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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Gianlorenzo Bernini self-portrait, 1623
Just as history records that nations have a lifespan not unlike that of their human inhabitants--infancy, childhood, youth, maturity, middle-age, then a doddering old age--the same can be said of a nation's art. Spain, France, England, Germany, have experienced this fate. No doubt the United States too is presently at some point in this cycle. No country on earth, however, more typifies this evolution than Italy, where western art all began. What began in the Middle Ages continued with an almost straight linear progression to an apogee during the High Renaissance, then gradually descended through a murky Mannerist period only to re-emerge in some semblance of its previous prominence during the Baroque era. Then it coasted downward on its past glory until modern times, never again to even approach its former brilliance. Because Italian art peaked a second time during the Baroque era, it is this period that we find most interesting because it's so uncommon in art history.

David, 1623, Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Apollo and Daphne, 1623,
Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Of course. when you think of Italian art during the Baroque period, Caravaggio comes to mind. But another, slightly younger Italian artist may have better typified the era in a broader sense--Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Although most remembered for his dramatic sculpture, or perhaps his architectural skills in planning the enfolding "arms" of St. Peter's "square" in Rome (a misnomer if there ever was on); the man was also a painter as well (as seen in his self-portrait above). In fact, it is this painterly quality we have come to admire most in his sculptures. It's hard to say which of his works is best or most famous. Certainly his David from 1623 is the only one to make any kind of challenge to Michelangelo's immortal figure. And then there's my personal favorite, the melodramatic Apollo and Daphne from the same period in which Bernini has depicted the moment of Apollo's touch which begins turning his sister-in-law into a Laurel tree. But perhaps, most beautiful, is his Ecstasy of St. Theresa, in which Bernini pulls out all the stops, depicting in hard, heavy marble a scene set on a floating cloud mounted outward from a wall beneath an unseen window which serves as his light source.  It's like a three-dimensional painting.

Photo by Sailko
The Ecstasy of St. Theresa,
1647-52, Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Baldachino, 1624-33,
Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Daring to mimic, even surpass Michelangelo himself, Bernini's architectural decoration of the nearly completed St. Peter's cathedral brings to bear the very best the Baroque period had to offer. His massive Baldachino is a free-standing cast bronze structure replete with twisted columns and hanging "canvas," (also cast in bronze), which towers upwards over the high altar several stories beneath the dome where Michelangelo's tomb for Julius II was to have rested. The edifice was so massive its construction created a bronze shortage in Rome. The pope even went so far as to allow Bernini to strip this precious metal from the roof of the Pantheon in order to complete it. Bernini's work, taken as a whole, would seem to suggest that the ideal of the "Renaissance man" did not die with the Renaissance.

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