Gian Lorenzo Bernini was the Baroque artist who transformed the spectator from a simple observer into a member of the cast
A leading protagonist of the Baroque in the Eternal City, Rome, Gian Lorenzo Bernini was able to revolutionize art by giving marble characteristics typical of painting such as chiaroscuro, movement and even color.
Pope Urban VIII, for whom the artist worked, said of Bernini: “A Rare man, sublime genius, born by divine disposition, and for the glory of Rome to bring light to the century”. He was right. Gian Lorenzo was one of the artists who contributed to the rebirth of Rome by leaving an indelible mark.
His talent was noticed when he was still quite young. Before the age of twenty, in the second decade of the seventeenth century, he already found himself at the service of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a well-known art collector and nephew of Pope Paul V.
“Art is to ensure that everything is fake but looks real”, in the words of the artist. From the excellent rendering of this fake reality, he derives an emotional involvement on the part of the observer when admiring these masterpieces.
Gian Lorenzo pursued perfection in everything he sculpted: his creations appear to be“living”, Locked forever in a split second. He was able to make marble malleable like wax, and in doing so he created the illusion of the softness of the skin and bobdy in his sculptures.
But that was only part of his talent.
One of his greatest abilities was his ability to make the spectator a sort of co-star, part of the art itself, when standing before his works. The stupendous sculptural group of The Rape of Proserpina, created in 1621 at the age of 23, shows the kidnapping of the young girl, daughter of the earth goddess, Ceres. The kidnapper was Pluto, king of the underworld, who having fallen in love with Proserpina, decided to abduct her and take her with him to Hades.
When standing in front of this masterpiece, exhibited in the Borghese Gallery in Rome, the spectator watches inertly the kidnapping of the young woman, whose eyes are wet with marble tears so perfect that they seem to be real, tears of desperation that seem to invoke our help.
This invocation is heightened by an inscription on the base of the sculpture which reads:“O you who, bent to the ground, gather flowers, watch me as I am kidnapped towards the house of the cruel”.
The observer is, as if by magic, transported to the field of flowers on the shores of Lake Pergusa, where the scene took place.
And how could we not consider the David?
A young man in full action, ready to shoot and attack the enemy with the slingshot already stretched in his hands. To heighten the aura of tension, we find the wrinkled forehead and the determined and threatening gaze of the young shepherd who looks at the observer, making us part of the scene, and indeed transforming us into the object of the attack: the giant Goliath.
Amazement and fear at the same time are the sensations that arise in the one who looks David straight in the eye.
The same determined gaze of the David can be found in the bust that Bernini made for Monsignor Pedro Montoya, a Spanish jurist who commissioned the work to Gian Lorenzo to place it in his own funeral monument on his tomb, however which today is in the Church of Santa Maria in Monserrato degli Spagnoli in Rome.
The sunken eyes, the messy mustache and expression lines they make the face appear as real – a veracity heightened by the play of light and shadow that Bernini managed to impress on white marble.
The final effect that follows is that we feel observed by that face slightly inclined downwards that leans out to look from above those who have come to pay him homage.
Another important work created by an already more mature Bernini, between 1647 and 1651, is the sculptural group of Ecstasy of Santa Teresa, which is located in the Cornaro Chapel inside the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.
Faced with this extraordinary work, the viewer has the sensation of entering a theatre and witnessing a dazzling performance: the Ecstasy of Santa Teresa. The scene depicted in this moment is that of the saint pierced by the love of God by means of a seraph. The two protagonists appear to be invested by a divine light and seem to float in the air, thanks to technical expedients used by the artist.
However, this time the person entering the chapel is not alone.
He or she is accompanied by other spectators that Bernini has carved on boxes placed on the sides of the chapel – they are members of the Cornaro family, intent on observing, together with the newcomer, the spectacle of Baroque Art.