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Early civilizations
Greece and Rome
Asia and Africa
Renaissance in Europe
     The youthful Bernini
     Baroque as a style
     Baroque Rome
     The portrait bust

18th century
Africa and Oceania
To be completed

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The youthful Bernini: 1618-1625

No sculptor, other than Michelangelo with his early Pietà, has ever made such an immediate impact as Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. In his early twenties he produces an extraordinary series of innovative masterpieces for a single patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese.

Two in particular break new ground. When Pluto lifts Prosperpina (Pluto and Proserpina 1621-2), his fingers, sinking with the exertion into her outer thigh, transform marble into soft flesh as never before. In Apollo and Daphne (1622-5) the fleeing Daphne, changing before our eyes into a laurel tree, seems to deny for ever the static element in sculpture. The new style of baroque has already found its greatest master.


Baroque as a style: 17th - 18th century

Europe in the 17th century, and in particular Roman Catholic Europe, revels in a new artistic style embracing architecture as well as painting and sculpture. In many contexts, such as church interiors, the baroque combines all three arts in an unprecedented way to create a sense of emotional exuberance.

This mood is very different from the dignified and often severe masterpieces of the Renaissance. The term barocco is first used to suggest disapproval. It is thought to derive from a Portuguese word for a misshapen pearl. Certainly unbalance and excess are the qualities which baroque artists indulge in and turn to advantage.


The Roman Catholic world is the natural home of baroque, because its mood suits so well the message of the Counter-Reformation. Protestant reformers can be caricatured, not too unreasonably, as argumentative, dour, unsentimental, hostile to images, and distrustful of any authority except that of holy writ.

The Catholic church by contrast enjoys an aura of centuries of authority and prestige, has long used art and music with great skill to touch the emotions of the faithful, and much prefers a good show to a good argument.


Following the example of the new St Peter's in Rome, numerous churches built and decorated in the 17th century put baroque at the service of the church's message. The faithful are welcomed by rows of saints, gesticulating eagerly in stone from alcove or roof line.

Inside a baroque church, light falls on mingling curves of columns and altars and sculpted groups, breaking up the solidity of side walls and often leading the eye up to an illusionistic ceiling - in which angels and people of fame or virtue stream upwards into the distant clouds of heaven. There is nothing half-hearted about baroque (at any rate until a slight loss of nerve in the 18th century results in the development known as Rococo).


Bernini and baroque Rome: 17th century

In the transformation of Rome into a baroque city, no one plays a part comparable to that of the sculptor and architect Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. In 1629 he is appointed architect to St Peter's, the creation of which has given a new excitement and dignity to the ancient city. Over the next forty years he provides magnificent features to impress the arriving pilgrims.

The first, completed in 1633, is the vast bronze canopy held up by four twisting columns (profusely decorated with the Barberini bees, for the pope at the time is Urban VIII). This structure, known as the Baldacchino, is at the very heart of the church - above the tomb of St Peter and below the dome.


The Baldacchino rises above an altar at which only the pope conducts mass. Visible between the columns, from the point of view of the congregation, is Bernini's other dramatic contribution to the interior of St Peter's. This is a golden tableau, a piece of pure theatre, above the altar at the far end of the church. Its central feature is the papal throne of St Peter, held aloft among the clouds.

Sculpted golden rays stream up from St Peter's throne towards heaven. In an extra dimension to the illusion they are joined by real rays of golden light, shining from the afternoon sun through an amber window in which the holy dove spreads his wings. This glorious blend of sculpture and architecture is achieved between 1657 and 1666.


Bernini can be seen in even more emotional and theatrical vein in his superb ensemble in the Cornaro chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria. The subject is the mystical ecstasy of St Teresa of Avila, following her own account of being pierced by the arrow of divine love. The saint, in a flutter of white marble robes, swoons as a jubilant winged boy prepares to plunge an arrow into her heart. Real light from a hidden window combines with sculpted rays to illuminate the scene from above.

In a final theatrical touch, in this most histrionic of religious masterpieces, sculpted members of the Cornaro family watch the scene from boxes to either side.


The Cornaro chapel is completed in 1652. The previous year Bernini has unveiled the most spectacular of Rome's many fountains. There are others by him in the city (in the Piazza di Spagna and the Piazza Barberini), but this one in the Piazza Navona outdoes them all.

The design of the Fountain of the Four Rivers is Bernini's but most of the carving - including the figures of the four river gods - is done by others from his preparatory models. From the shock of its central concept (heavy obelisk on top of hollow rock) to its lively and often surprising details, this is a worthy secular counterpart to Bernini's Christian contribution in the shaping of baroque Rome.


The portrait bust: 17th - 18th century

In addition to his numerous other talents, Bernini is a master of the portrait bust. He depicts his sitters with a new informality, enabling him to catch the fleeting moment when a characteristic glance or expression reveals the real person.

This is seen as much in the bust of a plump dignitary (such as his patron Cardinal Scipione Borghese) as in the delightfully fresh glimpse in marble of Bernini's mistress Costanza Buonarelli. In 1665, on a visit to France, Bernini sculpts the young Louis XIV. He manages to make even the Sun King, the very embodiment of pomposity, look human and almost amusing.


Bernini's contemporary, Alessandro Algardi, is his equal in suggesting living flesh within the confines of cold marble - though Algardi inclines to burden his sitters with the weight of dignity instead of the more impish quality often found in them by Bernini. Between them, these two sculptors make Italy the undisputed home of the portrait bust during the 17th century.

But in the next century it is France which produces the greatest masters in this difficult craft.


Louis François Roubiliac, born in Lyons in about 1705, becomes one of several foreign sculptors making their careers in England. His first important commission demonstrates very effectively his fresh approach to portrait sculpture. His marble statue of Handel, unveiled in Vauxhall Gardens in 1738, shows the composer in nightcap and slippers improvising on a lyre while a chubby infant at his feet jots down the notes.

The greatest French master of the portrait bust, Jean-Antoine Houdon, is a generation younger than Roubiliac. From the 1770s many of the most famous faces in Europe are modelled in clay in Houdon's Paris studio. It is frequently through his view of them that they are now known to the world (Voltaire being the prime example).


In 1785 Houdon is invited to America to sculpt a statue of George Washington. He crosses the Atlantic with Benjamin Franklin, who has been in Paris for some years as a diplomat for the newly independent American states.

At the time of Houdon's visit Washington has retired to his country estate, after winning the war against Britain. Houdon sculpts him in the guise of a similar Roman hero, Cincinnatus, who leaves his farm to save the republic of Rome from military disaster and then returns to private life. The marble statue (now in the state capitol of Virginia, in Richmond) is completed by 1788 - the year before Washington is again called from retirement, to become the new nation's first president.


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