Italian sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) becomes the hottest artist in Rome.




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Episode cast overview:
Himself - Presenter
Andrea Gherpelli ...
Meirko Ficca ...
Bernini as a child
Valerio Aprea ...
Marco Furiozzi ...
Laura Mercatali ...
Bernini's Mother
Elio Marconato ...
Guilia Mombrelli ...
Federica Santoro ...
Saint Theresa


Simon Schama details the life and most of the works of Italian master sculptor Bernini, including his rivalry with other artists which helped lead to his disastrous design for bell towers at St. Peter's Basillica. The overview of several of his sculpture masterpieces includes The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Written by Ron Kerrigan <>

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27 October 2006 (UK)  »

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Bernini, Undoer of Myth.
30 January 2011 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

This is a pretty good episode from the series, meaning Simon Schama does a slyly effective take on the work and personal life of the subject. Bernini was a sculptor in Rome, located somewhere in time just a bit after Shakespeare had become a big hit in England.

Bernini was at least one artist who didn't have to slog his way up out of the sewer and into the gutter. He didn't lead a particularly uncomfortable life. He was a grand courtier and got plenty of support from those in positions to support artists. He was an architect -- his interiors are mind-numbingly elaborate -- as well as a sculptor. But in architecture he had to contend with Francesco Borromini, first a friend and co-worker, later a bitter rival.

Schama compares the architecture of these two men and frankly I thought Borromini's made a lot more sense, all sort of flowing ovals and smooth niches, without too much decoration, maybe a cartouche here and there. Great places to have a party. Bernini's was too ornate, loaded with gold and filigree and too much busy work. You might have a good party there too but you'd have to wear a wig and get all dressed up. I guess Bernini won the self-esteem contest because Borromini wound up committing suicide.

But in sculpture, Bernini was unexcelled at the time. Wow. I can't imagine how the guy managed it. Schama concentrates on three pieces, with the major emphasis on St. Theresa of Avila. But first there is the rape of Proserpina by Pluto. Pluto's hand is holding up the woman under her thigh, and Bernini has somehow gotten exactly right the way Pluto's big veined hand presses into Proserpina's flesh. It's worth checking out the image on Google, just to see the indentations of Pluto's fingertips. Bernini pulled this off when still in his early 20s.

And in the big statues of Apollo finally catching Daphne after a big chase, an incident I barely remember from a course in classical mythology, we notice that Daphne didn't particularly like being caught, not even by Apollo, nor did her protector upstairs, whose name I forget, because instead of Apollo committing forcible rape (the gods could get away with anything in those days), Daphne is turned into a laurel tree. The sculpture catches her in the act of transmogrification with botanically correct laurel leaves sprouting from her fingertips and various other body parts turning into a tree trunk. Bernini generally gets credit for the whole statue but, as Schama observes, he cheated a little because he turned the hard, leafy work over to a subordinate. And frankly, from a tyro's point of view, the whole work is a bit much, rather like his architectural designs.

Schama most admires The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa and it's easy to see why. St. Theresa was one of Christianity's few mystics. She had visions of Christ and was said to levitate and so on. Any more of that stuff and she'd belong in a Hindu pantheon. Bernini has a little cherub poised over Theresa with a golden arrow -- pointing not at her heart but at her nether regions -- and an impish smile. I don't know what a mystic experience looks or feels like but St. Theresa looks like she's having an orgasm to me. Her head is thrown back, her eyes rolling, and her mouth gaping open -- and she's kind of good looking. Bernini has her levitating too, but what's making her levitate is conjectural in my book. Bernini also designed the setting for this sculpture. It's on an elevated stage in a part of the chapel. It's lighted from above and there are all sorts of Baroque curlicues and golden rays shining down on it and, as usual, he should have quit while he was ahead.

Yet this episode shows us details of Bernini's three major sculptural works that are barely imaginable in their technical accuracy. St. Theresa's mouth is open, okay, but the camera shows us that mouth in close up. The mouth isn't wide open, as in a scream, but just enough to suggest awe. And it's damned near perfect. Those marble teeth are all there, brighter than mine, and we can see her tongue and up into the inside of St. Theresa's mouth and -- here's the thing that got me -- all those curved and complicated surfaces are as smooth as glass. Bernini didn't have electricity so he couldn't have had a modern appliance like a dentist's buffer. So how did he polish her TONSILS? He did a great deal of detail work in her robes too. There is an elaborate network of folds and flaps and wrinkles. (It was common in the paintings of the time, too, if I remember.)

I don't think I'd have liked Bernini too much. I have some sympathy for artists who are troubled, like Caravaggio or Van Gogh or Borromini, but little for those who are troublesome. Bernini was clearly a genius when it came to sculpture, if not architecture, but he was also a brown noser and a very catty one at that. The Joan Crawford of his day.

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