If you’re looking for a unique thing to do in Rome, follow the trail of Bernini, the 17th-century master who changed the face of Rome. From the Four Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona to his magnificent statue of Apollo and Daphne in the Borghese Gallery, his work makes up some of Rome’s top attractions. Here’s how to find the best Bernini sculpture in Rome, as well as his 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 and just 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. It might as well be from snow.
Every time I’m in Rome I come to see it. But on this trip Apollo and Daphne isn’t enough. I’m determined to track down the best Bernini sculpture in Rome, as well as the artist’s most notable fountains and architecture – and dive into a few scandals along the way.
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 a poster boy for 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 at the Borghese when the audioguide 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 risqué sculpture of Paolina Bonaparte Borghese and is 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 Luigi coming out of Costanza’s house, he was so angry he chased his brother through the streets with a crowbar (breaking two ribs) then a sword. Then 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, I don’t think we can gloss over the past, even as we track down the best Bernini sculptures in Rome. The real past paints a more accurate picture and offers an eye-opening glimpse into the artist’s life and Baroque Rome.
Where are the best Bernini sculptures and fountains in Rome?
Everywhere. Rome is a great big Bernini showplace, from the Four Rivers Fountain in 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 he wants 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, one of the largest green spaces in Rome. The landscaped gardens and park is within walking distance from the Spanish Steps or the Via Veneto, but you need to get a ticket for the museum beforehand because the Borghese is 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.) The 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 more 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. Bernini sculpted it between 1622 and 1625, when he was in his early 20s. It’s an action-packed scene and I don’t stop circling it until my husband hauls me away.
The sculpture catches the moment when a lusty Apollo, who has been hit with Cupid’s arrow, has caught Daphne, a nymph. Terrified she calls out to her river god father to save her, who turns her into a laurel tree.
The sculpture is a windswept moment of change. Daphne’s fingers are turning to leaves, her hair to branches and her feet to root tendrils. Her expression is desperate as Apollo grabs her waist.
Commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, one of Bernini’s top patrons, the sculpture was considered scandalous by some in the church, but it did help propel Bernini to fame.
The Rape of Proserpina
Also known as Pluto and Persephone, the Rape of Proserpina is another early Bernini masterpiece at the Borghese Gallery. It was 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 captured Persephone who is twisting and struggling to escape the bearded burly god.
Her helplessness 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? Wasn’t she struggling to get away then?
The fallout from Bernini’s affair with Costanza
This violent event in Bernini’s life could hardly go unnoticed, but the pope was unwilling to lose his gifted golden goose of Baroque sculpture, and Bernini got away with a slap on the wrist. He was ordered to settle down and marry. His bride, 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
Rome is luminous at night, and in the evening Mark and I stroll to Piazza Navona, where Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, takes centre stage. It’s Bernini’s most famous fountain, although 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 uninvited, but it was so overwhelming the pope couldn’t turn it down.
The base surrounds an ancient obelisk recovered from the Appian Way. Four muscular river gods, their feet dangling down towards the water, represent the 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 that Bernini expressed his disdain for Borromini’s project through his river gods. The figure of the Nile hides his face from the sight of the church behind a veil, 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 perhaps Bernini was just thinking ahead.
The curious case of the Bernini sculpture, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria
Of all the Bernini sculptures in Rome, the Ecstasy of St 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 sculpture is in a side chapel on your left.
Put a coin in the box to light up the chapel and you’ll see an, er, climactic vision: St Teresa, a Spanish mystic, reclines. An angel stands over her, gently lifting her drapery, poised to pierce the saint’s heart with a golden spear. The repeated penetration with the spear has produced a spiritual ecstasy in St Teresa. Her expression is rapturous, her drapery falls 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 St Teresa described 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 … — St Teresa
The Pont Sant’Angelo
The next morning Mark and I find ourselves alone on the Pont Sant’Angelo, the Bridge of Angels. In the pale light the Tiber is a milky jade, the sky a washed-out blue, and 10 marble angels hover over us. I can almost hear the footsteps of the medieval pilgrims as they trudge over the bridge on the way to St Peter’s Basilica.
The bridge dates back to 138 AD and was built by the Emperor Hadrian. In 1688 Pope Clement VII commissioned Bernini to add the angels (only two of which Bernini carved himself).
Then the pope thought the statues were too exquisite to be batted about by the elements so he had the originals moved to the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, just off the Via Veneto, where they still are today.
Bernini at the Vatican
Bernini worked for the Vatican for five decades, so he had a hand in almost everything. Here are the main things to look out for. And good luck withe crowds.
St Peter’s Square
Bernini designed the mammoth St Peter’s Square for Pope Alexander VII, creating 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 students. 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
Once you’re 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 masterpiece. It was finished when the artist was 81, and many sculptors had a hand in it. The pope, carved from white marble, kneels in prayer. Below him a (creepy) bronze skeleton pulls back red marble drapery, while four female figures represent Charity, Truth, Prudence and Judgement.
As Bernini worked on it, was he thinking about his own life and the roles that 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 today, as if it were one big marvellous sculpture.
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 sculpture 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.
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 goes to show that Bernini statues are everywhere and helped turn Rome into one big outdoor museum.