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Artist Spotlight: Gianlorenzo Bernini


Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! For this week’s post, I’m adding another entry to our Artist Spotlight series. Gianlorenzo Bernini is often considered one of the greatest artists in western history because of his ability to breathe life into inanimate materials. He was multi-talented and helped to define a generation of art. So, to learn more, keep on reading!

Early Life

Gianlorenzo Bernini was born on December 7, 1598 in Naples, Italy. He was the 6th of 13 children born to Pietro Bernini, a relatively famous sculptor, and his wife, Angelica. By all accounts, Bernini was a child prodigy! At the age of 8, his talents rivaled many mature artists. He worked alongside his father in his workshop. In 1606, Pietro received a papal commission and moved his large family to Rome. This is when Bernini caught the eye of the Papacy itself. In fact, Pope Paul V stated that 'This child will be the Michelangelo of his age.” From this point on, Bernini would receive a steady stream of commissions from the Church, including from Pope Paul V and Cardinal Scipione Borghese.

Borghese Marble Sculptures

Scipione Borghese was one of the most powerful and wealthy Cardinals in the Church. After hearing and seeing Bernini’s talents, he commissioned the young artist to create four marble sculptures to decorate his already impressive villa. (These statues still reside here to this day, I highly recommend checking them out if you are in Rome!).

These works depict three famous mythological moments and one from the Bible. They are: Aeneus and Anchises 1618-1619, Pluto and Persephone 1621-1622, Apollo and Daphne 1622-1624 and David 1623-1624. Although they all depict different subjects, Bernini manages to capture the drama of each moment. Each work has a sense of dynamic movement, raw emotion, and elements of storytelling. In addition, Bernini was so masterful at sculpture, that he makes the stone appear as if it is actually flesh. These are four remarkable works that set the stage for an illustrious career.

St. Peter’s

Through his work with both Paul V and Cardinal Borghese, Bernini was introduced to Cardinal Maffeo Barberini. He was elected as Pope Urban VIII on 6 August 1623 and had big plans for the artist. Bernini was commissioned to help the ongoing renonvation of St. Peter’s Basilica, the center of the Catholic faith. He was officially named "Architect to Saint Peter's" in 1629 and spearheaded several projects. These include: the building of the Baldacchino (the giant bronze canopy that stands above the tomb of St. Peter, the four piers of the crossing at the center of the church, (these would have niches installed for four statues. Bernini created the one of St. Longinus.), and finally, a few decades later, the exterior piazza. He specially created the curved colonnade to represent the arms of the church encircling believers in a protective hug.

By creating these massive and beautiful changes, Bernini helped to continue the mission of the Counter Reformation.

A New Pope

Unfortunately, Bernini ran out of commissions when a new pope was elected. After the death of Urban VIII, Innocent X became Pope. He was not a big fan of Bernini and shut him out of his role. However, due to his many commissions, Bernini’s fame reached outside of the church’s walls. This led to one of his most famous works: the Ecstasy of St. Teresa. Sculptured between 1647–1652, it was made to serve as the main decoration for the Cornaro Chapel, in Santa Maria della Vittoria.

St. Teresa was an especially popular saint in the Counter Reformation. She was a nun and mystic, whose writings told readers about her visions. Bernini based this sculpture off of this passage:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

As with his other works, Bernini takes marble and makes flesh. However, this particular piece caused quite a stir. St. Teresa throws her head back in ecstasy but , to viewers, it is very sensual. How is this appropriate for a saint or a church?! However, we all know that Bernini wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries in his work.

Personal Life

Gianlorenzo Bernini also pushed boundaries in his personal life. In the 1630’s, he had an affair with the wife of one of his workshop members, a woman named Costanza. However, as it turns out, his brother Luigi was also having an affair with her. When Bernini found out, he was furious! He chased his brother through the streets until he took sanctuary in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. Even worse, he ordered one of his servants to go to Costanza’s house and slash her face with a razor. This was extremely illegal, but Bernini escaped persecution. This was due to his close connection with the papacy. However, the servant was jailed for assault and Costanza was jailed for adultery.

Due to that event, Pope Urban VIII arranged a marriage between 41 old Bernini and 22 year old Caterina Tezio. This helped calm his temper down and he became more devoted to his art and faith. The couple had 11 children. The youngest was named Domenico and he wrote the first biography on his father.


Bernini was passionate about his craft. In fact, he worked up until two weeks before his death! Gianlorenzo Bernini died of a stroke on November 28, 1680 (aged 81). He was buried with little fanfare in a simple family tomb in Santa Maria Maggiore. A bit strange for a man that helped bring beauty back to the Eternal City.


Bernini is one of the greatest artists in the history of art. He was a sculptor, painter, architect, and genius who was able to bring life into stone, paint, and buildings.



  1. Bernini’s father, Pietro. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  2. Pluto and Persephone, CC 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  3. Baldacchino, St. Peter’s. CC 0 via Wikimedia Commons

  4. Ecstasy of St. Teresa, CC 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  5. Bernini Self Portrait, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


Gardner’s Art through the Ages, 12th edition by Fred S. Kleiner

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