- Bernini: His Life and His Rome
What Gian Lorenzo Bernini did not do in Rome, he supervised; what he did not supervise, he influenced. Few visitors to Rome, past or present, fail to be impressed by the legacy his artistry has left throughout the city: its bridges, its fountains, its churches—indeed, so many of its public works bear Bernini's name that his mark on Rome is indelible. [End Page 529]
A capable biographer would be hard-pressed to render uninteresting the already fascinating life of an artist about whose works of art so much has been written. Franco Mormando is to be congratulated for not doing so; on the contrary, his 2011 biography, Bernini: His Life and His Rome, is anything but dry: the book brings to light the life of the man behind the work for which Bernini—painter, sculptor, architect—was, and is, so revered. Mormando focuses his attention not so much on the works of art that Bernini produced, but rather on the family, the city, and the society that produced Bernini.
Of the few Bernini biographies written since the artist's death in the late seventeenth century, Mormando's is proud to announce that it is the first to appear in English. Narrated in the traditional mode of biography, chronologically from birth to death, Mormando's well-researched account recounts the life of Baroque Rome's rightful successor to the Renaissance genius of Michelangelo—as Gian Lorenzo was first observed in his youth by Pope Paul V. The opening chapter, "The Neapolitan Meteor," moves from Bernini's humble beginnings to his rise in Rome as a master sculptor whose virtuosity would win him the admiration of the popes while arousing the poisonous envy of his rivals. Son of, and apprentice to, the Tuscan sculptor Pietro, and his wife, the Neapolitan beauty Angelica, il cavaliere Gian Lorenzo Bernini, handsomely employed in the services of numerous papal courts, succeeded in fashioning himself the richest and most celebrated artist of his time, acquiring great fame even abroad, most notably in the court of King Louis XIV.
Mormando's biography accomplishes what it sets out to do: in no small amount of intimate detail gathered from primary sources, it enters into the private and public life of a master artist. The book is less a work of art history—the author reminds us that numerous studies of Bernini's art have already been written—and more a chronological narrative drawing upon the lesser-known facts of Bernini's private life. From the artist's birth in Naples in 1598 to his death in Rome in 1680, at age 82, what most concerns Mormando is Bernini, the man: the rival, the master artist, the husband, the courtier. The portrait Mormando paints of the artist is both flattering and unflattering. He does well to correct for previous biographies that have deified the man into a God-fearing artist beyond worldly reproach. If Mormando's account is accurate, and I don't doubt that, Bernini was not only a great artist, he was also a great self-promoter, schemer, opportunist, businessman, courtier, and master of dissimulation par excellence. He was what any man of his stature, and of his time, had to be in order to survive in Baroque Rome—a society of constantly fluctuating dynamics of precarious power in which a famous artist would have to keep his own interests well-hidden, lest he lose everything, including his life. [End Page 530]
Mormando is at his biographer's best when he gives his readers a well-balanced and psychologically complex portrayal of Bernini in light of the anxiety that his fame must have produced. It is clear to posterity that Bernini likely wouldn't have enjoyed such worldly success had he not matched his mastery of the fine arts with the art of currying favor with his superiors while successfully and unabashedly deriding his rivals, enemies, and naysayers. That Bernini managed not only to survive, but also to thrive in Rome throughout the...