Sometime in the late 1980’s, I found myself every Monday/Wednesday/Friday in a dark basement, large coffee in hand, learning all about Baroque art and architecture in a college Art History class. The first time I clapped eyes on a marble statue by Gian Lorenzo Bernini Baroque Artist, I was in LOVE. I mean, totally and completely in love! I simply could not believe that anyone had the talent to make marble look like human flesh. How was this even possible????
The career of Bernini Baroque Artist spans the height of the Italian Baroque, and Baroque art is profoundly tied to the religious and political context of 16th and 17th century Italy. In order to attract the people to the Faith, the leaders of the church called for art that would captivate the attention, stimulate the senses, and elevate the soul: therefore, Baroque art tends to the massive, dramatic, and theatrical.
Eventually I took my first trip to Rome, and marveled at standing face-to-face with some of the most breath-taking art in the world. Today, I’ll share with you my favorite 5 masterpieces of Bernini, Baroque Artist, in Rome, and how you can see them too!
St. Theresa in Ecstasy
St. Theresa of Avila was a Spanish nun, mystic and writer during the Counter-Reformation. One day, while praying and singing the hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus,” she experienced the first of the episodes that would impact her for the rest of her life: a rapture. In her writings, Theresa described how she would feel suddenly overcome by the love of God, feel the presence of Christ or of angels, and be lifted to a state of ecstasy. Bernini’s famous sculpture was commissioned by Cardinal Federico Cornaro of Venice in 1647 for his burial chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria. The Cardinal hired an already famous but down and out Bernini Baroque Artist for the amount of 12,000 scudi, roughly $120,000, a price unheard of at that time. The Ecstasy of St. Theresa is not just a sculpture, but a total environment: Bernini designed the entire chapel, essentially creating a stage set complete with sculpted audience members. See this fantastic masterpiece in the Cornaro Chapel in the Chisea Santa Maria delle Vittoria.
Apollo and Daphne
This sculpture is inspired by a story from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which describes how one day Apollo teased an arrow-wielding Cupid, calling him a boy who was too young to handle such dangerous weapons. Out of spite, Cupid then pricked Apollo with one of his love-inducing arrows, causing the god to fall madly in love with the passing-by river nymph Daphne. However, Daphne was devoted to the goddess Diana, and had resolved never to marry and to remain a virgin for her entire life.
When Apollo pursued her, driven by his lust, she ran away in panic, calling to her father the river God to help her. He heeded her prayer by transforming her into a laurel tree. Apollo declared that if she would never be his wife, she would at least be his tree, and it is for this reason that he imbued the tree with eternal youth and adopted the crown of laurel leaves, which subsequently became the symbol of Olympic victories and Roman emperors.
Cardinal Scipione Borghese commissioned Apollo and Daphne from Bernini in 1622. This is the sculpture that secured the young Bernini international fame for its breathtaking beauty, innovative composition, and technical virtuosity.
You can see this gorgeous work by Bernini at the Galleria Borghese.
Piazza della Minerva’s Elephant
One of my favorite little squares in Rome is Piazza della Minerva, home to Bernini’s elephant. Most likely sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s assistant, the charming marble pachyderm is topped with an Egyptian obelisk. What do elephants have to do with Rome? The ancient Romans used them in the Punic Wars, supporting the campaigns of the growing empire. However, by Bernini’s time, elephants were decidedly less common in Rome. In 1630, Bernini was probably in the crowd to see the first elephant to have visited Rome in more that 100 years. This study likely inspired him to create this statue in 1667.
Bernini sketched elephants and intended to create a statue to be displayed in the Barberini Gardens, shadowed by leafy trees. However, when the friars of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva were digging a new foundation in 1665, they uncovered an obelisk. The Pope commissioned Bernini to create a monument for the ancient Egyptian obelisk, and Bernini simply could not get the elephant out of his head. And so, the marble animal became the base for the pagan symbol in front of the church whose Dominicans had discovered the antiquity.
There are rumors that Bernini had a bit of fun with the elephant’s positioning, making sure the butt faced the home of a rival. Whenever the family looked out on to the square, they were sure the see the bottom staring back at them.
You can see this darling elephant just around the corner from the Pantheon.
The Fountain of the Four Rivers
The main attraction in Piazza Navona is the Fontana die Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers). The fountain was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini Baroque Artist for Pope Innocent X. The base of the fountain is travertine rock which supports the four river Gods. Above the Gods is an ancient Egyptian obelisk. The four river Gods represent the papal authority throughout the world. The Nile (Africa), the Danube (Europe), the Ganges (Asia), and the Rio del la Plata (America). The design is absolutely beautiful. Piazza Navona was constructed on what was the former Domitian’s stadium, built by emperor Domitian in 86 AD. which gives the square its long oval shape. The stadium was paved over in the 15th century and the Piazza Navona was created.
There are so many other Bernini Baroque Artist wonders in Rome to enjoy….can you see why I fell totally in love?!
Mary Meier-Evans, The Curious Cowgirl, is not only a Travel Blogger, but also designs custom curated travel guides for clients traveling to Rome. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.