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Gregory WaldropMay 07, 2012
Berniniby By Franco MormandoUniv. of Chicago Press. 456p $35

These days when it comes to Baroque art, Caravaggio is all the rage, maybe as fascinating for his transgressive lifestyle—documented in a seemingly endless stream of modern films, books and exhibitions—as for his luminous canvases. Yet for all the bad-boy painter’s fame enjoyed by Caravaggio then and now, no artist enjoyed more esteem in 17th-century Rome, and thus in all of Europe, wielded greater cultural clout or provoked such bitter jealousy and resentment than Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Florentine by heritage, Neapolitan by birth, Bernini is virtually synonymous with the Eternal City. He flourished mainly there for all but five of his 82 years and was loath to leave it even for a weekend. Woody Allen’s love of New York looks like fleeting infatuation compared to Bernini’s devotion to Rome. And we can hardly conjure the city in our mind’s eye today without picturing some of his most iconic works: the astonishingly carnal “Ecstasy of St. Theresa of Avila,” the gravity-defying “Four Rivers Fountain” in the Piazza Navona, a parade of nine-foot angels on the Ponte Sant’Angelo, the outstretched arms of the great colonnade fronting St. Peter’s Basilica and the gigantic bronze baldacchino soaring above that basilica’s high altar. As Pope Urban VIII, one of Bernini’s most avid and free-spending patrons, reportedly remarked: “Bernini was made for Rome and Rome for Bernini.”

But what do we really know about this dazzling genius? A celebrity sculptor by age 20 and a papal knight by 22, he was named architect of St. Peter’s at 29. He was also a prolific if under-appreciated painter, a designer of stage sets and festival ephemera, an amateur playwright and the go-to image-shaper for a succession of pontiffs, princes and kings. But what of the man behind the C.V.? His earliest biographers tell us little more than that Bernini worked hard, married late, went to church daily and glided serenely through the shark tank that was the papal court. If Caravaggio’s rowdy life is an open book, until recently Bernini’s read more like Butler’s Lives of the Saints—or a publicist’s press release.

Now, nearly 350 years after Bernini’s death, a modern scholar has finally given the artist—or rather, the man—his due. In fact, two new books by Franco Mormando could be said to give it to Bernini good.

The Life of Gian Lorenzo Bernini by Domenico Bernini is Mormando’s translation—the first-ever into English—of the fulsome biography Bernini’s own son published of his father in 1713. This new critical edition, the product of 10 years of research, effectively puts the lie to much of Domenico’s hyperbolic tale of genius, virtue and piety. Crucially, Mormando, a professor of Italian at Boston College, also puts that earlier work into context and with impressive finesse explains the literary conventions and family circumstances underlying Domenico’s filial tribute. Equipped with 183 pages of footnotes—36 pages more than Domenico’s full text—and an extensive bibliography of recent scholarship, this book will be of special interest to Bernini scholars. Yet serious art aficionados will also find it accessible, thanks less to Domenico’s florid prose (Mormando calls it “obfuscatingly ornate and dense”) than to Mormando’s helpful introductory essays and vivid commentary.

But Mormando’s second book, his own attempt at artistic biography, should enjoy even wider appeal. Bernini: His Life and His Rome is pitched to the kind of informed general audience that in recent years has devoured reliable but popularizing tales of famous artists, like Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome or Jake Morrissey’s The Genius in the Design, itself a colorful rendering of the architectural rivalry between Bernini and his equally brilliant but socially challenged nemesis Federico Borromini.

As good as those books are, however, Mormando’s is better. Repackaging his scholarly material from the critical edition and adopting a more conversational tone, Mormando unveils an intelligent, if also supremely skeptical portrait of Bernini and his beloved Rome. Along with ravishing works of art, whores, catamites and clerical cupidity abound. Even the author compares all the book’s scandal, intrigue and “interpersonal drama” to a television soap opera. Cutting through the exagerration of 300-year old official biographies, Mormando wants to reveal “Bernini himself, the uncensored, flesh-and-blood human being.”

That is tricky, of course; and like all historians, Mormando has to interpret the facts as he finds them. And the facts of Bernini’s private life are frequently damning. Though traditionally lauded as a devoted family man, for example, Bernini once beat his brother nearly to death when he discovered him sleeping with his mistress. He then had a servant slash the woman’s face with a razor for her infidelity. He could be almost as cruel in the studio. Paranoid about potential rivals, Bernini exploited his many brilliant assistants but schemed to deny them public recognition. Borromini loathed him, Innocent X essentially sacked him, and the fickle Roman people careened easily and often between accolades and acidic critiques.

We are grateful that Mormando is an entertaining storyteller. Otherwise, even the facts could begin to sound like an updated version of Baroque character assassination. And he always gives Bernini credit for his genuinely virtuoso accomplishments.

He also dispenses a fair amount of armchair psychology, and his narrative sometimes fits uncomfortably within the book’s roughly chronological structure. It is in the area of religion, though, that Mormando’s biography takes on a censorious edge. His churchmen are nearly all cynical, the populace largely indifferent and Bernini’s own vaunted religiosity perhaps little more than habit for most of his life. The problem is less that Mormando—hyper-alert to hypocrisy—finds so little spiritual fervor in a period and town supposedly oozing with it. Rather, his strangely narrow take on what constitutes sincere religious feeling makes it hard to imagine how it could exist anywhere or at all.

None of that, however, takes away from the genuine contribution Mormando makes to Bernini studies, certainly in the critical edition of Domenico’s biography, but also in this vivacious retelling of the Bernini saga. Fun but still serious, Bernini: His Life and His Rome is heavy on sex and hard on religion. It may therefore tell us a great deal not only about Bernini and his times but also about the conventions of artistic biography in our own.

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