The sinister impressions made by Bernini's rivals on the mind of the Pope were so effective than when Innocent X decided to raise the great obelisk brought to Rome by the Emperor Antoninus Caracalla, which had long been buried at Capo di Bove, and erect it in Piazza Navona as the crowning element of a most noble fountain, he had the leading Roman architects prepare various designs without asking for one from Bernini.
But how great a petitioner for its possessor is true merit, and how well it speaks for itself! Prince Niccolo Ludovisi, who was married to a niece of the Pope and who was not only an intimate friend of Bernini but also had influence with him, prevailed on him to make a model of the fountain.
In that model Bernini represented the four principal rivers of the world: the Nile for Africa, the Danube for Europe, the Ganges for Asia, and the Río de la Plata for America. A boulder or rock, open in the center, supported the enormous obelisk. Bernini made the model, and the Prince arranged for it to be transported to Palazzo Pamphili in Piazza Navona.
There it was secretly placed in a room through which the Pope, who on a certain day was to dine there, had to pass as he left the table. On that very day, which was the Feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary [March 25], after the procession the Pope appeared and after the repast went with the Cardinal and Donna Olimpia, his sister-in-law, into that room. Upon seeing such a noble creation and a design for such a vast monument he was nearly ecstatic. Since he was a prince of the clearest intelligence and of the loftiest thoughts, after spending half an hour or more around the model, continuously admiring and praising it, he burst out in the presence of the whole Secret Council with the following words: "This is a trick of Prince Ludovisi, but it will be necessary to make use of Bernini despite those who do not wish it, since those who do not want his works must not look at them." He immediately sent for Bernini, and with a thousand signs of esteem and love and with a majestic manner, almost apologizing, he explained to him the motives and various reasons for not having made use of him before, and he gave him the commission to make the fountain after his model. Afterward and for the rest of his pontificate, Bernini was always in favor and held in the high esteem to which he was accustomed. Indeed, he was so much in the good graces of that pontiff that every week or so the Pope wanted him at the palace, and there he passed several hours in delightful discourse. It was often said that Bernini was a man born to associate with great princes.
But I do not want to pass too rapidly to other matters without first saying something about the fountain, which is counted among Bernini's most marvelous creations and which proved to be one of the most beautiful ornaments of the city of Rome. In the very center, then, of the length and breadth of the great Piazza Navona is situated at ground level a step or bank, so to speak, which forms a great circle about 106 Roman palmi in diameter. About 10 palmi from the two extremities lies a great basin symbolizing, I believe, the sea, in the midst of which there rises up to a height of about 30 palmi a mass or, let us say, a grotto made of travertine. This mass is tunnelled through so that from all four sides one can see through the other side of the piazza. By means of these openings the rock is divided into four parts, which are joined and united at the top. These four parts represent the four continents of the world. The sections, by broadening and jutting out in various craggy masses, provide places for four very imposing giant figures of white marble representing the four rivers. The Nile symbolizing Africa is the figure covering the upper part of his head with a cloth as an indication of the obscurity that long prevailed regarding the exact point from which it springs from the earth. Beside it is a very beautiful palm tree. The Danube, which represents Europe, is admiring the marvelous obelisk and has a lion nearby. The Ganges, which stands for Asia, holds a large oar indicating the great extent of its waters. A little below it is a horse. Finally, comes the Río de la Plata for America. It is represented by a Moor, and next to it are some coins to show the wealth of minerals abounding in that country. Beneath the figure is a terrible monster commonly known as the Tatù of the Indies. Around all these river allegories water brought there from the Trevi Fountain gushes in great quantities. In the basin at the water line appear some large fish in the act of darting into the sea, all of them most beautiful. One fish on the side toward Piazza Orsini is seen swallowing the water that sustains its life, and having taken in too great a quantity, it blows out the excess-a truly brilliant concept. The pedestal stands splendidly at the exact center of the rock's summit, about twenty-three palmi high. Upon it rests the great obelisk about eighty palmi in height. It is crowned with a beautiful metal finial about ten palmi high upon which a gilded cross shines. Above rests a dove with an olive branch in its beak, the emblem of the Pamphili family. One marvels not a little to see the immense mass of the obelisk erected on a rock so hollowed out and divided and observe how-speaking in artistic terms-it seems to stand upon a void. The water falls in abundance; the sweet murmuring sounds and plenitude make it a thing of utility and delight to the commune.
When this great work was almost completed but before it was unveiled, that is to say, before the scaffolding and the cloth-covered framework that kept it hidden from the public's eye had been removed, the Pope wished to see it. Therefore, one morning the Pope arrived and entered the enclosure together with Cardinal Panzirolo, his secretary of state, and about fifty of his closest confidants. He remained there more than an hour and a half enjoying himself greatly. Since the water had not yet been turned on, the Pope asked Bernini when it would be possible to see it fall. Bernini replied that he could not say on such short notice, since some time was required to put everything in order. Nevertheless, he said he would see to it that everything was done as soon as possible. The pontiff then gave him his benediction and turned toward the door to leave. He had not yet gone out of the enclosure when he heard a loud sound of water. Turning back he saw it gush forth on all sides in great abundance. The Cavalier had, at the crucial moment, given a certain signal to the person whose job it was to open the water ducts, and he quickly had it coursing through the pipes to the mouths of the fountain. Bernini knew that the more unexpected it was, the more pleasing it would be to the Pope. Overcome by such originality and gladdened by so beautiful a sight, the Pope returned with his whole court. Turning to Bernini he exclaimed, "In giving us this unexpected joy, Bernini, you have added ten years to our life." As a greater sign of his pleasure the Pope sent to the home of his sister-in-law, Donna Olimpia, in Piazza Navona for a hundred doubloons to be quickly distributed to the men engaged in work on the fountain.
It is impossible to relate how, after the fountain was unveiled, the ideas of the great persons who gathered in that place changed from those they had held before about Bernini, and how he was applauded in public and in private. From that point he became the unique object of the praise of all the academies in Rome.
Before speaking of his last illness and death, which to our eyes truly seemed like his life, we should here mention that although it may be that up until his fortieth year, the age at which he married, Cavalier Bernini had some youthful romantic entanglements without, however, creating any impediment to his studies of the arts or prejudicing in any way that which the world calls prudence, we may truthfully say that his marriage not only put an end to his way of living, but that from that hour he began to behave more like a cleric than a layman. So spiritual was his way of life that, according to what was reported to me by those who know, he might often have been worthy of the admiration of the most perfect monastics. He always kept fixed in his mind an intense awareness of death. He often had long discussions on this subject with Father Marchesi, his nephew, who was an Oratorian priest at the Chiesa Nuova, known for his goodness and learning. So great and continual was the fervor with which he longed for the happiness of that last step, that for the sole intention of attaining it, he frequented for forty years continuously the devotions conducted toward this end by the fathers of the Society of Jesus in Rome. There, also, he partook in the Holy Eucharist twice a week.
The Cavalier Gian Lorenzo Bernini was a man of average stature with a somewhat dark complexion and black hair that turned white with age. His eye was spirited and lively with a piercing gaze under heavy eyebrows. His behavior was fiery.
When not diverted by architectural projects, Bernini normally spent up to seven straight hours without resting when working in marble: a sustained effort that his young assistants could not maintain. If, sometimes, one of them tried to tear him away he would resist saying: "Let me stay here for I am enthralled." He remained, then, so steadfastly at his work that he seemed to be in ecstasy, and it appeared from his eyes that he wanted his spirit to issue forth to give life to the stone. Because of his intense concentration it was always necessary to have a young assistant on the scaffolding with him to prevent him from falling, as he paid no attention when he moved about. The cardinals and princes who came to watch him work would seat themselves without a word and just as silently, so as not to distract him for a moment, make their departure. He proceeded in this manner for the entire working session and at the end he would be bathed in perspiration and, in his last years, very lowered in spirits. But because of his excellent constitution a little rest would restore him.
I would now like to touch in a general way on some other of his fine qualities, qualities either given him by nature or which, through long and diligent effort, were always and everywhere the inseparable companions of his deeds and had become second nature to him. First of all, we can with good reason affirm that Cavalier Bernini was most singular in the arts he pursued because he possessed in high measure skill in drawing. This is clearly demonstrated by the works he executed in sculpture, painting, and architecture and by the infinite number of his drawings of the human body, which are to be found in almost all the most famous galleries in Italy and elsewhere. A group of these drawings merits a worthy place in the library of the Most Serene Cardinal Leopoldo de' Medici, of glorious memory. The Chigi family possesses many, and a great number of them were sent to France. In these drawings one notes a marvelous symmetry, a great sense of majesty, and a boldness of touch that is really a miracle. I would be at a loss to name a contemporary of Bernini who could be compared with him in that skill. A particular product of his boldness in drawing was his work in that sort of sketch we call caricature or "charged strokes," which for a joke distorts in an uncomplimentary way the appearance of others, without taking away the likeness or grandeur if the subjects were, as often happened, princes. Such personages are inclined to be amused at such entertainment even when their own appearance is concerned and would pass around the drawings for other persons of high rank to see.
The opinion is widespread that Bernini was the first to attempt to unite architecture with sculpture and painting in such a manner that together they make a beautiful whole. This he accomplished by removing all repugnant uniformity of poses, breaking up the poses sometimes without violating good rules, although he did not bind himself to the rules. His usual words on this subject were that those who do not sometimes go outside the rules never go beyond them. He thought, however, that those who were not skilled in both painting and sculpture should not put themselves to that test but should remain rooted in the good precepts of art. He knew from the beginning that his strong point was sculpture. Thus, although he felt a great inclination toward painting, he did not wish to devote himself to it altogether. We could say that his painting was merely diversion. Nevertheless he made such great progress in that art that besides the paintings by his hand that are on public view, there are more than one hundred and fifty canvases, many owned by the most excellent Barberini and Chigi families and by Bernini's children. A very fine, lively self-portrait hangs in the famous gallery of self-portraits of great masters in the palace of the Most Serene Grand Duke of Tuscany.
Before Bernini's and our own day there was perhaps never anyone who manipulated marble with more facility and boldness. He gave his works a marvelous softness from which many great men who worked in Rome during his time learned. Although some censured the drapery of his figures as too complex and sharp, he felt this, on the contrary, to be a special indication of his skill. Through it he demonstrated that he had overcome the great difficulty of making the marble, so to say, flexible and of finding a way to combine painting and sculpture, something that had not been done by other artists.
It is not easy to describe the love Bernini brought to his work. He said that, when he began work, it was for him like entering a pleasure garden.
There are many indications of that great esteem which he always aroused. As proof it will suffice to tell of the first time that Her Majesty the Queen of Sweden did him the honor of going to see him at work in his own house. Bernini received her in the heavy rough garment he was accustomed to wear when working in marble. Since it was what he wore for his art, he considered it to be the most worthy possible garment in which to receive that great lady. This beautiful subtlety was quickly perceived by the Queen's sublime genius. His action not only increased her concept of his spirit, but even led her, as a sign of her esteem for his art, to wish to touch the garment with her own hand.
Bernini had great knowledge and noble sentiments concerning the arts and those who professed them. To the general and habitual courtesy of those masters of art I here register my debt, as the fruits of this narrative come directly from them. Bernini wanted his students to love that which was most beautiful in nature. He said that the whole point of art consisted in knowing, recognizing, and finding it. He, therefore, did not accept the thesis of those who stated that Michelangelo and the ancient masters of Greece and Rome had added a certain grace to their work that is not found in the natural world. Nature knows how to give to every part its commensurate beauty, Bernini said, but one must know how to recognize it when the opportunity arises. In this regard, he used to relate that in studying the Medici Venus he had at one time come to the same conclusion in observing her most graceful gesture. But since that time, having made profound studies of nature, he had clearly observed exactly the same graceful gesture on many occasions. He held that the story of the Venus that Zeuxis made was a fable: that is to say, the story that Zeuxis had made her from the most beautiful parts of many different girls, taking one part from one and another part from another. He said that the beautiful eyes of one woman do not go well with the beautiful face of another woman, and so it was with a beautiful mouth, and so on. I would say that this is absolutely true, since the various parts are not only beautiful in themselves but in their relationship to other parts. Thus the beautiful shaft of a column is praiseworthy for the proportions it has by itself, but if one adds a beautiful base and a fine capital that do not go with it, the column as a whole loses its beauty. This principle of Bernini's agrees with another of his concepts. He said that in making a portrait from life everything consisted in being able to recognize the unique qualities of individuality that nature gives to each person rather than the generality common to all. In choosing a particularity one must pick one that is beautiful rather than ugly. In order to achieve this end Bernini had a practice very different from the general run. He did not want the person he was drawing to remain immobile. Rather he wished him to move about and talk, since he said he then could see all his beauty and, as it were, capture it. He said that a person who poses, fixed and immobile, is never as much himself as he is when he is in motion, when those qualities that are his alone and not of a general nature appear. Such individuality gives a portrait its likeness.
In his works, whether large or small, Bernini strove with everything in him to make resplendent all the conceptual beauty inherent in whatever he was working on. He said that he was accustomed to putting in no less study and application in designing an oil lamp than in designing a very noble edifice. In preparing his works he would consider one thing at a time. He gave this procedure as a precept to his disciples, that is to say, first comes the concept, then reflection on the arrangement of the parts, and finally giving the perfection of grace and sensitivity to them. As an example he cited the orator who first conceives, then orders, elaborates, and embellishes. He said that each of these operations demanded the whole man and that to do more than one thing at a time was impossible.
Bernini declared that painting was superior to sculpture, since sculpture shows that which exists with more dimensions, whereas painting shows that which does not exist, that is, it shows relief where there is no relief and gives an effect of distance where there is none. However, there is a certain greater difficulty in executing a likeness in sculpture and, as proof, Bernini pointed to the fact that a man who loses his color no longer looks like himself, whereas sculpture is able to create a likeness in white marble.
The great art in bas-relief, he said, was in making things appear in relief that are not in relief. In speaking of high-relief, particularly those in Alexander's apartment, he used to say that they were of little technical skill since they are almost completely in the round, and are what they appear to be, rather than appearing to be what they are not. He said that among the works of antiquity, the Laocoön and the Pasquin contain, in themselves, all the best of art, since one sees in them all that is most perfect reproduced without the affectation of art. The most beautiful statues existing in Rome, he said, were the Belvedere Torso and the Laocoön, of those still whole: the Laocoön for its emotional content, particularly for the understanding it displays in that leg, which already being affected by the poison, seems to be numb. Bernini, however, said that the Torso and the Pasquin seemed to him more perfect stylistically than the Laocoön, but that the Laocoön was whole whereas the others were not. He said the difference between the Pasquin and the Torso is almost imperceptible and could not be perceived except by a great man, but that such a man would find the Pasquin to be rather better. Bernini was the first in Rome to place the Pasquin highest. He told of one time being asked by someone from beyond the Alps which was the most beautiful statue in Rome, and that when he responded, the Pasquin, the foreigner thought he was joking so he went with him to prove it.
Bernini had splendid precepts concerning architecture: first of all he said the highest merit lay not in making beautiful and commodious buildings, but in being able to make do with little, to make beautiful things out of the inadequate and ill-adapted, to make use of a defect in such a way that if it had not existed one would have to invent it. Many of his works attest that his skill came up to that level. It is seen, especially, in Urban VIII's coat of arms in the Church of Aracoeli. There, since the logical space to place the emblem was occupied by a large window, he colored the glass blue and on it represented the three bees as if flying through the air, and above he placed the triple crown. He proceeded in a similar way in the tomb of Alexander VII and in the placement of the cathedra, where the window was turned from an impediment into an asset: around it he represented a Vision of Glory, and in the very center of the glass, as if in place of the inaccessible light, he portrayed the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, which brings the whole work to a consummation. He put such ideas in practice more than once in the designing of fountains. The fountain for Cardinal Antonio Barberini at Bastioni is a fine example. Since there was very little water and very thin jets, he represented a woman who, having washed her hair, squeezes it to produce a thin spray of water, which satisfies both the needs of the fountain and the action of the figure. Though this is a concept that had been used earlier by another artist for a fountain for the Most Serene Grand Duke of Tuscany, we can believe it was also reborn in Bernini's charming fancy. In another fountain made for the Duke Girolamo Mattei for his famous villa at the Navicella he wished to do something great and majestic, but the water would only rise a little. He made a representation of Mount Olympus, on which he placed the figure of a flying eagle, an emblem of the Mattei, which also makes an effective reference to the mountain. He placed clouds midway up the mountain, since they could not rise to the summit of Olympus, and from these clouds rain fell. Another of his precepts should be brought forth since we are speaking of fountains. It is that since fountains are made for the enjoyment of water, then the water should always be made to fall so that it can be seen. It was with such a precept in mind, I believe, that in his restoration of the bridge of Sant'Angelo by order of Clement IX, he had the side walls lowered so that the water could better be enjoyed. The eye then may see with double pleasure from the banks of the river the flow of water as well as the bridge above, ornamented with angels that allude to its ancient name.
He who pointed out that poetry is painting that speaks and, conversely, that painting is a kind of mute poetry spoke well. But if such a description fits poetry in general, it is much more suited to that kind of poetry called dramatic or illustrative. In such poetry, as in a beautiful historical painting, we note various persons of diverse ages, conditions, and customs, each with an individuality of appearance and action, with admirably distributed colors which form, as do the voices of a well-balanced choir, a beautiful and marvelous composition. Therefore, it is not surprising at all that a man of Bernini's excellence in the three arts, whose common source is drawing, also possessed in high measure the fine gift of composing excellent and most ingenious theatrical productions, since it derives from the same genius and is the fruit of the same vitality and spirit. Bernini was, then, outstanding in dramatic actions and in composing plays. He put on many productions, which were highly applauded for their scope and creativity during the time of Urban VIII and Innocent X. He created most admirably all the parts both serious and comic in all the various styles that up to his time had been represented on the stage. He enriched them further with such ideas that the learned who heard them attributed some to Terence, others to Plautus and similar authors that Bernini had never read. He created them all by the force of his genius. Sometimes it took an entire month for Bernini to act out all the parts himself in order to instruct the others and then to adapt the part for each individual. The keenness of the witticisms, the bizarreness of the devices through which he derided abuses and struck at bad behavior were such that whole books could be made of them, not without delight to those who might wish to read them. But I leave all of them for someone better. It was, nevertheless, wonderful to see that those who were the butt of his witticisms and mockeries, who for the most part were present at the performances, never took offense. Bernini's ability to blend his talents in the arts for the invention of stage machinery has never been equalled in my opinion. They say that in the celebrated spectacle The Inundation of the Tiber he made it appear that a great mass of water advanced from far away, little by little breaking through the dikes. When the water broke through the last dike facing the audience, it flowed forward with such a rush and spread so much terror among the spectators that there was no one, not even among the most knowledgeable, who did not quickly get up to leave in fear of an actual flood. Then, suddenly, with the opening of a sluice gate, all the water was drained away.
Another time he made it appear that by a casual unforeseen accident the theatre caught fire. Bernini represented a carnival carriage, behind which some servants with torches walked. The person whose job it was to perpetrate the trick repeatedly brushed his torch against the stage set as happened sometimes. It was as if he wanted to spread the flames above the wall partitions. Those who did not know the game cried out loudly for him to stop so that he would not set fire to the scenery. Scarcely had fear been engendered in the audience by the action and the outcry, when the whole set was seen burning with artificial flames. There was such terror among the spectators that it was necessary to reveal the trick to keep them from fleeing. Afterward there was another noble and beautiful scene.
Once he composed two prologues for a spectacle to be performed in two theatres, one opposite the other, so that the people could hear the play in one theatre as well as in the other. The spectators in the regular theatre, who were the most important and famous, saw themselves recreated in effigy by masks in the other theatre in a manner so lifelike that they were amazed. One of the prologues faced outward, while the other was reversed, as the parts were played. It was delightful to see the departure of the people-in carriages, on foot, and on horseback-at the conclusion.
The fame of the play La Fiera, produced for Cardinal Antonio Barberini during the reign of Urban VIII, will live forever. There was everything in it that one is accustomed to seeing in such gatherings. The same is true of the spectacle La Marina, which was done with a new invention and that of the Palazzo d'Atlante e d'Astolfo, which astonished the age.
It was Bernini who first invented that beautiful stage machine for representing the rising of the sun. It was so much talked about that Louis XIII, the French king of glorious memory, asked him for a model of it. Bernini sent it to him with careful instructions, at the end of which he wrote these words, "It will work when I send you my head and hands." He said he had a fine idea for a play in which all the errors that come from running the stage machinery would be revealed along with their corrections, and still another not yet presented, for giving the ladies away on the stage. He disapproved of horses or other real creatures appearing on stage, saying that art consists in everything being simulated although seeming to be real.
More could be said, which for the sake of brevity is passed over. I will close this section with Cardinal Pallavicini's familiar remark that Cavalier Bernini was not only the best sculptor and architect of his century but, to put it simply, the greatest man as well. A great theologian, he said, or a great captain or great orator might have been valued more highly, as the present century thinks such professions either more noble or more necessary. But there was no theologian who had advanced far in his profession during that period as Bernini had advanced in his. It is not surprising, then, that one can say that Bernini was always highly esteemed and even revered by the great.