Monday, January 26, 2015

Telling a Story in Stone: Bernini in the Galleria Borghese

Youthful Self-Portrait


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.
Cardinal Scipione Borghese

Constanza, more about which anon 


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.



See how tightly he grasps her.  This is stone!


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.


How does one get rid of everything but the open rope!!


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.





Those leaves!
Those fingers!
That extended leg!

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.

Mature Self-Portrait

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

22 comments:

  1. Like you, I was astonished how Bernini made marble seem to be living flesh, and created works of art that captured the essence of his subjects' emotions. A brilliant tribute to a great artist! Thanks for posting it.

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    1. Thank you, Allan. I knew I would find kindred spirits here among the MIE writers and readers. It increases my pleasure to have you to share it with.

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  2. Wonderful post and beautiful pictures, Annamaria. Seeing them is reason enough to go to Rome.

    You mentioned there not being a delete key for sculpture, but in a way there is. It's where we get the word 'sincere' which means 'without wax', If a sculptor made a mistake in marble, they'd fill it in with wax. If something was perfect -- sincere -- it was without wax.

    Yes, I know, I'm a mine of absolutely useless trivia!

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    1. Zoe, it it useful to think about what you say here. And it is also seemly to contemplate the difference between a cover up and a correction. Politicians and tycoons of the world, take note.

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  3. Absolutely GORGEOUS, AmA! My favorite class in college was Art History, getting to sit there in the dark day after day while the professor went through uncountable slides of beautiful works of art throughout the centuries. As Zoë said, it's things like this that could pry me out of my comfy home.

    And Zoë, wow, TWO days of "words of the week!"

    Q: How does one get rid of everything but the open rope!!
    A: VERRRRRRY carefully!

    For those delicate features, I imagine it was less hammering and more scraping. But however, I'm sure it was painfully (and painstakingly) slow.

    Priceless!

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    1. Thank you, EvKa. It seems that we went to different schools together. I had the same experience in Art History.

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    2. And if you're not very good, EvKa, I'll make it three ...

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  4. After seeing your pictures I have to say I am a new convert. Bernini's technical prowess is amazing and his sense of timing in his subjects is unique among the classics. Thanks for my continuing education. You are a wonderful teacher!

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    1. Thank you, Juno. I am happy to introduce you to Bernini. Tomorrow I am going to another exhibit. I am wondering if a pean to another artist would be too much. you encourage me to try it one more time. Stay tuned.

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  5. "When an artist’s output inspires awe, we should embrace their real-life flaws."

    Of course I do, darling. Why do you think I love you so? :) Hurry back, the blizzard misses you.

    Repartee aside, Bernini's work is unimaginable as coming from human hands. Godlike for sure.

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  6. Jeff, I just got a report on the first few hours of the storm. Are you in PA or NYC?

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  7. Peter and I once sat in the Piazza Navona sipping espresso and staring with wonder at the Bernini statue. Years ago. Has it been moved inside to a museum? I don't have to tell you what the birds were using its head for. I don't think I copied you on my last PPP blog. In it I raise the question of artistic greatness and personal ethics. Auden's elegy for Yeats regrets the latter's conservative bent late in his life and links him to other poets "pardoned" because they wrote well. I spoke of the uproar surround Ezra Pound's being given the Bollingen Award after broadcasting for the fascists during WW2. An interesting question. You probably know about Pound from reading City of Fallen Angels. About marble: my favorite Michelangelo are the four prisoners: literally prisoners but imprisoned forms within the marble until he releases them. If I were in Florence, I would visit them every day! I'm not crazy about David (my fingers are in my ears blotting out the boos).

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    1. Barbara, Please send me a link to that blog. How it delights me that you and I are so often in the same mental space. And when you come to Florence, we will go an see the David together and I will see if I can convince you.

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  8. Just went to Google to refresh my memory. It is the Bernini Fountain, so of course the central statue has not been moved. And the birds can still have their fun. I wish Google could turn back the years since I was there.

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    1. http://crimewriters.blogspot.it/search?q=bernini
      Barbara, here is a link to another blog, written from Rome two years ago that tells a funny story about that fountain. I never fail to go to Piazza Navona when in Rome. I love that fountain, and pigeons and all. Bernini made it to be exactly where it is, and he was a sculptor who thought of setting as part of the work he was creating..

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  9. Thank you so much for this. While looking at the sculptures, I had the experience of them being almost too beautiful to look at. I know that sounds strange, but i've had that experience before. Great art is amazingly piercing. I was fortunate enough to be raised in NYC by an art loving Mom. She often made us behave by taking us to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The beauty and awe has never left me.

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    1. Lil, I love that sentence, "Great art is amazingly piercing." So true. I raised my daughter in NYC the way your mom raised you. She is doing the same with her children. It is wonderful to belong to family of art lovers. Toys break or are outgrown. Those experiences, never!

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  10. I remember going to the Metropolitan with my daughter and six week old twins in a stroller. They were fascinated by the ceiling decorations in the Islamic art exhibit. Shapes draw babies' attention. When they got older, there was a period when they wanted more action on our outings. I remember one day at the Clark in Williamstown, Mass. (a great museum) when they were getting restless. So I devised a way to get their attention. I focused on art dominated by human figures. Then I asked them whether the person was a nice person or a not nice person and what in the painting got them to answer as they did. It worked for a long time. One of those granddaughters now sold one of her own painting on Ebay (not for a lot of money). Her apartment in New Orleans is decorated in part by the paintings she buys at the twice yearly art sale at a really hard-time prison, Angola.

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  11. I figured out how to access the link without going out of this site. So proud of myself! Pictures are glorious. I saw the Pieta before the maniac tried to destroy it and again after it was enclosed by glass. It was gorgeous. What marble! Yes, that is a funny story about the contest and Bernini's response to losing in the raised hand of the statue. One of the things I really admired in Madrid was the double church with Goya ceilings. When the church decided the first one was too secular, not fit for worship, it was wise enough not to destroy it but build the exact church next door for which Goya did another ceiling. Have you seen them?

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  12. Barbara, I have been to Madrid since Goya was there, but I have not seen the Church. One of the many reasons to return. We are firing each other's wanderlust here!!

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