Rediscovering a Master

A recent exhibition in Rome celebrated the genius of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the 17th century Italian sculptor and architect whose work has earned him a prominent place in Catholic sacred art. And, for those who missed the occasion, a recent book on the same subject is so magnificent that a journey through its pages is almost as good as a visit to the Eternal City.

Bernini: Registra del Barocco ran until Sept. 16 in Rome's Palazzo Venezia, providing an essential excursion for any art aficionado who wants to understand the baroque period in general, and Bernini's influence on it within the city of Rome in particular.

The title of the exhibition is translated into English as Master of the Baroque, but the Italian word registra connotes something more than just mastery. It is the same word used for the director of a film (e.g., Francis Ford Coppola is the registra of The Godfather) and, applied to Bernini, it suggests that he was the principal creator of the baroque.

Some art historians may dispute the appropriateness of that moniker, but it cannot be denied that Bernini “directed” many of the images that make Rome famous — think of the fountain in the center of the Piazza Navona.

This is even more true for Christian Rome. Indeed, Bernini could be called the “director” of the mental pictures most Catholics have of Rome, due to his work on St. Peter's, including the baldachino over the main altar, the bronze cathedra and the “Holy Spirit” window at the back of St. Peter's. And then there is the immense colonnade that embraces St. Peter's Square.

First a Sculptor

Without Bernini's contributions, the millions of pilgrims headed to Rome next year for the Jubilee would be visiting a far different and far less impressive city.

Bernini lived from 1598 to 1680, the son of an accomplished sculptor, Pietro Bernini. Gian Lorenzo distinguished himself first as a sculptor, but quickly developed his skill also as an architect. While the exhibition focused on Bernini the sculptor, a recent book, Bernini and the Art of Architecture, by T.A. Mauder with photography by Joseph S. Martin (published by Abbeville Press in 1998), highlights his contributions as an architect; it also includes some spectacular images of his sculpture.

Among the 300 illustrations included in the book is The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, an altar-piece of St. Teresa of Avila that raised eyebrows when it was unveiled for its suggestiveness in depicting the nuptial union between the soul of the great mystic and Christ. Mauder also treats other famous sculptures that have become Roman landmarks, including The Four Rivers fountain that dominates the Piazza Navona, or the Triton fountain that is the centerpiece of the Piazza Barberini.

The largest part of Mauder's book, though, focuses on Bernini's architecture, as suggested by the spectacular dust-jacket photograph of the Scala Regia, the grand, but perfectly proportioned stairway that leads from the Vatican's Bronze Door toward the Sistine Chapel. Formerly used to receive Catholic monarchs visiting the Apostolic Palace in the days of horsedrawn carriages, it remains one of the most frequently overlooked masterpieces in the Vatican.

In addition to providing extraordinary photographs, Mauder also tells the stories behind the development of works such as the Scala Regia, the bridge of the Angels, and the colonnade in St. Peter's Square, giving modern readers an insight to the conflicts and collaborations that marked a time given to building grandiose projects for the glory of God — and for the honor of the men who built them.

Human Scale

The Bernini exhibition allowed visitors to see his works on a more human scale, as its centerpiece was a hall of marble busts showing the delicacy and boldness of Bernini's sculpture. It was no small achievement by the curator that he managed to collect pieces from the Hermitage in St. Peterburg, the Louvre, and a self-portrait on loan from the Uffizi in Florence.

A bust of Gregory XV from Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario represents a North American contribution to the exhibition, notable because it marks the first time that bust has been exhibited in Italy.

There were also other pieces exhibited for the first time, as incredible as that might seem, and other pieces, from churches, that ordinarily are difficult to see at close range.

The curator of the exhibition also deserves praise for presenting Bernini's life as a whole. Unlike some contemporary exhibitions of sacred art, which neglect the motivation behind the works, Registra del Barocco allowed Bernini's faith to speak for itself. His famous bust of the Damned Soul is presumed a self-portrait, illustrating that whatever conflicts his artistic genius may have provoked, Bernini was not without humility.

More moving still are the devotional drawings Bernini did at the end of his life expressing his trust in the redeeming power of the blood of Christ. These drawings, of a crucified Christ from which the blood flows down to create a sea of blood at the foot of the cross, offered to the Father by Mary, illustrate a simple Catholic piety. Bernini wanted his drawing to be rendered on a large canvas, and hung at the foot of his bed, so that he could gaze upon it during his last days.

An artistic and spiritual highlight of the exhibition was the bust of Salvator Mundi, the near life-size work that Bernini wanted to be his final masterpiece. Completed in 1678, this extraordinary portrayal of a strong and merciful Christ was exhibited for the first time. It is thought to portray Christ in the garden after the resurrection, telling Mary Magdalen not to touch him. What was previously thought to be the original, part of the Chrysler Museum collection in Norfolk, Va., turned out to be a copy. The true original was borrowed for this exhibition from the cathedral in Secs, Normandy.

Salvator Mundi shows that Bernini was still flourishing in his last years, and it represents something of his last testament to his Christian faith. He gave the sculpture to Queen Christina of Sweden, the first post-Reformation Protestant monarch to return to Catholicism. She fled to Rome after her conversion, and now lies buried in St. Peter's. She in turn gave the bust to Pope Innocent XI, returning to the Church a masterpiece of one of the Church's greatest “artistic directors.”

Correspondent Raymond de Souza writes from Rome.