GIANLORENZO BERNINI’S CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE VATICAN

October 28th, 2019

Gianlorenzo Bernini was an Italian sculpture, architect and urban planner who served as a large source of contribution to Rome’s Baroque transformation. Bernini served as one of the preferred artists for commissions by the Papacy, experiencing frequent commissions throughout the reign of six different Popes. Gianlorenzo Bernini’s architectural and sculptural commissioned works for Vatican City, especially his sculptures for, and chief archetirual role in St. Peter’s Basilica reflected the emergence of Baroque style architecture and sculpture in Rome, ultimately offering an emotional expressionism for the Vatican that had not been represented in the Renaissance. 

One of the principle aspects of Vatican City is the Italian Renaissance Church, St. Peter’s Basilica, which completed formative construction in 1626, coinciding with Bernini’s involvement with the Church. Bernini became the chief architect for St. Peter’s Basilica and undertook work by commission of pope Urban VIII. This patronage culminated in Bernini’s embellishing of St. Peter’s Basilica over the course of fifty years. With St. Peter’s being an inception of the Renaissance, Bernini’s role as it’s chief architect later allowed for much distinction to be made between St. Peter’s prior-Bernini and St. Peter’s post-Bernini, with the sculptor’s Baroque style distinguishing itself in the vein of ecclestiastical art. In 1623, as commissioned by Pope Urban VIII, Bernini began his first work in St. Peter’s, a Baldachin above the high altar of the Church. The Baldachin was constructed out of Bronze, some of which had been taken from the Pantheon by Urban VIII in order to be reappropriated for the four helical columns that hold up the Baldachin. The Baldachin stands almost 100 feet high, and as such, acts as an intermediary piece within the vast space of the Church, existing much closer to the height of humans, and placed in the exact crossing of the Church (in which the nave of the church intersects with a perpendicular hallway). Upon the four columns are marble bases that support four respective sculptures of angels, each double life size with volutes behind them that lead to a gilded cross in the centre of the structure. The Baldachin remains distinct in Bernini’s catalogue as it reflects an early glamouring intersection of sculpture and architecture, the two principal aspects of Bernini’s artistic talent. Furthermore, the Baldachin is held to be significant among the art of the Vatican as it reflects the highly decorative nature of Baroque art, here reflected by Bernini’s distinct decorative columns, not belonging to ionic, doric or corinthian order but instead consisting of spirals, a characteristic common of the Old St. Peter’s Basilica and an homage of sorts to the churches of Jerusalem. 

Directly ahead of the Baldachin in St. Peter’s Basilica was another piece of Bernini’s commissioned contribution, the chair of St Peter or Cathedra Petri. The chair had been deteriorating beyond comparable use and as such, it’s refurbication was commissioned by Urban VIII in 1657. Bernini encased the chair in gilt bronze and it visually appears to be supported by splayed looping bars held by large figures of the four Doctors of the Church. These four sculptures are characterized through the adorative and ecstatic expression that lights their faces. Above the chair and behind it, a window of light illuminates the Dove of the Holy Spirit, a symbol of divinity in Catholicism. Bernini’s positioning of the dove within the light reflects an aspect of divinity common throughout Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals. Light was seen to be enlightening, akin to the reach of God. The expressions on the faces of the four Doctors reflect a characteristic of Bernini that was was well praised, his ability to reflect the uniqueness and character of individuals through the emotional expression of their face. It is in this characteristic that Bernini’s massive contribution to Baroque sculpture is reflected as the portrayal of emotions in a dramatic fashion became a key feature of the movement. 

Bernini additionally contributed to St. Peter’s Basilica through the creation of tombs, two of which were made for and commissioned by Popes while in their Papacy. Pope Urban VIII was responsible for the commission of some of Bernini’s most notable work – being one of the chief supporters to bring him to prominence. Urban VIII commissioned Bernini to construct his tomb in 1627 though the construction of the tomb was not completed until 1647, three years after his death. The tomb consists of pyramid-like structure at the top of which, a bronze statue of a pope giving a benediction is depicted. The other two corners of the triangle are filled with marble statues, the left is the figure of Charity, and the right Justice. The two supporting figures reflect Bernini’s belief of the characteristics of Urban VIII’s papacy, suggesting that the attributes of Charity and Justice are at the base of Urban VIII’s benedictions. In the middle of the triangle of statues there is a bronze scroll engraved with the pope’s name, behind a resting skeleton (reflecting Bernini’s first depiction of death with a skeleton). The Tomb of Pope Urban VIII was additionally Bernini’s first purely sculptural effort that utilized difference of colour through difference of material. The contrast between the Pope and Skeleton being dark bronze and Justice and Charity being a bright marble reflects the respective attributes of life and death. The difference in colour suggests that the virtues of Justice and Charity remain well and alive in due part and respect to Pope Urban VIII.

The second Pope to commission Bernini to create their tomb was Pope Alexander VII. The tomb was commissioned much later in Bernini’s life. Construction initially started in 1671 and was not completed until 1678, eleven years after the death of Alexander VII. With Bernini being 81 upon completion of the tomb, it would remain the last major sculptural contribution of his before his death. The Tomb of Alexander VII had a similar structure to the Tomb of Urban VIII as it consisted of a triangle of statues, a dark pope at the top, marble figures of virtue at the additional corners (albeit 6 rather than 3)  and a depiction of the deceased in the form of a skeleton in the middle. The Tomb however differed from Urban VIII’s through the inclusion of an hourglass in the skeleton’s hand, and the colourful use of red jasper for the drapery that fills that non-statue parts of the triangle. The hourglass tethers the two tombs together, reflecting the change that has occurred since the death of Urban VIII, additionally reflecting the symbolic reminder of “Memento mori” suggesting to all that view that death is inevitable and coming. The inclusion of red jasper in the tomb, although a choice demanded by nonavailability of marble, allows for the stark contrast between the aspects of death and life to be shown, further emphasizing the pure, white brightness of the marble virtues.  The grand magnificence of the 9 figure Tomb reflected aspects of Bernini’s work that were characteristic of Baroque sculpture such as the focus on the sculptures being viewed from every dimension and the aspect of a piece being structured upwards, having a point of culmination at the apex.

One of Bernini’s most notable contributions to Vatican city, and one more reflective of his architectural prowess, was St. Peter’s Square, a large plaza located directly in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. The vastly open space in front of the Basilica was chosen to be reformed by Pope Alexander VII for which he commissioned Bernini in 1656. Bernini chose to reform the space by means of the Doric order, using colonnades, four columns wide, to surround the plaza. The surrounding colonnades was expressed by Bernini to enclose those who entered in the “maternal arms of Mother Church”. The ultimate result of the ellipse of colonnades is one of awe and grandness, this is a result of the large spectacle surrounding the plaza and the simplistic approach towards spacing and Greek architecture that allows for the empty ground to draw attention to the enclosure of colonnades. The colonnades are topped with various sculptures of saints amounting to 140 statues sculpted by Bernini’s students. The placement of the statues reflects the tradition in Roman architecture of having statues for temples on top of the buildings rather than in the pediment (common in ancient Greek architecture). In the middle of the plaza is an Egyptian obelisk which had remained erected in that spot since 37 AD.  The obelisk serves as the centerpiece of St. Peter’s Square and Bernini made his mark on it by adding the Chigi coat of arms to the top of it, honoring his patron Alexander VII. The open space of plaza forms somewhat of a trapezoid, with the long side being the entrance to the square, not entirely enclosed by colonnades. This has the effect of giving an elevated perspective of the city below when facing away from the basilica and reflects an attribute of Baroque architecture, using incomplete architectural forms (a non enclosed shape) and curved or oval type shapes to produce an effect of awe and grandness, almost being of an illusion.

A prominent sculpture of Bernini’s within the Vatican would be his marble sculpture of Saint Longinus. Bernini began the sculpture in 1629, 2 years into his position of chief architect for St. Peter’s Basilica (the building which the sculpture belongs to). Longinus was the blind soldier who was said to have speared Jesus in his side during his crucifixion before having a moment of enlightenment, converting to Christianity, and thus gaining the ability to see. Bernini depicted Longinus in his moment of enlightenment, he looks upwards towards the sky and holds his spear to the side of him. The natural lighting from the windows of the Basilica were once again used by Bernini to reflect the divinity of god, in this case reflecting its influence on humans. Many Baroque elements are evoked by Bernini in Saint Longinus. The scene depicted is one of heavy dramatics and this is reflected through not only the awe and inspiration upon Longinus’ face, but additionally through the intensity of the rivets in his drapery. The many folds within Longinus’ drapery additionally reflect the Baroque characteristic of movement, showing Longinus as if he is standing amidst godly winds and is moving his body accordingly. Furthermore, Bernini uses the folds of the drapery in a chiaroscuro effect, allowing the drapery to create shadows amongst Longinus’ body with his upper torso brightly lit by the light of God.

Many of the aspects of the Baroque period can be found within Gianlorenzo Bernini’s sculpture and architecture undertaken for the Vatican. Through maintaining a close relationship with several of the Popes of his time, Bernini allowed for his work to be immortalized through its connection to the Vatican City. Bernini’s architectural and sculptural contributions for Vatican City, as well as his chief archetirual role in St. Peter’s Basilica reflect the emergence of Baroque style architecture and sculpture in Rome, ultimately offering an emotional expressionism for the Vatican that had not been represented in the Renaissance. 

WORKS CITED

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RIETBERGEN, PETER. Power and Religion in Baroque Rome: Barberini Cultural Policies. LEIDEN; BOSTON: Brill, 2006. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1163/j.ctt1w76twr.

Potter, Mary Knight. 1903. The art of the Vatican; being a brief history of the palace, and an account of the principal art treasures within its walls. Boston: L.C. Page & Co.

Whittkower, Rudolf. Bernini. Phaidon Press, 1997.

Briggs, Martin Shaw. Baroque Architecture. New York: Da Capo Press, 1967