Baroque genius, ruthless robber

December 5, 1997

Without question Gian Lorenzo Bernini is among the greatest sculptors who ever lived. Endowed with a technical command all but unequalled in the history of art, he combined his breathtaking capacity for naturalistic description with a new vision of the expressive, theatrical and architectural possibilities of sculpture. The result was a series of prodigious masterpieces that transformed every genre of statuary. His early narrative groups, Apollo and Daphne and Pluto Abducting Persephone, were the greatest mythological sculptures since the Laocoon and the heights of Hellenistic classicism; his religious Gesamtkunstwerken, such as the Cornaro Chapel (the Mystical Ecstasy of St Theresa of Avila) influenced the course of religious art for the next 150 years; and his psychological conception of portraiture remained vital until the early 20th century. With the exception of Michelangelo - less facile and more sublime - no sculptor ranks higher in achievement and influence. Furthermore, the Baroque as a period in the history of the visual arts is inconceivable without Bernini; like Donatello, Michelangelo and Picasso, he was an epochal figure who transformed the visual arts of his century. Bernini rebuilt Rome according to a more splendid and fanciful ideal and revolutionised the conception and practice of sculpture and architecture.

Charles Avery's Bernini: Genius of the Baroque is the first monograph in English that tries to cover the entire range of the artist's superhuman productivity. Although concentrating on sculpture, Avery gives brief but interesting accounts of Bernini's other activities as an architect, painter, draughtsman, set-designer and medallist. This book is not meant to replace Rudolf Wittkower's masterly catalogue raisonne of the sculptures; rather, Avery seems to have set his sights on Howard Hibbard's 1965 monograph on Bernini, the standard general account of the sculptures in English. The advantages of the present book are its more synoptic vision of Bernini's output, its reference to many of the advances of scholarship during the last three decades, and its far more complete visual record, including a number of exquisite photographs by David Finn.

Avery is one of the leading sculpture experts in the world; he is also the author of several popular books on the history of Italian sculpture. His talents as both a scholar and populariser are on view in this text. Without apology, Avery concentrates on the visual analysis of Bernini's works. The rewards of this concentration are many. Throughout the volume, Avery effectively examines the design and execution of the sculptures, often with a deft economy of words so that the text will be clear and comprehensible even for the casual reader. At moments of maximum inspiration, the results are quite brilliant. The account of the Apollo and Daphne is especially noteworthy. Avery begins with a careful reading of the sculpture's surface, and concludes with a discussion of the progressive narrative embodied in the group. Here Avery makes a crucial point. Wittkower, Hibbard, John Pope-Hennessy and others have maintained that Bernini (and all Baroque sculptors) intended their statues to have one - and only one - principal view. This theory is simply untrue, and nowhere is it more clearly incorrect than standing before the Apollo and Daphne. As one walks around this sculpture, its narrative unfolds and Daphne is transformed from a nymph into a tree. This miraculous capriccio, this masterpiece of spectacle that outstrips all traditional preconceptions about the nature and limitations of sculpture, typifies the genius of Bernini and the Baroque, and yet it has been largely misunderstood for theoretical considerations. Avery's analysis should help to propagate a richer understanding of this great example of Bernini's artistry.

Another significant departure from earlier popular accounts of the sculptor is in the section Avery titles "Bernini, the man". In the past, one usually read laudatory descriptions of the artist's character that emphasised his indefatigable energy, incandescent charm and (late in life) religious sobriety and seriousness of purpose. To be sure Bernini had such qualities. But he was also as ruthless as a robber baron, quick to steal whatever he wanted; for example, he cuckolded one of the assistants in his shop and took credit for work by other artists, including Borromini. Furthermore, he was a shameless lackey to the rich and powerful, and susceptible to fits of violent rage. Indeed, when he discovered that his mistress and his brother were sleeping together, he hired a thug to disfigure the mistress, Costanza Bonarelli (the subject of the ravishing portrait in the Bargello), and tried to murder his brother. As Avery plausibly suggests, it was only remorse over this event that led Bernini to become pious in later life. Bernini was both the most admired and most despised artist in Baroque Rome; even his mother, at times, kept her distance. All this comes out clearly in Avery's book, who suggests that Bernini may have been a manic depressive.

The one significant limitation of Avery's approach is his relative lack of interest in context and iconography. In the past 30 years, Irving Lavin and others have cast a great deal of new light on the background and significance of Bernini's works. But Avery makes little use of this research, favouring breadth of scope over depth of investigation. While this method is adequate for much of the oeuvre, works of the programmatic complexity of the Cornaro Chapel with the Mystical Ecstasy of St Theresa of Avila deserve a fuller iconographical and contextual analysis. Lavin's brilliant study of this work, while mentioned in the footnotes, makes almost no impact on Avery's discussion. Moreover, Avery is unhelpful on this sculpture's combination of religion and eros. Caroline Walker Bynum (the president of the Medieval Academy of America) has done highly original and important work on sexuality and mysticism, especially with reference to female saints. Her research could be profitably examined for understanding both St Theresa's angelic vision and Bernini's transcription of this vision into stone. Avery's decision not to pursue such issues weakens his analysis of some of Bernini's most demanding works. Concomitantly, Avery skims over the historical context of the artist's output; it is only from the many anecdotes quoted throughout the book from Baldinucci and others that one gets a sense of the personalities and institutions of Baroque Rome. There is little mention here of the Jesuits, the Oratorians, St Stanislaus, and so on. Avery leaves such matters to more academic and specialised studies. Nevertheless, for its excellent discussion of style and technique, Bernini: Genius of the Baroque will deservedly attract many readers.

Andrew Butterfield is assistant vice-president, Christie's, New York.

Bernini: Genius of the Baroque

Author - Charles Avery
ISBN - 0 500 091 0
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £45.00
Pages - 287

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