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Reviewed by:
  • Bernini's Biographies: Critical Essays
  • Stephanie C. Leone (bio)
Maarten Delbeke, Evonne Levy, and Steven F. Ostrow, editors. Bernini's Biographies: Critical Essays. Pennsylvania State University Press. 2006. xviii, 420. US$35.00

As noted by Delbeke, Levy, and Ostrow, the study of biographies is topical to the field of art history and particularly significant to Bernini studies since two stand-alone biographies have served as foundational sources for interpreting his art and life. The biographies in question are by Filippo Baldinucci (1682) and Domenico Bernini (1713). At the core of this volume rests the question posed in the Prolegomena: why have Bernini studies followed the biographies so closely and yet have not produced a critical view of the biographical foundation? In collectively offering this critical view, the authors have significantly advanced Bernini studies and pointed baroque scholarship in a direction that has proven fruitful for Renaissance studies on Vasari and Michelangelo.

The editors' aim was to study the biographies first and foremost as literary works in the context of contemporary genres in order to move the discussion beyond the prevailing question of truth, that is, how accurately these accounts record Bernini's life. Their methodology has proved fruitful. The essays present many intriguing perspectives on and thought-provoking ideas about the biographies, from understanding the influence of their literary models (hagiography, apologia) to identifying predominant themes in the text (Bernini's virtù, the role of mimesis). The editors have written a lengthy and useful prolegomena highlighting some of the principal ideas.

Art history has benefited from this analysis of the biographies as literary texts, for the volume offers new and at times revisionist interpretations of Bernini's art. Two examples will demonstrate how this book alters both our broad conception of his art and the interpretation of a specific work. The first concerns the role of the bel composto in Bernini's art theory. Whereas Maurizio and Marcello Fagiolo dell'Arco and Lavin interpreted the bel composto as the predominant concept in Bernini's art theory, Delbeke convincingly argues that the passages on the composto must be read as integral parts of the two texts, which treat the composto differently. In doing so, 'it becomes possible to read them less as the theoretical keystone of both texts, than as elements in a network of related concepts that are all equally important in the biographical interpretation of Bernini's art and persona.' In this network the composto contributes to the creation of Bernini as a virtuous man (Domenico) and as a great artist (Baldinucci).

In studying the portrait bust of Costanza Bonarelli, McPhee's essay focuses us on the interpretation of a single work of art, and in pitting the biographies (including modern ones) against archival sources, she returns us to the question of truth. McPhee shows that in interpreting [End Page 444] Buonarelli's character, scholars 'accord her a mythic status as an object of desire.' Using new archival evidence, McPhee introduces us to a very different Costanza 'of noble birth, well-connected, and a hard-headed business woman who became quite rich.' Indeed, although the editors wished to move beyond the question of truth, many of the essays shed new light on this central issue in reading biography.

As the editors note, this volume of essays represents a beginning in the critical analysis of the biographies. An area of continuing debate is whether the texts exist 'in a relationship of reciprocal dependency' or are 'deeply interrelated' though 'distinct texts.' Arguing for the former, Montanari underscores the similarities between the texts and suggests that they are autobiographical, deriving from Bernini himself. Among those taking the opposite position, Ostrow argues that even though the similarities suggest Bernini's personal involvement, 'the many differences . . . point to a more decisive role played by their authors than by their subject in their conception.' His point leads us to another potential agenda that will need to be considered, the authors' respective motivations. For instance, was Domenico seeking to enhance his own reputation as a creator by writing about his father's superlative ingegno? Levy too seems to urge us in this direction when she states, 'For the son "resembles" the father . . . he...


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