Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) is widely acknowledged as the greatest Baroque sculptor for his monumental works such as Apollo and Daphne (1622–25) and the Ecstasy of St. Theresa (1647–52). His unparalleled talent as a portrait sculptor transformed the practice and earned him the patronage of the Catholic Church and nobility in 17th- century Rome, as well as important commissions from foreign rulers.
On view in Florence, the special exhibition also includes Bernini’s portrait drawings, as well as portrait busts by other important sculptors in 17th-century Rome such as Francesco Mochi, François Duquesnoy, Giuliano Finelli, and Alessandro Algardi.
The exhibition is organized chronologically to provide a comprehensive presentation of Bernini’s artistic development and a cohesive understanding of his oeuvre. The first gallery will celebrate Bernini’s early achievements, including two bronze portrait busts—commissioned together—of the deceased pope Paul V (1621-22, bronze) and the newly appointed Gregory XV (1621-22, bronze), among others. The busts were commissioned to underscore the intellectual continuity between their two pontificates and Bernini brilliantly renders Paul V with naturalism and symmetry and Gregory XV with majesty and dignity. The works were separated in the 1890’s and this will be the first time they have been displayed together since.
The commission for these two sculptors came from a man named Scipione Borghese—the nephew of Paul V—a wealthy benefactor with whom Bernini found great favor in the 1630’s. Bernini’s bust of Scipione Borghese (1632, marble) is of great importance in his oeuvre as it not only depicts his first important patron—Scipione’s patronage launched Bernini’s great career—but also marks a significant innovation in his portrait style. The marble bust is the epitome of what became known as Bernini’s “speaking likeness,” which refers to his unprecedented ability to portray the sitter’s personality with psychological intimacy in a frozen moment of time and action. Scipione is captured in mid-sentence as he directly engages the viewer in conversation. The moment is spontaneous and fleeting as his biretta shifts back on his head and his shoulders animate the creases of his cape. Bernini’s innovation—portraying Scipione as the gregarious and imperious man he was known to be—changed sculptural portraiture forever and made it common practice to “animate” the marble with the sitter’s countenance and temperament.
A section of the exhibition is devoted to portrait busts and paintings of the Barberini family—who rose to prominence in 17th-century Rome with the election of Cardinal Maffeo Barberini to the papal throne in 1623 as Urban VIII—and members of their entourage. Bernini’s portraits of Francesco Barberini (1620s, marble), Maffeo’s uncle, and Camilla Barberini (1620s, marble), Maffeo’s mother, is on view, alongside numerous depictions by Bernini of Urban VIII himself, including two bronze busts, a marble bust, a bronze and porphyry bust, and an oil painting. A spiritually charged marble bust of Carlo Barberini (ca. 1630) by Bernini’s contemporary Francesco Mochi is also on display.
The Florence show also presents a comparison with several works by the major protagonists of painting of the time who were active in Rome (Rubens, Carracci, van Dyck, Velasquez, Vouet, Valentin de Boulogne, Pietro da Cortona). Bernini seems to relate to them and, at times, even to be inspired by them. Two paintings (Portrait of Urban VIII and Self-portrait from the Uffizi) also permit the viewer to get acquainted with Bernini the portraitist, also in painting.
What is Baroque?
Baroque, the European artistic style of the 1600s, targeted the senses using virtuosity and realism, reaching the mind through emotion rather than reason. The term Baroque was coined in the 1700s from the Portuguese word for an irregular pearl, barroco, suggesting the work was composed of distorted forms of histrionic subjects. Baroque art has qualities of theatricality, movement, and exuberance. Artists—like others of the time who were interested in studying, understanding, and recording the world—applied their faculties of keen observation to render details of the physical world and of human psychology.
Bernini's work embodies the quintessence of Baroque energy and dynamism, often capturing a fleeting action in an instant. This bust of Costanza Bonarelli marks the culmination of Bernini's experimentation in presenting immediate, informal, and lifelike portraits. Art historian Rudolf Wittkower, who revived interest in Bernini, called the bust "one of the most remarkable portrait busts of the whole history of art."
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