Rome Stories and Tips

The Genius of Bernini

Travel Photo by IgoUgo member

When I first began thinking over what I’d write in my journals on Rome, I’d decided I just had to write an article in praise of Piazzas—of which Rome has plenty. Cool, vast, lovely piazzas; small, comfortable, comforting piazzas; piazzas with statues, piazzas with fountains—Rome is replete with them. And then came another thought: that the piazzas, or at least many of them, share something else in common: they invariably showcase the genius of a man who left his mark all across Rome, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Born in Naples to a Florentine family (his father, Pietro Bernini, was a fine sculptor in his own right), Gian Lorenzo came to Rome when he was just seven years old. He was already a child prodigy; and soon came to the notice of Pope Paul V, who began patronising him. Initially influenced by Greek sculpture, Bernini swiftly established himself as a sculptor who was amazingly prolific in works both religious and secular. Under the patronage of the papal family- especially that of Cardinal Scipione Borghese- Bernini started churning out works that today can be found all across the churches, piazzas and museums of Rome. The Abduction of Proserpine, David, Apollo and Daphne, and The Ecstasy of St Theresa are some of Bernini’s best-known statues. An interesting blend of staunch Catholicism and Greek mythology, but all equally vivid and impressive.

We saw a lot of Bernini’s work in our wanderings through Rome. The sculptor was prolific, and besides doing a lot of carving with his own hands, he also designed a vast number of statues and architectural elements that were eventually executed by others. They adorn just about every conceivable form of architecture in Rome—from the awesome Basilica di San Pietro in the Vatican City, to the quiet little Piazza della Minerva. There’s a lot of Bernini around.

The Basilica di San Pietro, easily the most impressive example of religious architecture in Rome, is generally regarded as Michelangelo’s domain and rightly so. But Bernini had a hand in it, too. If you stand in the piazza facing the Basilica, you’ll see the two vast curving colonnades stretching out on either side of the basilica- and those colonnades are topped with the statues of one hundred and forty saints. An impressive number, and all designed by Bernini. One of the two fountains in the piazza itself is also by Bernini.

Inside the Basilica, too, Bernini showed off his skills. The large bronze baldaquin that towers over the tomb of St Peter was made by Bernini. With its spiralling columns and its rich ornamentation, the baldaquin is very well-suited to the massive Basilica.

Not too far from the Basilica di San Pietro, the Ponte Sant Angelo straddles the Tiber river- and acts as yet another showcase of Bernini’s work. Twelve angels, each in a different pose, stand along the bridge, which leads to the Castel Sant Angelo. Six angels to a side, tall and impressive.

But my favourite Berninis are the ones that adorn the piazzas of Rome- the distinctly pagan statues, of tritons and sea horses and other mythical beings.

There is, for example, Piazza Navona, where we spent an idyllic evening watching crowds of tourists and locals wander about. Local artists sold watercolours of Rome as souvenirs; an old gentleman walked a large, fluffy white dog around; flowers in a dozen shades of red and pink bloomed in the balconies. And three fountains- the central one a Bernini- played in this large oval piazza. And it’s this central fountain, the famous `Fountain of the Four Rivers’ (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) that dominates Piazza Navona. Dating back to 1651, it depicts, in a series of muscular male figures, animals, plants and fish, the four main rivers of the Old World- the Nile, the Danube, the Ganges, and the Rio de la Plata. The political and symbolic allegories built into the statuary are many, and tourist guides are famous for adding fiction to fact when expounding on the fountain.

Of the two other fountains in Piazza Navona, one- the `Fountain of the Moor’ (Fontana del Moro)- is also a Bernini, though just in part. Bernini carved the huge triton riding a dolphin that stands in the middle of the fountain; Giacomo della Porta carved the surrounding figures.

Much smaller and less imposing is the `Fountain of the Triton’ (Fontana del Tritone) in Piazza Barberini. It’s older than the Fountain of the Four Rivers- this one was completed in 1643- and it has a certain beauty about it that enchanted me. The triton- a sea god, depicted here as a merman- sits atop a base of four classical dolphins. Muscular shoulders and arms bared, shaggy head titled up, he blows into a conch shell, from which springs up a stream of water. Piazza Barberini itself is fairly small and uncrowded, so we often found ourselves alone here.

Incidentally, the Fontana del Tritone isn’t the only Bernini fountain in Piazza Barberini- tucked away in an unobtrusive corner next to Via Veneto is another fountain, the `Fountain of the Bees’ (Fontana delle Api). It’s relatively small and simple, a large open shell on which sit bees, a symbol derived from the Barberini family’s coat of arms.

Even smaller than Piazza Barberini is the tiny Piazza della Minerva, behind the Pantheon. The centrepiece at Piazza della Minerva is also a Bernini, but this isn’t a fountain: it’s a statue. A delightful statue of a richly caparisoned elephant with- believe it or not- a smile on its face. The elephant stands beneath an Egyptian obelisk, its tail twisted cheekily towards the Dominican monastery that stands nearby- a symbolic blow aimed at the Dominican Father Paglia, a rival of Bernini’s. The elephant, by the way, was merely designed by Bernini; the actual carving was done by a student of his.

And yes, if you want to see yet another Bernini, there’s the `Fountain of the Leaking Boat’ (Fontana della Barcaccia) below the famous Spagna, the Spanish Steps. Only this isn’t a fountain by Gian Lorenzo Bernini- it’s by his father, Pietro. It offers an interesting insight into where the son got his talent- which it’s obvious he honed considerably.

Been to this destination?

Share Your Story or Tip