Way back in 1644, they staged an opera in Rome.
Not such a big deal, but in this case, the scenes were painted, the statues were sculpted, the music composed, the comedy written, the engines of the special effects were designed and the theater itself built by one guy, the Italian art-stud, Gianlorenzo Bernini.
Historian Kenneth Clark writes that, “At Bernini’s productions, people in the front rows ran away, fearing that they would be drenched by water or burned by fire, so powerful was the illusion he created.”
But staging dramas wasn’t the only trick Gianlorenzo had in his bag. He was an accomplished painter, a skilled architect. and arguably the greatest sculptor of any age.
Guys like that are a dime a dozen, right?
A devoutly religious man. Bernini had a temperament that often clashed with his religious zeal. Though he was highly disciplined and always delivered work on time, he was a party animal of the first order and of course a ladies man. He had a ribald sense of humor and was devoted to the pleasures of this earth. Though he was popular and had the support of the rich and powerful, whom he skillfully manipulated, he had an ego the size of Mount Vesuvius and a temper just as volcanic.
This nasty temper would prove to be his greatest fault.
Around 1637, inspired by both romantic love and passionate lust, Bernini carved a bust of the object of his desire, the hot-blooded Constanza Bonarelli.
Of this piece of work, art historian Simon Shama writes.
“What gives this bust its sensual vitality is the frankness with which Bernini has depicted his lover, not as passive recipient of his adoration, but, on the contrary, as spitfire.”
And the fact that she was another man’s wife?
Well, that didn’t matter a bit to the love-besotted Bernini.
But these things never seem to end well, do they?
As Simon Shama writes, “…there came a day when someone approached Bernini and whispered in his ear (doubtless nervously, given the Cavaliere’s reputation for hot temper) that his mistress was, alas, also sleeping with someone else”
Bernini went to his lover’s house and saw a man leaving, obviously after a session of love.
And who was that man? Well, he was Bernini’s own most trusted brother, Luigi.
Lapsing into a fit of blind rage, Bernini chased his brother down and tried to beat him to death with a crowbar, succeeding only in breaking a couple of Luigi’s ribs. Luigi managed to flee into a church, leaving Bernini vainly kicking at the barred doors.
But Bernini wasn’t finished.
“That same afternoon, a servant was sent to the Bonarelli house. He found Constanza in bed and there, fulfilling the orders he had been given by Bernini, he cut her face to ribbons with a razor. So the same hand that had fashioned the most beautiful head in the history of sculpture had, through a surrogate, mutilated the living flesh it had celebrated.”
And the outcome of this sorry episode? The servant was sent to prison for his assault, Constanza was imprisoned for adultery and fornication, and poor Luigi was banished from Italy.
And our hero? He got a 3000 scudi fine, which the pope waived. and was henceforth sentenced to enter into holy matrimony with Caterina Tezio, who was said to be the hottest babe in Rome.
This episode had little effect on Bernini’s reputation. “While Bernini was alive,” writes the art critic Clive James, “even his enemies thought he as a great man.”
But no reputation is bulletproof. Swollen with ego and a well-deserved pride in a lifetime of achievement, Bernini was awarded a magnificent project, the addition of bell towers to Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.
He went to work, and as most geniuses do, he listened only to his own mind… and to those who told him what he wanted to hear. Had one of his consultants had the nerve to tell him, or if he’d consulted with his arch rival, architect Francesco Borromini, Bernini would have learned that his plan for the tower foundations was inadequate.
The first tower started to crack just after the roof went on. It was ignominiously torn down, and so was Bernini’s reputation.
He went away and skulked, did penance and all the usual things a big star does when things fall apart. He still had business coming his way, a bust here and there, etc. Then, like all world-class talents, he seized upon a commission that he saw as his vindication, a chapel for Cardinal Federico Cornaro, which also entailed a huge budget.
“So, Bernini could, if he wished, pull out all the stops: he could create, not just a sculpture, but a spectacular architectural setting (to stop the mouths of critics who said he was no builder), and perhaps include some painting as well. It could be a theatrical ensemble of the arts and, if done well, the greatest drama he had ever created.”
The centerpiece of this extravaganza would be a statue of St. Teresa of Avila, a mystic nun who lived in Spain in the 1500’s. Her accounts of her rapturous experiences are vividly described in her writings, and in these raptures she is said to have levitated from her bed, her back arched and her head thrown back and her eyes closed and her mouth agape. No wonder the carving by Bernini is titled “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”
In her account, Teresa writes, “Very close to me, an angel appeared in human form… in his hands I saw a large golden spear and at its iron tip there seemed to be a point of fire. I felt as if he plunged this into my heart several times so that it penetrated all the way to my entrails…The pain was so severe it made me moan several times. The sweetness of this pain is so severe there is no wanting it to end…”
In his carving, Bernini replaces the spear with an arrow, and as Simon Shama points out, “The smiling angel aims his arrow (rather than a spear) not at her breast, but significantly lower on the torso.”
Bernini is not indulging in innuendo. He is making a blatant statement. He portrays the experience of merging with the divine, not by the mortification of the flesh, but by its glorification.
What he achieved in hard stone was a representation of what we are all unconsciously seeking: we know that human relationships are unreliable, and whether we realize it or not, we yearn for a union with something indefinable, something that we know won’t let us down, ever.
But until we achieve union with the divine, my friends, all we have is each other.
So in honor of the pending St. Valentine’s Day, here’s wishing every one of you all the satisfying unions you desire, be they sacred, profane, or simply made of chocolate.
Kenneth Clark, Civilization, Harper & Row, 1969
Simon Shama, The Power Of Art, BBC Books, 2006
Clive James, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Comeback Kid. Atlantic Monthly, January 2013