediately in their faces—their eyes, their mouths.
For his magnificent monumental sculptures, he chose the most dramatic vision of classic or biblical stories, chiseling into the faces and the bodies all the energy and emotional intensity of his characters.
In his Rape of Proserpina, he gives us the very moment Hades gets hold of her, at the peak of her struggle to get free.
His David is not like Michelangelo’s contemplating his battle with fear, determination, and strategy (for which my admiration does not wane for a nanosecond). Nor is it Donatello’s, at the moment of triumph. Bernini’s is in the act of launching the stone.
Then there is the work that made me fall in love—Apollo and Daphne at the point where he catches her, but she is already turning into a tree.
My blogmates here and I have often been asked at conferences and book presentations to describe our process. “How do you go about it?” people ask. Most of us find the question a bit daunting, because the steps we follow, how we talk to ourselves about the act of creativity seems so shallow compared to one’s experience of doing it. But looking at Apollo and Daphne, I found myself wondering the same thing, because I was stupefied by how Bernini could have done it. I wish I could have watched or asked him. Faced with a block of one the hardest substances appearing in nature, where does one put his chisel first? Oh, he must have made drawings and likely a clay model to work from, but really? How does one even contemplate achieving such perfection when there is no possible way to revise, to correct one’s mistakes? Once the hammer strikes the chisel, there is no delete key! It fills me with awe that he could do it at all. Getting to his level of achievement seems positively divine.
A couple of days after this recent visit to Rome, at dinner, a friend and I were talking about the facts of Bernini’s life. His most reliable biographer was his son Domenico, but according to what I could discover, Domenico sanitized some of his father’s activities. For instance, I imagine he would have wanted to leave out the more scandalous details of his father’s youthful love affair with a married woman, inaptly named Constanza. When she threw Gian Lorenzo over for his younger bother Luigi, the great man’s behavior was anything but god-like.
This got me to thinking about one of my pet peeves—that some people deny the worth of artists’ work because they don’t like the way they conducted themselves privately. My conclusion is this: When an artist’s output inspires awe, we should embrace their real-life flaws. It is only because of their human frailties that we can be sure that mere humans have achieved such wonders. There’s a lot to celebrate in that.
I still have the feeling, though, that my next visit to the Galleria Borghese will inspire nothing short of worship.
Annamaria - Monday