Franco Mormando, Bernini: His Life and His Rome, 2011

John Weretka

Franco Mormando, Bernini: His Life and His Rome, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011 (ISBN-13 978-0-226-53852-2).

Surprising as it may be, in a world awash with biographies of his somewhat older contemporary, Caravaggio, Bernini has all too frequently been overlooked in the traditional life-and-works genre. After filling the better part of half a century with a torrent of works in almost all media and for almost all occasions, the employee of a succession of popes and a leading figure in shaping the look of Rome during its seventeenth-century Golden Age, Bernini passed into eternity almost unnoticed: as Franco Mormando notes, we know reasonably little about the artist’s death and funeral exequies from contemporary notices, all the more surprising given the sumptuousness of the similar events to which he contributed during his own life. Filling the gap is a small number of notices—Domenico Bernini and Filippo Baldinucci both filling the role of apologists in their biographies, and a welter of major (for example, Passeri) and minor (for example, a sheaf of avvisi, diplomatic reports, etc.) pieces of writing eager to point out the Cavaliere’s numerous shortcomings and artistic failures.

Fréart de Chantelou’s diary, in some ways, provides the template for Mormando’s own study of Bernini, which depicts the man as we probably all imagine him—brilliant, vivacious, industrious and gifted but also manic, sometimes cruel, scheming and obsessively controlling. This immensely readable biography lives with its subject all the way from his disavowed Neapolitan origin, through the early prodigies of the Villa Borghese sculptures and the giddy years of Barberini and Chigi patronage, as Bernini came to sculpt the city as he had worked intractable marble into the incandescent ecstasies of St Teresa’s habit in the celebrated S. Maria della Vittoria ensemble. For the difficulties of the Parisian sojourn, Mormando is ably helped by the friendly but not uncritical eye of Chantelou. Taking Bernini’s own prediction that his ‘star would lose its ascendancy’, the biography ends on a rather muted note. Throughout, Mormando makes excellent use of a wide range of sources—diaries, the avvisi, diplomatic reports, letters, quoted comments, printed sources, sermons, satires, theatre scripts, and many others—to produce a pacy and in many ways wholly adequate biography.

One cannot help but note, again, that for such a significant subject, Bernini is curiously opaque in the historical record, as if precisely because of his ubiquity he remained largely undocumented except in the most official of contexts. This very opacity leads Mormando into dangers that he does reasonably little to avoid. Mormando makes up for the invisibility of his subject by surrounding Bernini with an often racy set of minor characters intended to be illuminative of his wider context—the ‘hermaphroditic’ Queen Christina of Sweden; the sexual exploits of a number of presumed homosexual (Scipione Borghese, the Cardinal de Bouillon) and heterosexual (Decio Azzolino) cardinals; the popes themselves; the scheming of the endlessly dissimulating French, led by Colbert; the frustrated and whining Borromini; the intrigues of Virgilio Spada. This cast of characters seems to be cut from a picaresque novel, and Mormando’s constant use both of terms such as ‘our artist’, chapter sections with headings such as ‘Bernini comes of age’ and narrative pointers such as ‘but to return to …’ reminded me of nothing so much as The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. The city itself, as well as its culture, also plays a key role in the story: one will read here of the importance of astrology in Baroque Rome, including that Bernini’s loan of Livy’s History of Rome and Boccaccio’s Genealogy of the Gods borrowed from Orazio Morandi may be a screen for his obtaining a horoscope from the astrologer-prelate (pp. 293–95); as well as of Baroque Rome’s reception of sodomy (pp. 309–12). All of this is fascinating, but it leads us rather far afield from Bernini and these ‘episodes’ feel exactly that, little integrated into the narrative of the biography. In trying to strengthen various aspects of his subject’s life, Mormando occasionally overdraws observations to the point of caricature. In treating Bernini’s spirituality through the lens of The Blood of Christ, Mormando draws (one might say justly) lurid attention to the spiritual life of Saint Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi (p. 305); but, as an examination of the lives of Saint Catherine of Siena or Saint Lidwina of Schiedam show, the behaviour of Saint Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi represents part of the continuum of European spirituality and Bernini’s devotion to it thus utterly unexceptional. Mormando also paints a picture in which Bernini is supposed to have sunk into oblivion after his death, particularly as a result of late-eighteenth-century Neoclassicism. As Hellmut Hager has shown, though, the example of Bernini’s architecture retained canonical status right into the 1780s, and can scarcely be said to have fallen into any real oblivion. And, lamentably, Mormando falls all too easily in the mode of pop psychology—the legacy of an overly-critical father; the sublimation of libido in artworks, etc. (p. 164).

One might have thought, in the absence of ‘real’ facts about Bernini’s life, that the art itself might provide enough material to work with, but Mormando always seems distinctly uneasy around the art and architecture that should have formed the centre of this biography. Bernini’s expiatory work on the Albertoni statue in S. Francesco a Ripa is well enough situated within the context of moves to exculpate Luigi Bernini and Cardinal Paluzzo Paluzzi Altieri degli Albertoni’s efforts to get a family saint (pp. 313–15); but what about the quite important stage this statue represents in the development of the most ‘mannered’ phase of the Baroque? The usual presumed links between sexual ecstasy and the spiritual ecstasy of Saint Teresa are trotted out (pp. 158–67) but Mormando is unable to account for the almost unanimously positive reception the work was accorded at the time, and this in post-Tridentine Rome. Similarly, the (again presumed) links between theatre and the ‘set’ of the statuary group are rehearsed (p. 161), but Mormando is unable to account for the fact that none of the ‘spectators’ is regarding the event. Had he looked—I mean, really looked—at the work? We hear that Giulio Finelli left the Bernini workshop in disgust in the wake of the Apollo and Daphne (p. 79) but very little else about the workshop’s structure or practice, or those of any comparable workshop. We track the rough outlines of the construction of the Scala Regia and the Colonnade of St Peter’s but, especially considering the monumental significance of the latter, shouldn’t we have been entitled to more days on the construction site? In short, one will leave this biography knowing much more of the kind of information that could be traded around the dinner table (did you know Bernini’s brother did THAT?) but the artist remains as elusive as ever.

© John Weretka 2012

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