Bernini’s Rome .com

Unlike Bernini whose talent was recognized at an early age by popes and cardinals, Bolognese sculptor Alessandro Algardi struggled to find work for nearly ten years. Finally, in 1634, he was commissioned to sculpt the tomb of Pope Leo XI. Rudolf Wittkower explains that for this commission Algardi undoubtedly took inspiration from Bernini’s tomb of Urban VIII.21 Even then, Algardi was still not as established as Bernini in his sculpting abilities.

The Fuga d’Attila relief, located inside Saint Peter’s, earned significant praise when it was completed in 1653 and it would turn out to be Algardi’s last completed sculpture.22 Algardi’s style was much different from Bernini’s. While Bernini focused mainly on sculpture, the Fugga d’Attila is a relief—a “species half-way” between painting and sculpture, where it is framed like a painting but the bodies have real volume.23 Bernini never took to this style because they “did not fulfill his desire for spatial interpenetration of sculpture and life.24 Unlike Bernini’s style that aimed toward emotionalism, Algardi took a more classical approach to his work such as the Decapitation of St. Paul, in which the artist implored Sacchesque gravity, psychological penetration, and simplicity. 25


In addition to painters and architects, several sculptors worked in Italy in the seventeenth century. The most prominent was undoubtedly Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Bernini worked marble in an extremely refined way, giving it multiple textures and capturing actions that are just about to occur. Art Historian Howard Hibbard, noted biographer of Bernini, considers Bernini to be “the last of the dazzling universal geniuses who had made Italy the artistic and intellectual center of Europe for more than three hundred years”.18 Some of his important sculptures include his David and the Ecstasy of St. Theresa.

In larger scale projects, especially in terms of his work in the Vatican, Bernini employed a number of assistants to aid him with his sculptures. Collaboration was essential for an artist of Bernini’s reputation to be able to work on multiple large projects at once, quickly and efficiently.

When Giuliano Finelli arrived in Rome he immediately became Bernini’s first hand assistant. Although only working with the artist for a short period, Finelli quickly absorbed Bernini’s grand style. However, after Andrea Bolgi moved to Rome in 1626, quickly becoming Bernini’s new favorite assistant, ultimately left Finelli to move back to Naples. After his move, Finelli began to transition away from Bernini’s style and turned more to the classical.19 Although Finelli fell out of favor in Rome, he still received a considerable amount of commissions and produced a significant amount of work.

Andrea Bolgi came to Rome in 1626 and immediately began working under the watchful eye of Bernini. His first major commission as Bernini’s assistant was the four giant statues in the pillars in the piazza of St. Peter’s. Unlike Finelli, Bolgi spent much more time on his commissions, such as the St. Helena statue, which took him ten years to complete. Bolgi attempted to emulate Bernini’s style so closely that it is understandable that he was Bernini’s most reliable assistant.20 Bolgi continued to work under Bernini on St. Peter’s well in the 1640’s before moving to Naples in 1654.


    While still heavily influenced by Mannerist ideals, Carracci slowly began to break the mold as seen inn his Assumption of the Virgin Mary. While the Virgin’s figure is still highly idealized in comparison to Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, the poses are less extreme, less idealized, and gradually gravitating towards the Baroque ‘moment’ of transcendent emotion. Furthermore, Carracci’s Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine showcases the artist’s knowledge of the human form without the exaggerated or disproportional figures made famous by Mannerist painters.12 Guido Reni, another influential artist of the time, studied Greek sculpture and Roman copies; their influence is evident in the bodies of his paintings’ subjects, particularly in his celebrated ceiling fresco, Aurora, completed for Cardinal Scipione Borghese.13 Reni’s popularity spread all over Italy, going as far as reaching several European cultural capitals such as Paris, Warsaw and Madrid.14 Pietro da Cortona is famous for his fresco ceilings, such as the Allegory of Divine Providence in the Barberini palace in Rome, completed in 1639.15 Giovanni Battista Gaulli, working towards the end of the 1600s, was sought after for his highly dramatized altarpieces and frescos, meant to “impress and persuade the average worshiper”.16 Gaulli, commonly known as ‘Il Baciccio’, completed the famous nave fresco The Glorification of the Holy Name of Jesus in Il Gesù, a Jesuit order church, in Rome, between 1676 and ’79.

    The paintings of Baroque artists challenge the viewer’s perception of what is real, forcing them to make use of drama, light, expression and gesture as a means of persuasion.17 The goal is to illuminate as clearly as possible; to tear down the metaphorical fourth wall between the plane of reality and the plane of the imaginary.


    Throughout the sixteenth century, Mannerism, or manierismo, was the preferred, ‘stylish’ art style in Italy. Mannerist images are characterized by artificial elegance, excessively complex poses, and bizarre spatial settings; “to impress the audience with their skills at drawing foreshortened figures, creating bizarre juxtapositions of scale and color.”4 In comparison with the Baroque, Mannerism aimed for the conceit – the “bizarre” fantasy and idealistic “unnatural beauty” as opposed to heightened reality coupled with theatrical emotion.5

Mannerist painting, such as Jacopo Pontormo’s The Deposition is a prime example of the inhibited nature of the mannerist figure. Their poses are awkward; their limbs are elongated, their faces are all contorted into one concrete expression and it lacks the fluidity that is reminiscent of Baroque painting. In addition, the colors are not natural, they follow the fantasy trope and exemplify the “stylish style” that Mannerism is known for.

Mannerism began to fall out of style in the wake of the Protestant Reformation as the Catholic Church scrambled to address the many criticisms that threatened their doctrine. One of the most prominent issues focused the legitimacy of religious idolatry. The Council of Trent, comprised of the Pope, princes, Protestants, the clergy, papal legates, etc., met several times from 1545-63. In their final session, the decrees on sacred images were put forth:

-The use of religious images is made legitimate by using them as visual aids for worship rather than objects of worship themselves.

-“Let so great care and diligence be used herein by bishops, as that there be nothing seen that is disorderly, or that is unbecomingly or confusedly arranged, nothing that is profane, nothing indecorous, seeing that holiness becometh the house of God.” 6

oUnnatural/unrealistic depictions of religious characters were no longer permitted.

-“Every superstition shall be removed, all filthy lucre be abolished; finally, all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust; nor the celebration of the saints, and the visitation of relics be by any perverted into revellings and drunkenness; as if festivals are celebrated to the honour of the saints by luxury and wantonness.”7

oReligious characters can no longer be portrayed ‘fantastically’ or ‘beautifully’. They must be true and realistic to canon.

As a result of these decrees specifically, the style of art began to shift gradually from that of the idealized Mannerism to the more realistic, naturalistic Baroque.



                Baroque, like many other stylistic designations, was invented by later art critics. As explained by many art historians, one theory of the etymology of “baroque” has it derive from the word for an irregularly shaped pearl, particularly prized by sixteenth-century jewelers: that is, something whose particular interest lay in its unpredictable deviations from formal regularities or norms. In France these pearls were called perles baroques from the sixteenth century and from French the word migrated to other language and became relatively common by the eighteenth-century and rapidly became common. In the Encyclopédie Méthodique: Architecture (1788-1825), a compilation aimed in part at producing an appropriate public audience for emerging public architectures, Quatremère de Quincy seems to conceive of baroque as noble art’s nemesis, an expression of the odd or merely curious. He defined “baroque” in architecture as a nuanced expression of the bizarre. For him, the essence of the baroque is its excess and excessive strangeness, its unrestrained eccentricity. More than simply unusual, in his view “baroque” pushed beyond the extreme to the ridiculous. With the rise of Neoclassicism, this pejorative understanding of the word could be applied to art forms that had predominated in some parts of Europe, especially Italy, during the seventeenth century.  A new age of scholarly appreciation for so-called Baroque art emerged in the early twentieth century, with theorists like Wölfflin and Riegl attempting more systematic accounts of the style’s characteristics and historical phases. Today, “Baroque” is most useful as a designation of a period in history rather than a descriptive term for a single style of art.


Towards the end of the sixteenth century, the Carracci and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio began to abandon what is now known as Mannerism, initiating a new stylistic movement that would become the leading style of seventeenth-century Italy, the Baroque.8 Caravaggio, a Milanese painter who immigrated to Rome, became one of the “most original” and “infamous” painters of the Baroque.9  As seen in Caravaggio’s dramatic paintings, he often merges religious scenes into contemporary life, creating a new element of drama and relevancy to his work. For instance, The Calling of St. Matthew is a depiction of a religious scene put into a contemporary context. The figures are in modern dress with contemporary windows and chairs, making the painting relatable to the viewers while reinforcing Catholicism’s relevancy and power. With this tactic, subject matter, and the dramatic shading brought forth from the use of tenebrism, a technique of strong chiaroscuro, Caravaggio’s paintings bring “high drama and strong emotion.”10 His influence is evident in the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi, a native of Rome and one of the few women artists to reach prominence during this time. Gentileschi’s paintings present various Caravaggesque qualities, most notably his naturalism, the vicinity of the subjects to the picture plane and his tenebrism.11

Aside from naturalizing religious iconography, Baroque artists have a second objective: they sought a more realistic representation of their subjects whilst maintaining a high level of emotion. Technically speaking, in the Italian Baroque, the use of light and shadow was employed to a greater degree, and the accentuation of single religious figures were developed so that instead of making connections, the results were isolation. Baroque art “was the art of a dynamic age”, characterized by unified and limit space, characters in the throes of ecstasy, and a theatricality intended to illicit emotion in the viewer.2 The psychological element is increased in Italian Baroque art that aligns itself with spirituality of its subject matters; when inner movement becomes greater, it must release itself more strongly externally. Italian Baroque artists sought to create un bel composto, a beautiful whole, in their works, and combine it with classical ideals. Whereas “Renaissance figures are apt to look stolid, Mannerist ones inhibited; the Baroque artist took for granted that his characters were real people, caught in and reacting to specific situations.”3

Introduction to the Baroque     

          Docere, delectare, movere – “to teach, delight, and to move” – the mantra for image-makers, as prescribed by Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti in an influential treatise of 1582, became the “duty of the good Catholic artist” in the seventeenth century.1 The art of the seventeenth century, formally classified as ‘Baroque’ in the nineteenth century, became the cornerstone in rebuilding Rome. The Baroque is based on an ideology of the extraordinary, and the extraordinary is also the
goal of all classical arts. In a Baroque mindset, the causes and effects of the events and stories depicted are extraordinary, and the figures and the movements are self-consciously “beautiful.”

In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the Vatican needed to re-establish confidence in their followers and in their doctrine. It became imperative fro them to address the multiple harsh criticisms, especially in terms of religious symbolization, the ambiguity of these figures, and their usage as spiritual objects of worship. At the Council of Trent, wherein the Roman Catholic Church addressed the representational arts, they proclaimed that paintings and sculptures in church contexts should speak to the illiterate rather than to the well-informed. Therefore, art became a communicational device that linked the human mind to the spiritual realm, which this is customarily offered as an inspiration of the Baroque. Countless churches were erected under the Patronage of pops like Innocent X and Alexander VII; others, like the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano and the church of Santa Maria della Pace, were renovated to showcase the magnificent and power of the Catholic Church. However, some sculptures like Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne and The Rape of Persephone could be interpreted as having primarily pagan subjects, but they were nonetheless commissions by Scipione Borghese, a Catholic cardinal. And by looking at these sculptures, re-evaluating the Protestant Reformation under the direction of the Vatican, it is evident that Italian art, whether for religious or amusement purposes, depicts the actions and consequences of inner movements and impulses of the soul. The main emphasis is thus on external action.

Portrait busts were a major innovation in seventeenth century art. They can be seen
as a propaganda tool during the time period, allowing the bust to represent how the subject wished to appear. Bernini’s major contribution to the portrait busts was his ability to truly capture the character of his subject through a “speaking likeness,” where he portrayed the subject either directly before or after they have just spoken.26 This is exemplified in the portrait bust that Bernini made for Cardinal Scipione Borghese. In this bust, Borghese’s head is slightly tilted and his lips are gently opened. The drapery from his robe gives the illusion of weight and Bernini magnificently carved the eyes to appear like they actually have a pupil and iris in them allowing the bust to come alive.27 Algardi’s portrait busts are clearly drawn from the style of Bernini, however, he never used the “speaking” technique and his subject’s lips are always closed. The disordering of drapery in Algardi’s portrait busts gives the statues a sense of reality, however the carved pupil of the eye sockets gives Algardi’s portrait busts a blank and absent stare in the sitters face. 28


        No other Pope during the seventeenth century was as invested in the city planning of Rome as Alexander VII. During his papacy, he initiated multiple architectural projects for Pietro da Cortona and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Architecture often served as a physical reminder of papal power and Catholic triumph. Typically, Baroque churches had an external façade with a dramatic central projection, made use of dramatic lighting and chiaroscuro effects, and had large internal naves with large scale ceiling frescos. In 1656 Cortona was put in charge of restorations to the church of Santa Maria della Pace, to which he added a Baroque façade and a portico with columns, which resembles a theatrical set.29 This particular work demonstrates “the progressive exclusion of Mannerist elements and a turning toward Roman simplicity, grandeur, and massiveness even though the basic tendencies of [Cortona’s] approach to architecture remain unchanged”. 30
The same year that Cortona was commissioned to modernize Santa Maria della Pace, Bernini began working on the Piazza San Pietro, in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. He designed the famous colonnades that extend out from the sides of the church and around the piazza using an oval plan, departing from Michelangelo’s vision. Bernini is also responsible for construction of the Scala Regia, a monumental stairway at the entrance of the Vatican Palace, which his biographer Filippo Baldinucci describes as “the most difficult [work] he ever executed”. 31

        The Counter Reformation called on a resurgence of the Catholic Church, and with this resurgence came the “imperial desire” to build new, massive churches.32 An architectural master of his time and Bernini’s rival, Francesco Borromini designed and built some of the most iconic churches in Rome to date. Unlike Bernini, Borromini used a geometric approach in his architecture, which is attributed to the medieval time period. This idea is exemplified in the church of Sa
nta Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, where the “geometric conception of the final project is a diamond pattern of two equilateral triangles.”33 Other works done by Francesco Borromini include the Fontane, Sant’Agnese in Agone, Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, and the interior of the San Giovanni in Laterano Basilica. Guarino Guarini was a popular architect working primarily in Turin, Italy, as well as in Sicily, France and Portugal. In Turin he designed a large number of public and private buildings, including the Palazzo Carignano and the Castle of Racconigi. In his designs he carried out many of the ideas that  Borromini first introduced. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, Carlo Rainaldi was a popular architect in Rome particularly during Innocent X’s term as Pope. His works include the façade of the Sant’Andrea della Valle basilica and the apsidal part of Santa Maria Maggiore.

Art in 17-Century Italy


1Harris, 2; for the treatise, see Paleotti, Discorso

2Held, 17

3Held, 17

4Harris, 3


6Little, 42

7Harris, 52-53

8Harris, 10

9Hibbard, 25-26

10Harris, 66

11Harris 119

12Harris, 127


14Harris, 87

15Wittkower, Connors, and Montagu, 121

16 Wittkower, Connors, Montagu, 122

Giovanni Battista Gaulli (“Il Baciccio”), Triumph of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, ceiling fresco, Il Gesù, Rome, 1679

17Wittkower, 90-91

18Wittkower, 93

19Wittkower, Connors, Montagu; 93

20Wittkower, Connors, Montagu; 93

21Wittkower, Connors, Montagu; 93

22Harris, 93

23Harris, 92

24Harris, 93

25Harris, 78

26Wittkower, 71

27Baldinucci, 43

28Petersson, 27

29Wittkower, Connors, Montagu; 41

30 Harris, 10

31Shearman, 22

32 Shearman, 23

33 Wittkower, Connors, Montagu, 40

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