Every visitor to Rome knows the name Michelangelo. Many of his masterpieces are destinations in their own right, and those like the Pietà are often hard to glimpse through the throngs of tourists. But far fewer people go to Rome to admire the works of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, even though he, too, made an immense contribution to the fabric and artistic patrimony of the city. Somehow, his style seems to accord less well with contemporary taste. Bernini lacks Michelangelo’s superstar status, despite his having designed the square in front of St. Peter’s with its massive double colonnade, as well as the monumental baldachin that stands over the altar of the cathedral, its serpentine columns created from bronze that once covered the roof of the Pantheon. Bernini also designed many of Rome’s most famous fountains, including the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) in the Piazza Navona, topped by an Egyptian obelisk.
These are the places to which I, an avid Bernini admirer, invariably return.
Born 34 years after Michelangelo’s death, Bernini created baroque sculptures that are suffused with drama. His David in the Borghese Gallery is taut with action, capturing its subject at the moment before he launches the stone from his sling. This gallery also contains Bernini’s most virtuosic piece, Apollo and Daphne. Again, it captures a climactic moment, when Daphne, whom Apollo had been chasing, cries out to the gods for help. In order to save her from Apollo’s unwanted advances, they transform Daphne into a tree. Her mouth is open, mid-shout, and twigs and leaves sprout from her upstretched hands. This single sculpture makes a visit to the Borghese Gallery worthwhile, but don’t miss Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina, which has a similar theme: a muscular Pluto grasps a struggling Proserpina in his arms, holding her above a baying three-headed Cerberus. I also love Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius, in which an exhausted but determined Aeneas carries his father away from a devastated Troy. Self-portraits painted by Bernini can be found one floor up. Timed-entry tickets booked in advance are required.
Piazzale Scipione Borghese 5. Tel. (39) 06-841-3979
In the Basilica Parrocchiale Santa Maria del Popolo, on the far side of the Piazza del Popolo from the Hotel de Russie, is a jewel of a chapel designed by Raphael. The architecture is lovely, but Bernini’s two sculptures are the real draw. In one niche, the prophet Habakkuk clutches a fabric-draped basket of food and gazes up, astonished, at the youthful angel mischievously tugging at a lock of his hair. The angel points to another niche across the chapel, which houses a sculpture of Daniel. Draped in a torrent of fabric, he prays fervently as the lion beneath him licks his foot, tame as a kitten. Again, Bernini sculpts high drama, depicting the moment before the angel transports a reluctant Habakkuk (and his food) to a starving Daniel.
Piazza del Popolo 12. Tel. (39) 06 361 0836
These museums are no secret, but few of the thousands of visitors seem to linger over the two Bernini masterworks here. Bernini’s Pope Urban VIII is a larger-than-life marble sculpture that is full of motion and power, despite the fact that the pope is seated. His hands extend from his heavy embroidered cope in blessing, but it might as well be Jupiter summoning a thunderstorm, such is the force of the figure. In the nearby Hall of the Geese is the life-size Bust of Medusa, with a hairdo of curling snakes. Bernini has captured yet another pivotal moment: the second when Medusa saw her own reflection and was transformed into stone. Reserve tickets in advance to avoid lines. I prefer visiting in the evening, arriving a couple hours before closing time.
Piazza del Campidoglio 1. Tel. (39) 06-0608
The lavishly decorated 17th-century church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte would merit a visit even if it weren’t for Bernini’s two angels inside. Originally meant to stand on the Sant’Angelo Bridge, the sculptures so impressed Pope Clement IX that he had them moved to this church, in order to protect them from weathering (copies stand on the bridge). During our recent visit, scaffolding blocked part of Angel With the Crown of Thorns, but it was still possible to see the swirling fabric, tactile feathers of the wings and delicate crown, as well as the expression of wonder on the angel’s face.
Sant’Andrea delle Fratte
Via di Sant’Andrea delle Fratte 1. Tel. (39) 06-679-3191
Even in the flamboyant interior of this church, the theatrical Ecstasy of Saint Teresa stands out. A gilded starburst illuminated by a hidden skylight forms a backdrop to this pristine white marble sculpture, giving it an ethereal glow. The compassionate smile on the angel’s face contrasts with his pose, standing ready to plunge a golden arrow, representing God’s love, into Teresa. She has collapsed, overcome by her spiritual passion.
Santa Maria della Vittoria
Via Venti Settembre 17. Tel. (39) 06-4274-0571
The church of San Francesco a Ripa is in an out-of-the-way Trastevere location. As of this writing, it is worth the effort for Bernini devotees only, because it is undergoing renovation. Bernini cut a chapel out of the wall and added concealed windows to shine natural light on the sculpture of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, who is depicted in a moment of spiritual ecstasy. She clutches her cloak to her breast, causing it to rumple and fold extravagantly (all the better to show off Bernini’s skill). Bernini carved this expressive work when he was in his 70s, his talent undiminished by age.
San Francesco a Ripa
Piazza di San Francesco d’Assisi 88. Tel. (39) 06-581-9020