Bernini and the Baroque

A sculptor, architect, painter and designer of theatrical performances and festivals; Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680) was especially celebrated for his ability to produce 'living marble' sculpture. Thanks to the support of successive popes, Bernini became the leading sculptor in Rome, and his influence was felt worldwide. The V&A is fortunate to hold several works by Bernini, which illustrate the scope of his output as well as offering an insight into his working methods.

Living marble

Baroque, the main European style in the visual arts in the 17th and the first half of the 18th century, used the human figure to convey emotion and meaning, making a direct appeal to the senses of the viewer. Bernini's sculpture, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647 – 52), designed for the Cornaro Chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, has been described as perhaps the quintessential image of Baroque religious art, a depiction showing the meeting of the realms of heaven and earth through the vision of the saint. Bernini endowed the whole figure with emotion, using pose, gesture and drapery – the 'living marble' for which he became renowned – ­as well as facial expression to engage the viewer.

Almost 20 years after the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, the same principles can be seen in Bernini's figure of The Blessed Ludovica, made in 1672 for the Altieri chapel in the church of San Francesco a Ripa, Rome. Ludovica Albertoni was a Franciscan nun renowned for her charitable work and the chapel's decoration was commissioned by Cardinal Paluzzi degli Albertoni, a descendent of her family. In this sculpture, the viewer is not witness to a vision, but to the throes of death. Like the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Bernini's sculpture is as dramatic and sensual, as it is spiritual.

The V&A's collection includes a sketch-model for the original marble sculpture. Modelled in clay, it was then fired (heated to a high temperature) to become terracotta.

The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, Gianlorenzo Bernini, 1672, Italy. Museum no. A.93-1980. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This bozzetti – the name given to preliminary terracotta models – is unusual because its back has been modelled. This was an unnecessary detail as the back of the finished work would not have been visible in the chapel.

(Back view) The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, Gianlorenzo Bernini, 1672, Italy. Museum no. A.93-1980. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This, along with the delicate rendering of the face, suggests that it may have been both a working model and a presentation piece for the patron. By the 16th century, such models had become sought after by collectors. Unlike many of his other compositions, which were carved by his assistants, Bernini himself largely executed the marble for the final version.

Another surviving bozzetti in our collection, Time and Death (1660), is thought to have been made as a temporary funeral decoration. With Bernini's typical dynamism, the figure of Time is shown lifting a dead body out of the reach of Death's skeletal figure. Death is being cheated of his prize – perhaps offering a suggestion of a reputation that lives on after death, or a belief in the immortality of the soul through redemption. As in other bozzetti by Bernini, the roughly worked back bears numerous fingerprints of the maker.

Time and Death, Gianlorenzo Bernini, about 1670, Italy. Museum no. A.29-1984. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Portraiture

In March 1665, Bernini left Italy for France where the King, Louis XIV, had invited him to discuss designs for completing the Palais du Louvre. Although his plans were rejected, Bernini did execute a marble bust of the King. Louis' head was depicted held high above a mass of billowing drapery, a secular version of the way that Bernini treated sacred subjects. Other rulers throughout Europe quickly requested their own portrait.

Such portrait busts were usually intended for public display or propaganda. An unusual item in our collection is a portrait bust of Thomas Baker by Bernini, a private commission from a comparatively modest member of society. He was believed to have been an Englishman who delivered a portrait of King Charles I of England by the painter Anthony van Dyck to Bernini in Rome so that the sculptor could carve a bust of the King.

Thomas Baker, Gianlorenzo Bernini, about 1638, Italy. Museum no. A.63:1, 2-1921 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A description of Bernini's working methods survives from his visit to France. For a portrait bust, he would make numerous drawings of his sitters in action to get to know their movements and expressions. Working from memory, he then carved the marble block using chisels and drills. In the bust of Thomas Baker, the tool marks are particularly visible in the hair and the intricate lace. An assistant apparently completed the bust after Bernini was ordered to stop so he could work on the Charles I portrait bust.

Our collection also includes a bozzetti for the monument to Pope Alexander VII, designed for his tomb in St. Peter's Basilica, Rome. Although sketchily modelled, it still clearly conveys Bernini's intention for the resulting portrait. Tool marks can be seen, as well as suggestions of thumb and fingerprints. In this model, the monument was intended to sit above a doorway, so the pope's head was modelled separately, allowing it to be adjusted to the correct angle to be seen from below.

Front and rear view: Pope Alexander VII, Gianlorenzo Bernini, about 1669 – 70, Italy. Museum no. A.17-1932. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Neptune and Triton

A statue of Neptune and Triton was one of Bernini's earliest works. With its drama and vigour, it exemplifies the new approach to composition for which he became renowned. It was carved within a year, between March 1622 and February 1623, when Bernini was about 25. The subject of Neptune, the classical god of the sea, and his son Triton, a merman (half man, half fish) fits the sculpture's function as a fountain. Bernini has imbued it with action showing Neptune in the act of thrusting down a trident. It originally stood in a large fishpond, known as the Peschiera or Peschierone, the centrepiece of a complex system of fountains and cascades in Cardinal Montalto's garden of the Villa Montalto, one of the most celebrated sights in Rome in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Neptune and Triton, Gianlorenzo Bernini, about 1622 – 3, Italy. Museum no. A.18:1-1950. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bernini created a number of spectacular fountain designs. In Rome, these included the Triton Fountain at Piazza Barberini (completed in 1642 – 3) and, as part of the refashioning of Palazzo Pamphili, the Fountain of the Four Rivers (1651). Our collection also includes a pen and ink design for the fountain that features Neptune for the Ducal palace at Sassuolo, Italy.

A design for a fountain of Neptune for the Ducal palace at Sassuolo, Italy, Gianlorenzo Bernini, about 1652, Rome. Museum no. CAI.416. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Public spaces

Aspects of Bernini's work extended beyond what is represented in our collection. He also oversaw the transformation of spaces such as Piazza Navona and Palazzo Chigi in Rome and created temporary designs for elaborate firework displays – a popular feature of politically motivated public celebrations in 17th- and 18th-century Europe.

But the pinnacle of Bernini's reconception of public spaces was his reworking of St. Peter's Square – the plaza in front of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, the centre of the Catholic Church. He created a space where, in typical Baroque fashion, the visitor becomes part of the dramatic experience. Bernini also created several designs for inside the Basilica, including the twisted columns and a sculpted bronze canopy over the place of Saint Peter's tomb.

Photograph of St Peter's Basilica and Piazza, Vatican City, unknown maker. Museum no. 769-1944. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Background image: The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, Gianlorenzo Bernini, 1672, Italy. Museum no. A.93-1980. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London