Bernini: His Life and His Rome

March 20, 2012
Book Cover Bernini: His Life and His Rome
by Franco Mormando
University of Chicago Press, 456 pp., € 35.00


In a Gian Lorenzo Bernini stream-of-consciousness word-association game one might come up with Rome, marble fountain, St. Peter’s, baroque, post-Reformation Catholicism. Is there anything to add to that list? Perhaps adultery, politicking, rape, sodomy, narcissism, astrological prophecies? Franco Mormando, professor of Romance Languages at Boston College, argues in his new biography Bernini: His Life and His Rome, thatto define Bernini without the latter descriptives is to paint a one-dimensional picture of a complex man. In the first English-language biography of the sculpture, architect, painter, and occasional playwright, Mormando employs ten years of primary and secondary-source scouring in an attempt to unveil an entire Bernini. In doing so, and one might argue, more engagingly, he tells the story of a slice of 17th century Rome. With all of the papal intrigue, courtly power-grabbing, and illicit sexual conduct, Bernini, perpetually at the center of it all, could win a daytime Emmy for best leading role. The biography, in fact, would appear a bit skewed toward the titillating, yet, Mormando argues, after centuries of conceiving of the great sculpture as a devoutly pious Catholic, whose religious art perfectly reflects his moral life, it is time to see Bernini for what he was, namely, a human being. The exulted vision of Bernini that has reigned since his death is in thanks partly to the Berninis themselves. Late in his life, around 1673 according to Mormando, public opinion was turning against Bernini and his family decided it was time to plot a seemingly-neutral hagiographic biography of him. They found an author, Filippo Baldinucci, and under the false patronage of Queen Christina of Sweden, coaxed into being a unilateral depiction of Bernini as genius, pious, pure artist. While he was surely all of those things at various points in his life, a multitude of drives, according to Mormando’s archival sources, steer the artist’s choices and even his very art. The ‘Fountain of the Four Rivers’ commission, for example, Bernini gained through subterfuge of the Pope Innocent X. His famous ‘Ludovica Albertoni’ in the Church of San Francesco a Ripa was an amends made for his brother’s rape of a young boy in St. Peter’s Basilica. And all of his commissions, it seems, were forthcoming only when scudi were reciprocated in abundance. While Mormando’s portrayal of Bernini is far from saintly, neither is it critical of the artist. Mormando seems to do his best throughout the book to remain objective and to tell as complete a story as possible without extrapolating too much upon the facts that there are. Because the textual evidence is scarce, Mormando is constricted throughout to choose the ‘best’ depiction from differing accounts (always dangerous terrain). More often than not he is left without any evidence with which to confidently fluff out Bernini’s character. What did Bernini really think of Borromini? Mormando cannot say. Did Bernini love his wife? We do not know. How was Bernini as a father? Probably strict and controlling, but some evidence points to a certain tenderness as well. This uncertainty in Mormando’s account could be a detriment to the book’s overall credibility, yet the author is the first to name in the introduction the tools that he has and points where he must leave off or surmise. The tone, overall, is light and playful. Mormando is not an art historian, he knows his limits, and he knows his goals. He is not trying to reteach Bernini-the-artist to the art world, he is attempting to create Bernini-the-man for the lay reader or interested humanist. In fact, Bernini: His Life and His Rome, aside from a pleasurable night-table reader, would serve exceedingly well as a supplement or substitution for a travel guide of Rome. Certainly it would not cover all of Roman history, yet one could spend a month just visiting Bernini’s additions to the Roman cityscape. It provides an intimate context to Roman baroque architecture and art that transcends the question of its religiosity or sexuality and which makes it memorable, poignant, breath-taking, for the very fact that it is part of a story, part and parcel of a single, extraordinary, yet mundanely human life.
Julianne VanWagenen is a PhD candidate in Harvard University’s Dept. of Romance Languages and Literatures. She is interested in 20th century Italian cultural studies, particularly pre-WWI cultural spasms, anarchy, rock and roll, and the crisis of identity and self-conception in contemporary Italy.