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Gian Lorenzo Bernini was the most famous Italian sculptor of the 17th century. Here’s how to find the best Bernini sculpture in Rome, as well as the artist’s most notable fountains and architecture.
Searching for Bernini at the Borghese Gallery
The audio guide at the Borghese Museum in Rome is messing with my head. Anecdotes about Rubens are rattling into my ear while I’m looking at a painting by Caravaggio, and I’m starting to think I hadn’t learned anything in art history class at all. Then I realize I’m in the wrong room.
While the narrator talks on, I give up following along and simply enjoy the sensation of being enveloped by the marble sculptures, Baroque art and sumptuous interiors that make up the Borghese Gallery, the former villa of the art-mad Cardinal Scipione Borghese.
Mostly I’m keeping an eye out for Bernini sculptures, particularly Apollo and Daphne, a sculpture so delicate and alive it’s hard to believe it’s carved from marble, not from snow.
Bernini in Rome
Every time I’m in Rome I make a pilgrimage to the Borghese to see it. But on this trip, a visit to see Apollo and Daphne isn’t enough. One of the most unique things to do in Rome is to follow the entire trail of Bernini, the 17th-century master who changed the face of the city.
It’s a big job. From the Four Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona to the monumental Baldacchino at the Vatican, Bernini’s work makes up some of Rome’s top attractions. Determined to track down as much of it as I can, I hatch a plan to find his best sculptures, most notable fountains and most impressive architecture – and dive into a few scandals along the way.
If you like art and travel, this post should you help you hatch a plan, too.
Who was Gian Lorenzo Bernini?
Gian Lorenzo Bernini was a gifted sculptor who created some of the best art in Rome. Together with the painter Caravaggio, he’s one of the poster boys of the Baroque, a period in art that embraced the dramatic, the lavish and – one might argue – the overdone.
A dark spot in Bernini’s career
I’ve just tracked down The Rape of Proserpina in the Emperor’s Room when the audio guide narrator says something that makes me stop. He’s talking about the one dark spot in Bernini’s career. Pope Innocent X had just ascended to power and he wasn’t as devoted to Bernini’s artwork as Pope Urban VII had been. Projects were going to Bernini’s despised rival, Francesco Borromini, instead.
And I’m like, what? What? The one dark spot?
The other dark spot in Bernini’s career
I look around for my husband so I can tug on his sleeve and register my indignation but he’s engrossed in Canova’s reclining sculpture of Paola Bonapart Borghese, which admittedly is quite risqué, and he’s more interested in listening to his headset than to me.
Fine. I’ll talk to myself. What about the other dark spot in Bernini’s career? What about the affair he had with Costanza Bonarelli, the wife of his assistant? Sensual, young and plumply pretty, Costanza was not only married but managed to fit in an affair with Bernini’s brother, Luigi, too.
When the besotted Bernini saw his brother leaving Costanza’s house, he was filled with such a rage that he chased Luigi through the streets with a crowbar (breaking two ribs) then went after him with a sword. After that he sent a servant over to slash Costanza’s face with a razor.
That’s not a dark spot in Bernini’s career? It’s a big black hole!
So while I can’t help being swept up by Bernini’s talent, and his sculpture of Apollo and Daphne takes my breath away, it’s a mistake to gloss over the past, even as we track down Bernini’s best sculptures – because the real past paints a more accurate picture and offers an eye-opening glimpse into the dark depths of Baroque Rome.
Where are the best Bernini sculptures and fountains in Rome?
Everywhere. Rome is a great big Bernini showplace, from the Piazza Navona to the Colonnade in St Peter’s Square. You could easily spend at least one day in Rome going from masterpiece to masterpiece – or more. In fact, you can keep going right up until your husband says, with a desperate look on his face, that he’d like to start looking at Caravaggio paintings instead.
Bernini at the Galleria Borghese
The Borghese Gallery, the Galleria Borghese, is located on Pincian Hill in the Villa Borghese Gardens, one of the largest green spaces in Rome. The landscaped park is within walking distance from the Spanish Steps or the Via Veneto, but get a ticket for the gallery beforehand because it’s one of the most popular museums in Rome.
The Bernini David at the Borghese Gallery
The Bernini David is one of three famous David sculptures. (The others are by Michelangelo and Donatello.) Bernini’s statue captures David as he’s about to hurl the stone at Goliath. His muscles are taut, his torso turned and his determined expression makes him seem more relatable than Michelangelo’s idealized meditative version.
It’s David as ‘every man’ and Bernini is said to have used his own image as a model. So now that you have an idea of what he looks like, let’s move on.
The Apollo and Daphne sculpture
If you’re only going to seek out one Bernini sculpture in Rome, seek out Apollo and Daphne. It’s located in – quite fittingly – the Apollo and Daphne Room at the Borghese. It was sculpted between 1622 and 1625 when Bernini was still in his early 20s. Commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, one of Bernini’s top patrons, it was considered scandalous by some, but it propelled the young artist to fame.
The marble masterpiece captures a windswept moment of change. The lusty Apollo, who has been hit with Cupid’s arrow, has just caught the innocent nymph Daphne. Terrified she calls out to her river god father to save her, who transforms her into a laurel tree. Her fingers are turning to leaves, her hair to branches and her feet to root tendrils. Her expression is desperate as Apollo grabs her waist. It’s an action-packed scene and I don’t stop circling it until my husband hauls me away.
The Rape of Proserpina
Also known as Pluto and Persephone, the Rape of Proserpina is another early Bernini masterwork at the Borghese Gallery, carved when he was barely 23. Like the statue of Apollo and Daphne, it’s a nail-biting moment. Pluto, the God of the Underworld, has just kidnapped Persephone, who is twisting and struggling to escape the bearded burly god.
Her helplessness, along with Daphne’s, makes me think of Costanza, the woman who Bernini would fall so violently in love with nearly 20 years later. Not that Costanza was an unwilling participant – by all accounts it was a passionate pairing that steamed on for two years – but what was her expression when Bernini’s servant was slashing her face? Were these sculptures somehow prophetic of her struggle? Do they reveal a shard of violence that lay embedded in the Baroque master’s soul even then?
The fallout from Bernini’s affair with Costanza
This savage event could hardly go unnoticed, but the pope was unwilling to lose his golden goose of Baroque sculpture. Bernini got away with a rap on the wrist. He was ordered to settle down and marry. His intended, Caterina Tezio, was one of the most celebrated beauties in Rome. He was also ordered to pay a fine that was later forgiven by the pope.
Apparently Bernini never strayed again, attended mass daily for the next 40 years and went on to have 11 children. That’s all very fine but what about Costanza Bonarelli?
Costanza went to prison for adultery.
To be more exact, it was an institution for wayward women. She didn’t stay in long, and when she came out she resumed her marriage, became an art dealer of sorts and her husband continued to work as Bernini’s assistant. It’s an ending I don’t pretend to understand.
Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain in the Piazza Navona
The tangled affair is a soap opera in stone, and the ghosts of Costanza, Persephone and Daphne seem to hover in the shadows as Mark and I stroll that evening to the Piazza Navona. Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, is the luminous star of the piazza. It’s Bernini’s most famous fountain, although a number of other sculptors worked on it, too, and was completed in 1651.
Bernini only got the commission by some tricky maneuvering – by putting a model of it in front of Pope Innocent X’s nose without being invited to submit, but it was so overwhelming the pope couldn’t turn it down.
Four muscular river gods, their feet dangling down towards the water, surround an obelisk recovered from the Appian Way. The gods represent the four great rivers of the world: the Danube, the Ganges, the Rio del Plato and the Nile. These in turn represent the four continents of the world: Europe, Asia, America and Africa. (Australia hadn’t been discovered yet, and don’t ask me about Antarctica – it’s Bernini’s masterpiece, not mine.)
That all represents the power of Christianity, with the water signifying God’s wisdom that washes over everything.
The rumoured scandal of the Four Rivers Fountain and why it’s probably not true
The Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi faces the Sant’Agnesi in Agoni church, another well-known Rome attraction on Piazza Navona. Bernini lost out on the commission to design the church to his arch rival, Borromini. It’s said Bernini expressed his disdain for Borromini’s project through his gods. The figure of the Nile hides his face from the sight of the church while the Rio del Plata god has his hands raised, as if to protect himself when Borromini’s church falls down.
It’s a suspect tale, however, as the fountain was completed before the church – but it does add a bit of dramatic tension to a visit.
The curious case of the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in the Santa Maria della Vittoria
Of all the Bernini sculptures in Rome, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is the most provocative, yet it’s considered one of the best. Bernini himself was proud of it, calling it “the least bad thing I have ever done.”
The church isn’t far from the Rome Termini Train Station so it’s easy to get to the next day from our hotel on the Via Veneto. Mark puts a coin in the box to light up the chapel and a climactic vision appears.
Saint Teresa, a Spanish mystic, reclines, a rapturous expression on her face. A male angel stands over her. Gently he lifts her drapery, poised to pierce her heart with a golden spear. The repeated thrust with the spear has produced a spiritual ecstasy in the saint. Her arms fall to her sides, her drapery billows out in waves and golden rays shoot down from the sky. It’s, well, orgasmic. I don’t know how else to say it, and many art historians don’t either.
But maybe that’s too easy. Let’s call it spiritual sensuality and leave it at that. Or let’s look at how Saint Teresa herself describes it.
I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails … The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease … — Saint Teresa
The Ponte Sant’Angelo
On our final morning, Mark and I find ourselves alone on the Ponte Sant’Angelo, the Bridge of Angels. In the pale early light the Tiber is a milky jade, the sky a washed-out blue, and a row of marble angels line our path. I can almost hear the footsteps of the medieval pilgrims as they trudge over the bridge on the way to St Peter’s Basilica, this being the main passage to the Vatican.
The bridge dates back to 138 AD and was built by the Emperor Hadrian, long before the Baroque. In 1688 Pope Clement VII commissioned Bernini to add the angels (only two of which Bernini carved himself).
It was Bernini in Rome at his best. In fact, the pope declared the statues too exquisite to be batted about by the elements so he had copies made and the originals were moved to the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, just off the Via Veneto, where they still are today.
Bernini at the Vatican
From the Ponte Sant’Angelo it’s an easy walk to St. Peter’s Square, which Bernini designed for Pope Alexander VII. The artist, a gifted architect as well as sculptor, created the two sweeping colonnades that represent the welcoming embrace of Christianity. On the balustrade at the top of the columns are 140 statues of saints crafted by his workshop, while in the centre of the square is an Egyptian obelisk brought to Rome by Caligula in 37 AD.
Bernini’s Baldacchino in St Peter’s Basilica
Inside the basilica you can hardly miss Bernini’s Baldacchino. Towering over the altar, which stands directly over St Peter’s tomb, Bernini’s Baldachin is a 29-metre bronze canopy complete with spiralling columns, gleaming angels and a golden cross at the top. It took 11 years to make and the enormous amount of bronze needed for the project was pilfered from the Pantheon.
The Tomb of Pope Alexander II
The Tomb of Alexander II in the south transept of St. Peter’s was Bernini’s final design, completed when the artist was 81. The pontiff, carved from white marble, kneels in prayer. Below him, a bronze skeleton with insect-like wings emerges from a cloud of red Jasper drapery, an unsettling reminder of our own mortality. Seeking warm flesh, I grasp my husband’s hand.
Surrounding the skeleton, four frothy figures represent Charity, Truth, Prudence and Judgement. As Bernini worked on the tomb alongside his assistants, was he thinking about his own life and the roles Charity, Truth, Prudence and Judgement had played in his choices? And, I wonder, as we’re marvelling over his sculptures today, do we think of the man’s genius or do we think of Costanza? Can you separate the art from the man?
However you choose to view Gian Lorenzo Bernini, there’s no denying he helped shape our image of Rome, as if it were all one big marvellous sculpture to create.
More Bernini sculptures in Rome
If, after all that, you’re still asking ‘where can I find Bernini sculptures?’ rest assured, there are other top Rome attractions you can visit to see his work. At the Capitoline Museum you can see his eerie Bust of Medusa, or find his whimsical Elephant and Obelisk sculpture in the Piazza della Minerva.
At the Doria Pamphilj, the bust of Pope Innocent X is one of my favourite Bernini sculptures in Rome. His busts are known for their ‘Speaking Likeness’ – realistic portraits that look as if the subject was just taking a breath or about to speak.
The Spanish Steps
Finally, at the bottom of the Spanish Steps you can see the Fountain of the Leaky Boat, the Fontana della Baraccia. It was made by a very young Bernini and his artist father, Pietro Bernini. It’s not my top choice as far as Rome attractions go, but you’ll probably be at the Spanish Steps anyway.
And if you’ve made it this far, congratulations: You’ve seen the best of Bernini in Rome.