Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was marked out for greatness at a very young age. The son of a well-known sculptor, he arrived with his family in Rome as a young boy, and had soon captivated the city with his artistic genius. Pope Paul V, amazed at such skill in one so young, said of him: “We hope that this youth will become the Michelangelo of his century.”
The Pope’s words seemed prophetic. Bernini’s career unfolded without a serious professional hitch. Blessed not only with evident genius, but also with a physical constitution capable of immense hard work and a will to match it, Bernini labored tirelessly for more than six decades, amassing an almost superhuman body of artistic production. He enjoyed powerful benefactors from his late teens to the end of his life. Wealth and fame came to him early, and only grew with the years. At the time of his death he was a European legend, and his burial in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore was a great affair of state.
An impressive record of this sort, while good for the world of art, is not generally good for the artist. To be admired, petted, and courted from the time of boyhood; to know oneself possessed of a unique genius; to be physically strong and attractive with a commanding personality and a fiery artistic temperament; to be given access to all that money and talent can bring; to be sought after by kings and countesses and Popes: gifts such as these generally lead to a human tragedy of one kind or another, whether of pride or licentiousness or mental dissolution. What human power could tame such a temper? What influence could master such a man?
Bernini escaped that all-too-frequent artistic tragedy. He was from his boyhood a believer in the Catholic faith of his family and his people. In his young manhood, although occasionally erratic in his moral behavior and the practice of his faith, he was still restrained and held in place by it. And once come to maturity he embraced that faith with genuine fervor and sincere devotion. He married a lovely and excellent woman with whom he had eleven children, of whom two became priests and two entered the convent. He habitually carried a copy of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in his pocket while he worked. He would regularly stop in at the Church he built for the Jesuits, Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, to pass an hour of quiet prayer. Bernini’s supreme accomplishment was not his artistic output, amazing as that was: it was rather that, by the grace and power of Christ, he did not allow his extraordinary gifts to overcome his character and destroy his life. He allowed himself to be mastered by the Faith and was steered into a safe haven.
Bernini was, unlike so many artists particularly in our disjointed age, a complete and integrated man. His many-sided nature was evident in his artistic work. As a sculptor he was unsurpassed: one thinks of his Apollo and Daphne or his David, miracles in stone, both accomplished before he was twenty-five, or his more mature work of St. Teresa in Ecstasy. He showed equal mastery in bronze, as expressed in the baldachino and chair of Peter in St. Peter’s basilica. His architectural work is legendary, notably in the embracing arms of the colonnade in St. Peter’s square. His organization of Piazza Navona with its fountains and public spaces showed his ability in what we would now call civil engineering. He was a skilled painter, a poet of note, and a writer and of producer of elaborate stage performances now largely lost but famous in his own day. To these he added artistry in the use of another medium perhaps more elusive than any other: natural light. It was characteristic of his genius to integrate these various forms into a unity of conception. There seemed to be nothing that he could not do well.
But he was also a complete man beyond his artistic work. His home life was the center of his affections; his wife was his main human consolation, and he wrote and performed plays with his many children. He seemed made for friendship, and regularly sat at the tables of Popes, who were delighted by his presence and his conversation. He was kind to the poor, to whom he gave away much of his money. And, as the cohering focus of all, he honored God in his work and in his life.
This sense of integration touches the works of genius that came from his mind and hands. It is a quality of a sane age that the highest artistic expressions of its ideals are accessible to all, even the simple. So it was with Bernini’s work. He was one of the creators of the baroque style, in which he took up the forms and ideals of the classical age and set them dancing to the music of faith. None but he could have accomplished such wonders, but all who saw them understood them and were moved to a deeper embrace of the ideals behind them.
It has often been noted that the Catholic Faith involves a delicate balance of all human and spiritual realities, while heresy tends to the exaggeration of one thing at the expense of all others. In a world that has become expert in exaggerated imbalance, we might well look to Bernini and his remarkable ability to integrate the whole of the cosmos in his art and in his life. We may then understand the meaning of one of his famous sayings: “Better to be a bad Catholic than a good heretic.”