The beginning of the seventeenth century was the time when the arguments between naturalism and classicism were to preoccupy much of the Baroque age. Perhaps the most successful integration of these ideas came in the work of the sculptor-architect Gianlorenzo Bernini. No other artist during the Baroque era so completely dominated his discipline as did this virtuoso, whose sculpted figure works came to personify the very spirit of the Counter-Reformation. Born in Naples, from an early age he possessed tremendous technical skill in modeling.
His David (Fig. 1), of 1623-24, sculpted between ages of twenty-five and twenty-six, evokes comparison with the Davids of Donatello and Michelangelo. Each work encapsulates the ideal and aspirations of its days. The sinuous body and graceful gesture of Donatello’s bronze speak of the break with the stiffness and grim determinism of the medieval age. Michelangelo’s David is quintessentially heroic, his gigantic body and sensuous musculature the very idiom of human self-confidence in the High Renaissance.
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By comparison, Bernini’s sculpture, neither complacent nor particularly grand, takes on combativeness and an offensive posture; here the body appears to attack and defeat. Christopher Baker argues that Bernini revolutionized sculpture by “Contorting facial expressions and bodies, endowing skin and drapery with tactile sensuousness, making hair and features seem to move, and differentiating textures for colorist effects” (21) Indeed, the agitation of the area around the figure was in fact very new to sculpture, and its provocative engagement of the space amplified the viewer’s relationship to the art.
This was the very essence of the Baroque. Bernini’s technical skill is also worthy of consideration, for here we can see the influence of Caravaggio (Loh). Bernini’s captivating use of light and shade through the technique of undercutting gave his cold marble figure an emotional vitality on a par with the very best chiaroscuro in painting. And to appreciate fully such an advance in sculpture, it is necessary to consider in greater depth stone carving as it was practiced in the seventeenth century.
Michelangelo likened carving to liberating a figure from its stone captivity. If this was indeed a feeling shared by sculptors of the day, then perhaps, as Varriano suggests, Bernini’s figures “leapt from their prisons” (73). The emotional gestures and agitated surfaces give one the impression that the figures are indeed flesh and blood. The drama of the scene is caught entirely by the convincing portrayal of movement, produced by a series of deep cuts into the marble surface that catch and reflect light.
These deep spaces of shadow are produced by a technique called “undercutting” – a method of manipulating the descriptive character of light on stone. Undercutting is a technique of creating deep cuts in stone which produce shadow; (Rothschild, 72) the result suggests movement and dynamism, as the surface is transformed by light and shade capable of expressing the most dramatic of gestures. In Bernini’s remarkable The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (Fig. 2) we are witness to the dramatic potential of such a development.
Noteworthy is the way the draperies of the enraptured saint take on the lightness of cloth and the way scene itself is wrapped within a turmoil of lines created through the intensive use of shadow. Bernini was also well aware of coloristic possibilities afforded by marble and used striking variation of the pink, white, green, and black varieties to produce spectacular results. One such example is his execution of the Tomb of Alexander VII (Fig.
3) of 1671-8, where traditional white marble figures are juxtaposed against colored marble drapery, striking black pedestals and the every present symbol of death – the skeleton. This is the Baroque sensibility in all its glory. Considering Bernini’s rather formidable skill in engaging space and working materials, it was perhaps inevitable that he would embrace architecture as well. The most notable of his achievements was his design for the piazza of St. Peter’s in Rome. Relying on many of the techniques and innovations of Renaissance architects, Bernini nevertheless allowed his engaging sense of novelty to guide him.
As a result, the unorthodox combination of Doric and Ionic orders and the dramatic sweep of the colonnade, which psychologically heightens the pilgrim’s anticipation of the Church (Marder, 112), appear very much in keeping with his quintessentially Baroque sensibility. Here, space is arranged for what can be described only as kinesthetic ends; Bernini’s deliberate manipulation of the viewer’s sense of rhythm and motion as they progress towards the steps of St. Peter’s is thus a logical extension of his sculptural strategy – space as a psychological tool.
It is this notable departure in the construction of space from the relative stasis of Renaissance that perhaps epitomizes the rise of specifically Baroque architecture. Figure 1 Gianlorenzo Bernini David 1623-24 White marble 170 cm Galleria Borghese, Rome Figure 2 Gianlorenzo Bernini Ecstasy of St. Teresa, 1642-52 Marble Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome Figure 3 Gianlorenzo Bernini Tomb of Pope Alexander (Chigi) VII 1671-78 Marble and gilded bronze, over life-size Basilica di San Pietro, Vatican Bibliography: Baker, Christopher.
Absolutism and the Scientific Revolution, 1600-1720: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002 Loh, Maria H. “New and Improved: Repetition as Originality in Italian Baroque Practice and Theory. ” The Art Bulletin. 86. 3. (2004): 477+ Marder, T. A. Bernini and the Art of Architecture. New York, London and Paris: Abbeville Press, 1998. Rothschild, Lincoln. Sculpture through the Ages. New York: Whittlesey House, 1942 Varriano, John. Italian Baroque and Rococo Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986
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