Simon Schama’s Power Of Art: Bernini
Airs Thursday, May 13, 2010 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Credit: Margherita Mirabella ©BBC
Gian Lorenzo Bernini - first boy wonder, then adult prodigy - was a man who defined the term "virtuoso." He was a sculptor, architect and composer, and known to be a dashing cavalier who was socially graceful, personally charming, and the personal friend of Pope Urban VIII, the patron of the arts. Bernini's sculptures had the quick breath of life flowing through them.
But Bernini did not have the field of fame to himself. There was another maker of architectural marvels breathing down his neck - Francesco Borromini. The two men hated each other. In the 1640s, abruptly, Borromini's star ascended while Bernini's fell. After Urban VIII died, the new Pope, Innocent X, became Borromini's patron. To make matters worse, cracks appeared in the bell tower Bernini had built for St. Peter's and (as Borromini gleefully pointed out) it was in danger of collapsing. The campanile was ordered to be demolished. Down with it came Bernini, from the height of fame and power to something of a laughing stock.
A miracle was needed to restore his fortunes. So Bernini made one: "The Ecstasy of St. Theresa," for the Conaro family chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. This was the work that changed what sculpture could do, for Bernini made his marble saint levitate and quiver, born aloft by passion and faith. It was a work of irradiating power that hovered on the border between mystery and indecency. This was the greatest of the Roman wonders. It helped the church to hold onto the hearts of the faithful.
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