Episode 31: Back to the Borghese, Bernini, and the Baroque
We return to the Galleria Borghese to consider the remaining two of Bernini’s four masterpieces, his Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanias, and his David. Both statues may represent the virtue of piety, one based on Virgil’s Aeneid and the other based on the Old Testament, though Bernini’s David looks well equipped to defeat Goliath even if he should fail to receive God’s support.
Our previous two visits to Christian Rome have been to the Borghese, and before them, we made six or seven visits to St. Peter’s Basilica. I put these Christian sites in sequence because, although they are different in important respects, they are linked by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Baroque art, and the powerful Borghese family. Pope Paul V was a Borghese, as he reminded us by putting his papal and family names in large letters on the façade of St. Peter’s, and his nephew and adopted son Scipione was the Borghese who built the Galleria Borghese and stocked it with great art. Scipione—himself a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church—discovered Bernini before he was even a teenager, later commissioned him to craft four great statues, and launched the young artist on a career that would see Bernini as the chief sculptor and architect for St. Peter’s for the next fifty years.
As much as Bernini did for the great basilica, both inside and in its grand Piazza, his genius and tireless efforts left their imprint all over Rome. His main papal patrons, Urban VIII, Innocent X, and Alexander VII were also the rulers of Rome, so Bernini ended up designing several of Rome’s most admired piazzas, churches, and chapels. And since his work was imitated by others, it is not too much of an exaggeration to think of Rome as a Baroque city and of Bernini as the man who most of all gave it this character. If you remember the visit we made to the Castelli Romani several months ago, you will recall that his powerful papal patrons also had him working for them near their summer villas in Castelgandolfo and Albano.
We have discussed two of Bernini’s statues in the Borghese, the Apollo and Daphne and the Pluto and Persephone. They are both powerfully erotic, and their subjects are unlike anything Bernini did for St. Peter’s. It is not that he never showed the love of God to be erotic and possibly suitable to be put in a church: his celebrated Ecstasy of St. Theresa proves that he did. It sits in the very baroque church of St. Mary of the Victory near Piazza Repubblica and shows Teresa of Ávila as she experiences a vision in which she sees an angel with a long spear of gold whose tip was on fire. As she described it,
[The angel] appeared to me to be thrusting [his spear] at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed 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.
So there she is in the church, moaning away on her back. Whatever the opinion of the many visitors to this extraordinary statue, I’m inclined to think Bernini really did want to show that the love of God in an ecstatic religious experience could take a saint to the extremes of bodily pleasures and pains. For another dramatic example of what might be called divine eros, visit the church of St. Francis a Ripa in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood to see Bernini’s statue of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni.
The two erotic statues in the Borghese are different, however, in that they show a naked woman in the grip of a man filled with strictly sexual eros, so they would never show up in a Catholic Church. No less importantly, the stories they tell come from a pagan poet, not the Bible or the writings of a saint. They thus are not merely reminders of the power of sexual love, which both testaments of the Bible are fully aware of; they are openings to a world which is not presided over by a loving God. If we step with them into Ovid’s world, we are called upon to consider the possibility that the world is governed in part by chance, so events great and small do not happen as a just or loving God would have arranged. And if they should turn out to be governed instead by gods who are moved by human passions which lead them to envy, hate, and lust, why would this be consoling?
Bernini’s David (photo: Gian Lorenzo Bernini, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Aeneas carries his father,who holds the family gods, and leads his son, out of burning Troy
Now let’s bring into the conversation the other two major statues by Bernini in the Borghese. One is his Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius; the other is his David. All four of his major works for Scipione Borghese were done within the seven-year period that began when Bernini was 19. All four also exemplify characteristics of baroque sculpture, of which the first and most unforgettable is that they show bodies in motion and characters in the grip of emotion. To show motion, the artist must choose an instant that represents the action as a whole, so the story can be reconstructed from this single moment. It is such a moment when Apollo wraps his arm around Daphne, only to realize he’s grabbing bark, for she is turning into a laurel tree; so too when Pluto carries Proserpina across the threshold of Hades. Although the baroque statues can’t move, they are nonetheless packed with action. Bernini’s religious statues in St. Peter’s are similarly dramatic. The clearest example is his statue of Constantine as he sees the vision of the cross in the sky, but even the 140 saints on the colonnade are given dramatic postures, as are the four massive statues at the crossing of the church around the baldacchino.
For good contrasting examples, consider Michelangelo’s Renaissance statues, such as his David, Risen Christ, Pietà, or Moses, of which the last three are easily seen in Rome. They lack the movement characteristic of the baroque, and yet they still move their viewers.
Michelangelo, David, in the Accademia Museum in Florence (photo Livioandronico2013, CC BY-SA 4.0)
If dramatic movement is characteristic of most baroque sculpture, the subjects of Bernini’s moving figures vary widely. His works in St. Peter’s are from the Catholic religious tradition, the erotic statues we discussed earlier are from Ovid, and of our two statues for today, one is based on the Old Testament, and the other is from Virgil. One might say that they are all from the western tradition, but we then must add that the western tradition contains within it vastly different and opposed sources of inspiration.
Bernini’s Aeneas tells a story that he would have known from both Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Aeneid. The two accounts are in harmony, but Virgil’s is more complete, and Bernini relies on it more heavily. Here is what the Aeneid says when the Greeks are burning Troy to the ground:
Now the fire is more audible, burning throughout the city, and the blaze rolls its tide nearer. Aeneas says to his dear father, “Come then, clasp my neck: I will carry you on my shoulders: such a task won’t weigh on me. . . . Let little Iulus come with me, and let my wife follow our footsteps at a safe distance.
“You, father, take up in your hands the sacred objects and the household gods: until I’ve washed in running water, it would be a sin for me, coming from such fighting and recent slaughter, to touch them.”
So saying, bowing my neck, I spread a cloak made of a tawny lion’s hide over my broad shoulders, and then I bend to the task: little Iulus clasps his hand in mine, and follows my longer strides.
Ovid’s account is similar, but he does not mention the hand holding or the lion’s hide.
As mentioned last week when discussing the Forum of Augustus, this scene of Aeneas fleeing Troy with his family and family gods was also dear to the ancient Romans. Aeneas was the ancestor who linked the line of Romulus and the Julian dynasty to the gods, for he was the son of Venus. Aeneas’s son was usually called Ascanias, but Virgil here calls him Iulus, and this makes it easier to hear the connection between this family group and that of the Gens Iulia, or Julia, the family of Julius Caesar. In addition to flattering the Julian family, the story also connects Rome to heroic Trojan refugees who suffered mightily at the hands of the Greeks but whose descendants would later go on to conquer them. Virgil emphasizes the bond between Rome and the Trojans in the very first paragraph of the Aeneid, as follows:
[Aeneas] brought a city into being and carried his gods into Latium; and from this have come the Latin race, the lords of Alba, and the high walls of Rome.
But most important, I suspect, is the piety Bernini conveys in the statue. Virgil often refers to Aeneas as “Pious Aeneas,” and by this he means both that he revered the gods and that he was dutiful toward his father and his family. Bernini shows Aeneas stepping forward while attending to the gods, his father, and his son: it a moment of great danger and uncertain success. This seems to me the best moment in which to show reverence and duty, since their depths cannot be tested when times are easy. Viewers know that Aeneas remained reverent and dutiful notwithstanding the severe challenges he faced back in Troy, on his voyage, and even after his arrival on the coast of Italy. As a model of dutiful piety, and of piety ultimately rewarded, he made in this respect a good subject even for a Christian audience.
Virgil mentions that Aeneas instructed his wife to follow him, while he carried his father and led his son, but Bernini does not show her. One might conclude in our accusatory times that Bernini’s omission establishes that he and his age undervalued the woman’s importance. Perhaps, but it might rather show a limitation of sculpture as compared to poetry and painting.
Barocci, Aeneas Flees Troy (photo Federico Barocci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
The Borghese also has in its collection a painting by Federico Barocci entitled Aeneas flees Troy. It was completed about two decades before Bernini’s sculpture and helped to inspire it. Barocci’s painting includes Aeneas’s wife, Creusa, and it also includes Troy burning in the background. These and similar differences from Bernini’s statue strike me as good examples of the versatility of painting over sculpture, which is not to say that sculpture is without advantages of its own. Bernini could not sculpt burning Troy in the background, and adding additional figures is more difficult in stone than in oil on canvas. Had Bernini put Creusa in the picture, he would have complicated his unified, spiraling statue, which gives us three generations in one figure.
The story of David and Goliath is also concerned with devotion to the gods, though I almost wonder whether Bernini’s statue distracts from this important theme. As told in the Book of First Samuel, David is a shepherd boy who delivers some supplies to his brothers, who are fighters in the Israelite army in its war with the Philistines. While he is in the army camp, he hears one of the daily taunts of Goliath, a well-armed giant of a man who challenges any of the Israelites to meet him in single combat to settle the dispute between the two peoples. David volunteers to do so, rejects the king’s offer to loan him his heavy armor, and proceeds to surprise everyone but himself by bringing the giant down by hitting him in the forehead with a stone. Piety enters the picture because David went into battle trusting not in his weapons or military prowess but in God. As David said to Goliath just before they fought,
Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied.
And previously, he had won King Saul’s permission to fight by saying, “The Lord that delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, He will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine.” The story of David and Goliath is a story about faith in the face of adversity.
Aeneas’s homeland was burning and still under attack as he and his family began their search for a refuge. It not surprising to see worry in his eyes. David, on the other hand, has his eyes riveted on his target, and his face is filled with determination. His brows are knitted, and his mouth is tightly clenched. I have said that Bernini’s statues show motion: this one shows both motion and the promise of still more violent motion. Like a coiled spring, or like Roger Federer at that moment of his serve when he just begins to throw his weight up and forward, David is about to put his whole athletic body into his violent attack on the giant. In seeing David’s aggressive stance and feeling his intensity, we can’t be surprised he felled Goliath. The Bible speaks of a young shepherd boy who trusted in the Lord, but the statue gives us a mature man endowed with strength and determination. Similarly, the Bible has him picking “five smooth stones out of the brook,” but Bernini puts a hefty and more menacing rock in his sling. Based on the statue, we might expect him to win the battle even without divine support.
Bernini’s four sculptures in the Borghese show almost unbelievable mastery of his craft. He shows a great range of realistic postures, and emotions that vary with the eight different characters he represents, or nine if you count the vicious Hound of Hades. He gives movement to a stationary medium, and his treatment of the surfaces of his statues is especially impressive. In his Aeneas he captures the varying tautness of the skin of the old Anchises, of the mature Aeneas, and of Iulus, still with a layer of baby fat. In the Pluto, the hound’s fur contrasts with Proserpina’s smooth skin, and in the Apollo, the beautiful Daphne also takes on the texture and features of a tree. But what strikes me as most important is the way the statues raise questions about how to understand the world we live it. Does David defeat Goliath because of divine support? Is this how armies win battles? Do innocents like Daphne and Proserpina suffer in spite of divine protection or because the gods themselves are prone to envy, lust, and hatred? Was it beneficial to Rome that Romans imagined Pius Aeneas to have been the founder of their city, or should they have dismissed such myths as barefaced lies?
There is much more that might be said of these statues and of the young Bernini, but I’ll leave it at a few familiar anecdotes that help to bring out Bernini’s genius and his close connection with the popes of his day. One is that Bernini was only ten years old when Scipione Borghese first met him. Still, Scipione saw signs of his emerging genius and took him to meet his uncle the pope. Paul V asked the boy to sketch a head, and the ten-year old responded,
What head does Your Holiness wish—a man or a women, old or young, and with what expression—sad or cheerful, scornful or agreeable?
Perhaps, at ten, he could not yet sketch a lustful face, but his question already implies a keen perception of how we human beings differ from one another and even from ourselves at different moments.
A second anecdote brings out the close relationship between the young Bernini and Maffeo Barberini, whether or not it is literally true. This Barberini would go on to become Pope Urban VIII, but when still a Cardinal he helped to educate the young Bernini. He reportedly also helped Bernini in simpler ways, for when the artist decided to use himself as the model for the determination he wanted to show on the face of his David, the Cardinal would hold up a mirror so Bernini could capture the supreme determination he himself felt and showed.
This same Barberini, a poet who published in Latin, also wrote couplets to try to play down or deny differences between Bernini’s two most erotic statues and ordinary Christian decency. These moralizing interpretations of the statues were then carved onto the statue bases. Of the Apollo and Daphne, Barberini wrote: “Those who love to pursue fleeting forms of pleasure, in the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands,” so he interprets the Ovid’s story, or at least Bernini’s statue, as summoning us to a higher love. You might pause to wonder whether you agree.
In Ovid’s account of Pluto and Persephone, the young girl was picking flowers when she was abducted. Of Bernini’s statue, Barberini wrote, “Oh, you who bend down to pick flowers from the earth, look at me who have been abducted to the home of cruel Pluto.” His couplet encourages pity for Proserpina, but it does not seem to be addressed especially to young men, who are most in need of the lesson but are perhaps incapable of fully incorporating it.
Anecdotes and epigrams apart, it was a fascinating and stimulating age, with the long-forgotten and repressed ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans coming ever more to the fore, even as the Church fought back against the stern charges of the Protestants. And as we will see later, the ideas of Galileo’s new science were just now catching the attention and even the excited admiration of the Church. And yet it would be the sophisticated Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban VIII, who would eventually see to it that Galileo would disavow what his science had taught him to be true.