Sculpting Rome: A Walking Tour of the Top 5 Bernini Hotspots in Rome
by Lisa Chambers
Of all the emperors, popes and noblemen and -women who have shaped Rome over its 2000-plus year history, there’s one man who has made an even more lasting mark on the Eternal City that we see today: Gian Lorenzo Bernini (left, in a self-portrait).
Born in 1598, his birth coincided with that of the Baroque period, where showmanship—and the Roman Catholic Church—reigned supreme. As a child prodigy (his contemporaries called him a “monster of genius”), Gian Lorenzo trained at the feet of his father, sculptor Pietro Bernini, and the younger Berninihad an obsessive work ethic even as a boy. He quickly left the classical Renaissance tradition behind and createda new naturalism in his sculptures that brings hot, passionate life to cold, hard marble.He became a favorite of popes and royalty across Europe, but Bernini’s heart, and most of his art, belonged to Rome. As his first major patron, Pope Urban VIII,told him, “Youwere made for Rome, and Rome was made for you.”
It would take weeks to see all of his art, but when you’re in Bernini’s Rome, you may want to take a stroll and appreciate a few of his most breathtaking works.
- Apollo & Daphne, Bernini’s David, and more (Galleria Borghese, Piazzale del Museo Borghese 5).An excellent place to start is at the magnificent Galleria Borghese. Bernini worked at the palazzo from 1621 to 1625, creating three sculptures that sent his career skyrocketing. The Rape of Persephone (right), Apollo & Daphne and his David are stunning. If you look at Pluto’s hand gripping Persephone’s thigh as she struggles to get away, the marble appears like flesh. You can feel her fear. You can almost smell her sweat. “Never before had marble statues been so palpably alive,” writes Franco Mormando in the2011 biography, Bernini: His Life and His Rome.
Likewise the Apollo & Daphne creates an illusion of motion as visitors walk around the sculpture. Bernini captured the moment in the Greek myth when Daphne’s father Peneus grants her request to escape Apolloby turning her into a tree. The detail is incredible, and when the statue was restored in the early 2000s, the experts working on it discovered that the leaves, when struck, ring like crystal.
My favorite is Bernini’s David, based on the story of David and Goliath. Unlike Michelangelo’s great (if a bit stiff) Renaissance boy hero in Florence — Bernini portrays David in mid-action, as he pulls back his slingshot, concentrating so hard on his giant target that he’s biting his lip.
- Saint Teresa in Ecstasy (Santa Maria della Vittoria, Via 20 Settembre, 17). Heading out of the gallery and down Via Piemonte, if you make a right on Via 20 Settembre you’ll arrive at the Santa Maria della Vittoria church (open 8:30 a.m.-noon; 3:30-6 p.m.). The basilica seems humble from the outside, but inside sits one of Bernini’s most awe-inspiring works: Saint Teresa in Ecstasy. A Venetian cardinal, Federico Cornaro, hired Bernini to transform the left transept into a small chapel for his family. The centerpiece is a sculpture of Teresa of Ávila, completed in 1652.
She had founded the Discalced — “shoeless” — Carmelite nuns, and Bernini depicts her at the almost orgiastic moment when she has a vision and is pierced by the arrow of Divine Love. Golden light shines down from above and illuminates the passionate piece, even her naked foot, which dangles from beneath her swirling robes. As Agnes Crawford,an architectural historian in Rome (check out her tours at understandingrome.com), says, “It’s a multimedia extravaganza of sculpture and stucco, plaster and paint and hidden light effects. It’s totally fabulous.”And totally sexy.
- Fountain of the Triton(Piazza Barberini). A five-minute walk down Via Barberini from the church brings you to Piazza Barberini and two notable Bernini fountains. The powerful Triton features the sea god as a muscled merman spouting water. Commissioned by the Barberini family 1642, it celebrated the completion of an aqueduct restoration project. With this statement of power, Bernini helped to reshape the entire area of the piazza, conveniently located near the front of his patrons’ palace, and remind the common folk who they could thank for their water supply.
On a nearby corner, where Via Veneto enters the piazza, you’ll also see the much more modest Fountain of the Bees. Lest you think the Barberinis didn’t appreciate those common folk, they commissioned Bernini in 1644 to design this small fountain, made up of a marble shell and three bees (the family symbol), to “be of service to private citizens,” as the inscription says. In other words, “You can look at our big fountain but please water your horses in this little one!”
- Bernini’s Elephantand Obelisk (Piazza della Minerva).From Piazza Barberini, take via del Tritone down and follow signs for the Pantheon. Just behind that remarkable first-century domed structure, you’ll find the church Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, and in front, an ornate baby elephant sculpture topped by an Egyptian obelisk. Bernini made the elephant at the request of Pope Alexander VII, who wanted a suitable base for the ancient obelisk. According to one story, probably apocryphal, Bernini was asked to create the elephant, but one of the priests, who had also submitted a design thatgot rejected, haggled with the great sculptor and insisted that the elephant have a cube under its belly. Bernini ultimately complied but got his revenge: The elephant’s rear faces the monastery in which the priest lived and the beast’s tail offers a kind of salute—one that the priest no doubt didn’t appreciate. Trust Bernini to make the priest the “butt” of his joke.
5.The Fountain of the Four Rivers (Piazza Navona). Leaving the Pantheon and heading west, you’ll come to Piazza Navona and Bernini’s most stunning fountain. The four river gods of the Roman world—the Danube, the Ganges, the Plate and the Nile—resting on a faux-rocky outcrop, are robust, powerful figures. The fountain, which is also topped by an Egyptian obelisk, made a political statement confirming the Church’s power to reach across continents.
The Four Rivers fountain helped to recreate the area as a public space. “It’s all part of the remodeling of Rome,” says Crawford,that went on during the Baroque period. “You’ve got this fake natural rock formation growing out of an urban, ordered setting,” she continues. “That’s something unlike anything that had been done before.
Nearly everywhere you look in Rome, you see Bernini’s fingerprints. He worked non-stop into his final years.And when he died in 1680, just shy of his 82nd birthday, he could rest easy knowing that he’d left the greatest mark of any individual, before or since Caesar Augustus, on the Rome we see today. It is the Eternal City, but it is truly Bernini’s city.