Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Baroque art

A self-portrait of Bernini.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Naples, 7 December 1598 - Rome, 28 November 1680) was an Italian Baroque artist. His main area of artistic expertise lay in sculpture, but Bernini was proficient in architecture, painting, playwriting, and metalwork as well. Bernini played an enormous role in the development of the Roman Baroque.

1. Early career
2. Papal Patronage
3. Baroque art
3.1 Baroque art and the theatre of life
3.2 Design by concetto

Early career

Bernini's artistic career began in the studio of his father, Pietro Bernini (1562 - 1629), a Florentine Mannerist artist who had already worked in Rome under Pope Paul V[1]. Even at an early age, Bernini's sculptural talent was evident, and his work soon came to the attention of Cardinal Maffeo Barberini (1568 - 1644). It was through Cardinal Barberini that Bernini came into contact with Scipione Borghese, who was a cousin of Paul V. Bernini sculpted many works for Borghese, such as Aeneas and Anchises, Apollo and Daphne, and Pluto and Persephone. In these sculptures, Bernini already began to break away from traditional Mannerist customs. Traditionally, marble statues were meant to reflect the static and firm nature of stone. Bernini's sculptures, however, were very dynamic and fine. Sculpture had, up to Bernini, been used to depict actions that were already completed. What Bernini managed to do was to capture a state of transition in his sculptures. His works show events while they are still happening, instead of when they are finished.[2]

Papal patronage

Apart from being a gifted artist, Bernini was also a very religious man, "who completely embodied, in his person and his work, the spirit of the Counter-Reformation"[3], which gave an authentic spiritual feeling to his religious art[4]. When Maffeo Barberini was elected as Pope Urban VIII, Bernini's career really took off. One of Bernini's first papal commissions was the design and construction of an altarpiece to mark the tomb of St. Peter, on which he collaborated with Carlo Maderno and later rival Francesco Borromini. His work on the Baldachin of St. Peter forced Bernini to learn about architecture and metalwork, two disciplines in which he had no experience prior to this commission[5]. Besides working on the Baldachin, Bernini was involved in the design of various sculptures in the Basilica. When Urban VIII died after a papacy of almost 21 years, Bernini designed and create his tomb.

Pope Urban VIII was succeeded by Innocent X, of the Pamphili family, who had a great dislike of Urban, and therefore, by extension, of Bernini[6]. Bernini had, in 1637 (still during Urban's pontificate), designed and constructed two bell towers at the façade of St. Peter's Basilica. During Innocent's papacy, cracks began to form in one of the towers, which was due to a design flaw of Bernini's[7]. Innocent had the bell towers demolished. Because of this error, Bernini did not receive any papal commissions for some years. During this period, Bernini worked on private commission, and built works such as The Ecstasy of St. Theresa and the Memorial to Maria Raggi.

Bernini's return to papal favour was due to his design of the Fountain of the Four Rivers. Innocent X had invited a great number of artists throughout Italy to submit designs for a fountain to be placed at Piazza Navona. Bernini was still in bad standing with the pope and was therefore not asked to submit a design. Bernini was eventually informed by a friend of his, Prince Niccolò Ludovisi, of the pope's commission. Ludovisi urged the artist to create a model for the fountain, which the Prince would then secretly place inside a room in the Vatican so Innocent could see it. Upon seeing the model, Innocent was awed by the design and reluctantly gave the commission to Bernini[8].

After designing the Fountain, Bernini was granted further papal commissions, and designed, among other works, the Scala Regia and the corresponding statue of Constantine. But the largest commission Bernini did, was the design of the square in front of St. Peter's Basilica. This square is remarkable in the fact that it is much less extravagant and 'baroque' than his other works, and is instead much simpler in design[9].

Baroque art

The term Baroque is used to refer to an artistic period which began around 1600 in Rome and soon spread over all of Europe. It is characterised by the heavy use of ornamentation and motion. The Baroque encompassed many artistic styles, including sculpture, painting, music, literature, and drama.

Baroque art was considered by art critics, up to the beginning of the twentieth century, to be "vulgar, hateful and [...] inept"[10]. Especially despised were the great amounts of ornamentation and the overall grandeur characteristic of Baroque art[11]. The word 'Baroque' is most likely derived from the Portuguese barroco, meaning 'imperfect or irregular pearl'[12], and was originally used by critics as a derisive term[10]. Over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, the Baroque has regained critical favour.

Baroque art and the theatre of life

Central to the Baroque era, was the metaphor of the theatre of life[13]. Every person performed in this theatre, with their lives as the play, and the world being the stage. In this metaphor, God was both the audience and the director. He was the audience in the sense that all the actors performed their lives for Him and that God, at the end, passed the final judgment on their 'performance'. But God also provided order and, ultimately, determined the outcome of events. Therefore, He is also the director of the play in this metaphor.

The role of the arts is then to provide the decor for life's theatre[13]. A piece of art serves to create the right context for conveying a message. In the case of St. Peter's Baldachin, for example, the large, imposing bronze columns quite literally frame the Pope when he is standing at the high altar. The Baldachin sets the stage for the Pope's masses and is therefore crucial to providing the right context for these sermons.

The way in which Baroque art attempted to influence its audience was by a focus on the appeal to emotions. Through its grandeur, the Baroque attempted to inspire a sense of awe in its audience, and thereby speaking directly at an emotional level. The effect of the artwork should be immediately obvious, and therefore should not depend on complex allegory and symbolism. This was especially the case for religious art. In the depiction of religious subject matter, the Baroque differed radically from the Mannerist period that preceded it, which had a much more subtle and intellectually sophisticated way of depicting its subject material. The Baroque, instead, focused on emotion. The subject matter of many religious works were usually dominated by emotion. For example, Caravaggio's paintings of martyrs (such as The Crucifixion of Saint Peter and The Cruxifixion of Saint Andrew) are centered on the torment of the martyrs, and are rendered very realistically. Depictions like these are in sharp contrast to Renaissance depictions of martyrdoms. For example, in The Flaggelation of Christ (c. 1455-1460), by Piero della Francesca (1415 - 1492), Christ stands proudly upright with a dignified expression on his face, despite being flagellated.

To further appeal to the emotions of the audience, saints and other holy figures were depicted like ordinary human beings. For example, in Caravaggio's Madonna dei Plafrenieri (1606), Mary is painted very naturally. She looks like an ordinary mother, bent slightly forwards, looking down at her child. Furthermore, the nude Jesus looks like any other young child. In another painting of Caravaggio's, The Death of the Virgin, Mary is not depicted as a noble saint, but instead she is shown as a normal woman, lying dead. It is even rumoured that Caravaggio used a courtesan as a model for the Virgin[14]. By depicting these holy figures as ordinary people, the audience could relate much more easily to these saints. Because of this, the audience could directly empathize with the martyr or saint depicted. The backgrounds in these paintings are often obscure and dark, which draws the attention to only the scene itself.

So, in a sense, Baroque religious art focused more on pathos in conveying its messages, while Mannerist art was more about the logos of the message. That there is such a difference in the way Baroque and Mannerist artists treat religion is not surprising, since religious artworks from the two styles were created with very different intended audiences in mind. Whereas Mannerist religious art was created for the learned upper-class, the audience of Baroque art consisted largely of the lower classes.

This does not mean, however, that all Baroque art was made with the lower classes in mind. Apart from religious art, the Baroque style was used in theatre, music, and palace architecture as well. In all of its applications, the Baroque style centered on grandeur and tried to overwhelm the senses of its audience.

Baroque art and the sublime

The desire to overwhelm audiences with Baroque art is closely related to the notion of the sublime. A sublime experience is one that inspires awe and even slight terror. When an artwork manages to inspire such feelings, it can be said to be sublime art. The notion of the sublime goes back to the Ancient Greek treatise Peri Hypsous (On the Sublime), by an author referred to as Pseudo-Longinus [15]. Although Peri Hypsous is about rhetoric, the concepts introduced in it are applicable to other art forms as well. In his treatise, Pseudo-Longinus writes about what makes a piece of written or spoken discourse sublime. He believes that sublime rhetoric has a 'transportive' effect on its audience, i.e. that it can make its audience envisage and feel what is being conveyed to them [15]:

"For by some innate power the true sublime uplifts our souls; we are filled with a proud exaltation and a sense of vaunting joy; just as though we had ourselves produced what we had heard." [15]

In order to make rhetoric persuasive, Pseudo-Longinus believes that a focus should be placed on expressive language and the emphasis on emotion [15]. Form and structure were of much less importance, in his view. In this light, Baroque art can be regarded as sublime as well. The form and structure found in Renaissance art (such as proportion and symmetry) is no longer important for Baroque art works. Instead, Baroque art focuses on emotion, and aims to inspire awe through grandeur and ornamentation. Baroque artist thus try to create a sublime experience for their audience. The overwhelming effect of Baroque art is its main method for conveying messages and effecting the desired response from the audience. The success of a Baroque artwork is judged by how well it manages to convey its message, not by how well it adheres to stylistic rules, which is similar to Pseudo-Longinus's views on sublime rhetoric.

Design by concetto

Despite the fact that the Baroque style was heavily criticised up to the twentieth century for being excessive and pretentious[16], a great amount of discussion went into the design of major Baroque artworks. Baroque art was designed around a certain concetto - a concept - which consisted of the intended message the artwork had to convey, the rhetorical tools to be employed, and the way to implement this in the physical piece of art. This meant that few large-scale commissions were worked out by one principal artist[17]. Instead, concetti were developed by multiple artists, who all contributed to the design process.


  1. Robert Hughes, Rome, 2012, Orion Books Ltd, page 357
  2. Robert Hughes, Rome, 2012, Orion Books Ltd, pages 331-337
  3. Robert Hughes, Rome, 2012, Orion Books Ltd, page 329
  4. Robert Hughes, Rome, 2012, Orion Books Ltd, page 336
  5. William Chandler Kirwin, Power Matchless: The Pontificate of Urban VIII, the Baldachin, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Peter Lang, Hermeneutics of Art Vol. 6), 1997, p. 98.
  6. Robert Hughes, Rome, 2012, Orion Books Ltd, page 340
  7. Robert Hughes, Rome, 2012, Orion Books Ltd, page 341
  8. Robert Hughes, Rome, 2012, Orion Books Ltd, pages 345-347
  9. Robert Hughes, Rome, 2012, Orion Books Ltd, page 354
  10. Robert Hughes, Rome, 2012, Orion Books Ltd, page 330
  11. Barbara Borngässer & Rolf Toman , Barok: Architectuur, Beeldhouwkunst, Schilderkunst, 1998, Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, page 8
  12. Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary, retreived from on 14-02-2015
  13. Barbara Borngässer & Rolf Toman , Barok: Architectuur, Beeldhouwkunst, Schilderkunst, 1998, Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, page 7
  14. Web Gallery of Art, retrieved from on 19-2-2015
  15. Christine Riding and Nigel Llewellyn, British Art and the Sublime, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, January 2013,, accessed 15 February 2015.
  16. Barbara Borngässer & Rolf Toman , Barok: Architectuur, Beeldhouwkunst, Schilderkunst, 1998, Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, page 8
  17. Barbara Borngässer & Rolf Toman , Barok: Architectuur, Beeldhouwkunst, Schilderkunst, 1998, Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, page 11