The Genius of Bernini, Rome’s Most Famous Sculptor

January 25, 2023

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was one of Italy’s most beloved and prolific artists. His career spans some 70 years and includes everything from fountains and vases to grand palazzi and office buildings. He designed churches, painted portraits, and sculpted major biblical scenes and famous busts for six different popes. Though his mother was Neapolitan and his father Florentine, Bernini was most connected to Rome, where he lived and worked nearly his entire life.

Some of Bernini’s best-known works include the jaw-dropping collonade in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, the immense baldachin over the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, among hundreds of other works of art scattered around Rome, Florence, and beyond.

A sculptor, painter, and architect, Bernini was one of Rome’s last true Renaissance men, though his work properly belongs to the Baroque period, which came just after the Renaissance and marked the abandonment of reason and rationality in favor of emotion, movement, drama, and occasionally excess. Bernini didn’t invent the Baroque style, but he certainly helped to popularize it and make it one of the quintessential cultural expressions of 17th-century Italy. When you think of Rome today, it is his vision of Rome, both artistic and architectural, that springs to mind.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Self-portrait as a Mature Man, painted between 1630 and 1635. Photo from the Galleria Borghese

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Self-portrait painted between 1630 and 1635. | Photo from the Galleria Borghese

So how did Bernini create so many buildings and sculptures that remain among the top attractions in Rome to this day? The answers lie in his long and often wild life which was marked by extremes of passion and religious devotion. Learn where to see his most famous works as well as the stories behind them below.  

The child prodigy

The Fontana della Barcaccia in Rome | Photo by Steve Johnson

The Fontana della Barcaccia, near the Spanish Steps, was carved by Pietro, probably with help from his son, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. | Photo by Steve Johnson.

Bernini’s father, Pietro, was a sculptor who tutored his son from an early age. When he was just 8 years old Bernini’s talent  was recognized by none other than the Pope. With that kind of endorsement the artist gained widespread recognition quickly and found himself winning commissions for major projects in his teens and early 20s.

To see the work of the young Bernini, check out the Fontana della Barcacia at the foot of the Spanish Steps. Although the official credit for the fountain goes to his father, it’s widely believed that the young Bernini worked on it as well. Another of his great early achievements was creating the colossal baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica when he was still in his 20s.  This immense altar canopy, which might be made from bronze pilfered from the roof of the Pantheon, is an extraordinarily effusive, dramatic, and some would say, over-the-top testament to the Barberini Pope Urban VIII. Whether you love it or hate it, you can’t miss it.

The family man

As the 6th of twelve siblings, Bernini must have been used to a large family. Later, he went on to have 11 children with his young wife, Caterina Tezio. Actually, Bernini was quite “old” (for the 17th century, that is) when he finally married in an arranged marriage; He was 41 and his wife was just 22.

These were not always great years for Bernini professionally. While he had been a favorite of the Barberini Pope Urban VII, his work came under attack when Innocent X (from the rival Pamphili) replaced Urban VII. If you want to see Bernini’s most famous work from these years you’ll have a tough time – He built two bell towers for the facade of St. Peter’s Cathedral but cracks began to appear in them on the year he was married. Although he was later exonerated of any fault, both bell towers had to be torn down at a considerable price to his prestige. But you can’t keep a man like Bernini down forever. After the bell-tower debacle he came storming back to prominence by winning the commission for a fountain that was to be the main monument in the Pamphili family’s newly remodeled plaza – the Piazza Navona. His creation, the Fountain of the Four Rivers, wowed everyone who saw it and remains one of the most visited attractions in Rome. 

The Philanderer

As many before and after her, Costanza Bonarelli became an artists mistress after posing as a model. Photo by Sailko, via Wikicommons.

As many before and after her, Costanza Bonarelli became an artist’s mistress after posing as a model. | Photo by Sailko, via Wikicommons.

Before his marriage, Bernini had a passionate affair with a married woman, Costanza Bonarelli. The wife of one of his assistants, Bernini fell for her after she posed as his model. The sensual and suggestive bust sculpture of Costanza which he carved, with wavy hair, parted lips, and open neckline, is a clear testament to the artist’s passion for his subject.

It all came to a nasty end when Bernini saw Costanza leaving the house of his brother, Luigi, one morning. The sculptor chased his brother with a crowbar, breaking bones before pursuing him with a sword. Though Luigi was spared after seeking refuge in Santa Maria Maggiore, a servant of Bernini was sent to Costanza’s home, where he slashed her face with a razor. Bernini was fined but ultimately forgiven by the Pope – he was too important to the art world of the time. His servant took the blame, Luigi hid out for some time, and it’s said that Costanza not only recovered from the attack, but she eventually became a noted art dealer in Rome.

Oddly enough, the bust of Bernini’s famous lover can’t be found in Rome; it’s in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence. To see the artist’s depiction of a similarly unhappy love affair, stop by the Borghese Gallery for a look at his Apollo and Daphne – a paradigm-changing depiction of a young nymph turning into a tree to avoid the predations of the sun god, Apollo. Also in the gallery is the exquisite and heart-rending Pluto and Persephone, which depicts another licentious god – the eponymous Pluto – Kidnapping a terrified woman to take back to his home in the underworld. 

The devout Christian  

Despite crow-barring his brother and sending an assassin with a razor blade after his lover, Bernini considered himself a devout Catholic. He attended mass daily, carried out spiritual exercises prescribed by the writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and routinely sought spiritual guidance from priests. His close friendship with the head of the Jesuit order likely exerted a heavy influence on his art, which can be seen especially toward the end of his career.

For some great examples of Bernini’s religious works, take note of the statues of angels lining the Ponte Sant’Angelo as you make your way over the Tiber towards the Vatican from Central Rome. These Bernini-designed angels (which were actually carved by his students) were dubbed the “Breezy Maniacs” soon after they were fashioned, apparently because of the holy wind that seems about to blow them off the bridge. The originals now sit in Sant’Andrea delle Fratte. 

The patriot 

Photo By Louis le Grand on 2006-08, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Bernini may not have enjoyed France but he did manage to carve an amazing bust of King Louis XIV. | Photo by Louis le Grand

In 1665 Bernini went to Paris, France to consult on designs for the Louvre under Louis XIV – then the world’s most powerful monarch. It was the only time since coming to Rome that Bernini left the city for more than a brief vacation. Less than six months after his arrival, he was already clamoring to return home. Apparently, he considered himself surrounded by cultural barbarians and constantly made comments to anyone within earshot regarding the inferiority of Paris when compared to Rome. As you might imagine, his behavior didn’t win him many friends – French friends, anyway – and ultimately his designs were never used. 

He did produce one great work from the trip, though. His bust of King Louis XIV is widely considered among his finest sculptures, as well as being a crowning example of Baroque art. It’s even more impressive considering that Bernini completed it in about 40 days. Apparently, in between complaining about the French he managed to finagle about 20 sittings with the king in which he studied the young monarch and chipped away at the marble. Today the bust is on display at the Palace of Versailles.

The (Baroque) Renaissance man.

Bernini was almost obscenely prolific with his art. Besides defining the architecture and artistic style of Rome and Italy, Bernini also wrote and staged multiple plays in the Barberini Palace Theater in Rome. Not only were the plays his own, he also acted in them. Most notable, however, were his set designs and special effects – many of which were unheard of at the time. His plays featured rising platforms, flames that destroyed the set only to show another behind it and floods from the Tiber River that threatened to drench the audience before disappearing down a hidden drain.

One Englishman who witnessed Bernini’s spectacle wrote in his 1644 diary: “Bernini…gave a public opera wherein he painted the scenes, cut the statues, invented the engines, composed the music, write the comedy, and built the theatre.”

Although none of his stage designs have survived, you can appreciate the theatricality of Bernini’s work in the Elephant Obelisk in front of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Notice how the elephant is smiling and looking back, with its tail slightly to the side, as if about to, well, leave a “gift” for someone behind it? This was apparently done on purpose: its hind end faces a nearby Dominican monastery that was the home of one of Bernini’s rivals for the commission. When he came up with the elephant, the rival claimed it would never support the weight of the obelisk and so the design was modified with a “saddlecloth” that hide a large stone support block. Bernini thought it ruined the awe that he had hoped to inspire with the design. In retribution, he oriented the defecating elephant’s business end towards the monastery.

The creator of the most risqué religious sculptures in Christendom.

The Ecstacy of Saint Teresa was a clear departure from the religious art of the past, but once critics overcame their shock, the sculpture came to be widely regarded as an exceptional depiction and work of art. Photo by Napoleon Vier

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa was a clear departure from the religious art of the past, but once critics overcame their shock, the sculpture came to be widely regarded as an exceptional depiction and work of art. | Photo by Napoleon Vier

Bernini pushed the humanistic and emotive style of Baroque art to the extreme, shocking common people and connoisseurs alike. His art was sensual, extraordinarily lifelike, and scandalous compared to the Classical or Renaissance styles that hewed to strict rules about how religious figures could and should be depicted.

Bernini’s masterpiece, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is the culmination of this sensuous-to-the-point-of-blasphemy style. Located in the Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, it depicts an angel thrusting a spear into Saint Teresa’s breast, bringing the swooning, rapturous saint into the clouds in a scene of ecstasy…ahem, religious ecstasy, that is. Nothing erotic to see here, no siree.

The statue is illuminated with golden sunbursts and natural lighting from hidden windows that remind the viewer, once again, of Bernini’s love of theater and stage design. Perhaps even more shocking than the Saint’s clear physical ecstasy are the carved statues of Cornaro family members watching, as if in a theater. But then, they did commission the work.

Despite, or perhaps because of its obviously sexual tones, the scene is now one of the most celebrated religious sculptures in Rome, if not the world. It is so striking, in fact, that the sculpture persuaded even the most hard-line skeptics of Bernini during  his time to concede that he was a unique talent in the Western world.

Do you have a favorite Bernini sculpture that we’ve left out or are you curious to see more of his works in Rome? Let us know in the comments.

by Gina Mussio

View more by Gina ›

Follow us

Stay up to date with travel tips, local insights and all things Italy on our social channels!

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Get curated Italy travel tips delivered to your inbox!

Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now