The life of Bernini was dominated by his work, and his biography is defined by the immense number of projects he undertook. His career developed almost entirely in Rome, although he was born in Naples, Dec. 7, 1598. His father, Pietro Bernini (1562-1629), a talented sculptor of the late Mannerist style, was his son's first teacher. Young Gian Lorenzo soon surpassed his father in excellence, however, as is known from the principal sources of information on Bernini, the biographies by Filippo Baldinucci (1624-96) in 1682 and by the artist's son Domenico (fl. 1685-1722) in 1713. Many of Bernini's early sculptures were inspired by Hellenistic art. The Goat Amalthea Nursing the Infant Zeus and a Young Satyr (redated 1609, Galleria Borghese, Rome) typifies the classical taste of the youthful sculptor. Group sculptures by earlier masters such as Giambologna were noted for their Mannerist multiple views. Bernini's groups of the 1620s, however, such as the Abduction of Proserpina (1621-22, Galleria Borghese) present the spectator with a single primary view while sacrificing none of the drama inherent in the scene. Also from the 1620s are Bernini's first architectural projects, the facade for the church of Santa Bibiana (1624-26), Rome, and the creation of the magnificent baldachin (1624-33), or altar canopy, over the high altar of Saint Peter's Basilica. The latter commission was given to Bernini by Pope Urban VIII, the first of seven pontiffs for whom he worked. This project, a masterful feat of engineering, architecture, and sculpture, was the first of a number of monumental undertakings for St. Peter's. Bernini later created the tombs (1628-47 and 1671-78, respectively; St. Peter's Basilica) of Urban VIII and Alexander VII (1599-1667) that, in their use of active three-dimensional figures, differ markedly from the purely architectural approach to the sepulchral monument taken by previous artists. Bernini's immense Cathedra Petri (Chair of Saint Peter, 1657-66), in the apse of St. Peter's, employs marble, gilt bronze, and stucco in a splendid crescendo of motion, made all the more dramatic by the golden oval window in its center that becomes the focal point of the entire basilica.
Bernini was the first sculptor to realize the dramatic potential of light in a sculptural complex. This was even more fully realized in his famous masterpiece Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1645-52, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome), in which the sun's rays, coming from an unseen source, illuminate the swooning saint and the smiling angel about to pierce her heart with a golden arrow. Bernini's numerous busts also carry an analogous sense of persuasive dramatic realism, be they allegorical busts such as the Damned Soul and Blessed Soul (both c. 1619, Palazzo di Spagna, Rome), or portraits such as those of Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1576-1633) (1632, Galleria Borghese) or Louis XIV of France (1665, Palace of Versailles).
Bernini's secular architecture included designs for several palaces: Palazzo Ludovisi (now Palazzo Montecitorio, 1650) and Palazzo Chigi (1664), in Rome, and an unexecuted design for the Louvre presented to Louis XIV in 1665, when Bernini spent five months in Paris.
He did not begin to design churches until he was 60 years old, but his three efforts in ecclesiastical architecture are significant. His church at Castelgandolfo (1658-61) employs a Greek cross, and his church at Ariccia (1662-64), a circle plan. His third church is his greatest. Sant' Andrea al Quirinale (1658-70) in Rome was constructed on an oval plan with an ovoid porch extending beyond the facade, echoing the interior rhythms of the building. The interior, decorated with dark, multicolored marble, has a dramatic oval dome of white and gold. Also dating from the 1660s are the Scala Regia (Royal Staircase, 1663-66), connecting the papal apartments in the Vatican Palace to St. Peter's, and the magnificent Piazza San Pietro (designed 1667), framing the approach to the basilica in a dynamic ovular space formed by two vast semicircular colonnades. Bernini's most outstanding fountain group is in the spectacular Fountain of the Four Rivers (1648-51) in the Piazza Navona.
Bernini remained a vital and active artist virtually up to the last day of his life, Nov. 28, 1680. His final work, Bust of the Savior (Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Va.), presents a withdrawn and restrained image of Christ indicative of what is now known to have been Bernini's calm and resigned attitude toward death. E.J.S., EDWARD J. SULLIVAN, M.A., Ph.D.
For further information on this person, see the section Bernini, Gian Lorenzo.