Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Bernini, Giovanni Lorenzo


Born Dec. 7, 1598, in Naples; died Nov. 12, 1680, in Rome. Italian architect and sculptor. Studied with his father, the sculptor Pietro Bernini.

In the architecture and sculpture of Bernini, the greatest master of baroque in Rome and all of Italy, the main principles of that style are clearly realized: heightened emotionality, theatricality, the active conflict of space and mass, and the combination of religious affectation with pronounced sensuality. Bernini resolved with great mastery the problem of synthesis of the plastic arts on a broad scale. In the creation of his interiors, which are magnificently decorated with sculpture (for example, the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica and the throne of St. Peter in the apse, 1657–66), as well as of his independent pieces of sculpture, Bernini picturesquely combined various materials (white and colored marble, bronze, and stucco) and made use of coloring, gilding, and luminous effects. Slips of light patches and the contrasting play of light and shadow create a feeling of nervous elevation. Under the influence of space, the sculptural forms take on a pictorial fluidity, and in some cases they possess their own exaggerated dynamic, restlessly escaping into space. By masterfully working and polishing marble, Bernini attained almost naturalistic effects, such as imitations of the sheen and softness of skin, or the texture of cloth. Sensuality and spirituality are frequently blended in Bernini’s works, turning into mystical exaltation (The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, marble, 1644–52, in the Cornaro Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome).

Beginning his sculptural career with statues and two-figure compositions (David, marble, 1623; andApollo and Daphne, marble, 1622–25, in the Museum and Gallery Borghese, Rome), Bernini later appeared as a master of the sculptural portrait, sharply revealing the individuality of the model and creating a psychologically complex image in its changeability and formation (bust of Scipione Borghese, marble, 1632, in the Museum and Gallery Borghese; and bust of Costanza Buonarelli, marble, around 1635, in the National Museum, Florence). Outward pathos and impressiveness gradually became stronger in Bernini’s portraits, leading to the formation of the final type of baroque gala portrait, with its bravura and magnificence (Bernini’s portrait of Louis XIV, executed in 1665 at the time of a journey in France, marble, in the National Museum in Versailles). Bernini also created the archetype of the baroque sepulcher with a mass of allegorical figures (the sepulcher of Pope Urban VIII in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, bronze and colored marble, 1639–46).

Bernini began his architectural career (building only in Rome) with the creation of the canopy with twisted columns in St. Peter’s Basilica (bronze, 1624–33). The characteristics of his style appeared in full in the 1650’s and 1660’s. Plasticity, dynamism, and a distinctive illusionism give Bernini’s architecture solemnity and grandeur. His most important work is the immense complex of St. Peter’s Square (1657–63). The oval square with its two fountains and an obelisk is embraced by mighty four-row colonnades which masterfully organize the space; in front of the church it turns into a huge atrium, to which a long ceremonial stairway leads. The rectilinear sections of the colonnades adjoining the church at an acute angle create an effect of visual augmentation of the facade’s height when the church is viewed from afar. The dynamic form of the oval and the uninterrupted changeability of the curvature are also the main motif in the composition of the church of Saint Andrea al Quirinale (1653–58), where the facade and the interior are built in a contraposition of convex and concave forms; their antagonism creates a general impression of a tense balance of all parts of the building and the architectural image as a whole. Bernini often resorted to optical illusion. (For example, the columns of the ceremonial staircase Scala Regia in the Vatican, 1663–66, gradually diminish, in order to extol visually the figure of the pope at the moment of his appearance on the upper landing.) Bernini played an important role in the creation of the architectural appearance of Rome, for example, in decorative-functional fountains such as Triton in the Piazza Barberini, 1637, and Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona, 1648–51. Bernini’s work, which struck his contemporaries with the grandioseness of the conceptions and the boldness of their realization, exercised a great influence on all European art of the 17th and 18th centuries.


Livshits, N. A. Bernini. Moscow, 1957.
Arkin, D. “Berniniskul’ptor.” In Obrazy skul’ptury. Moscow, 1961.
Pane, R. Bernini architetto. Venice, 1953.
Wittkower, R. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the Sculptor of the Roman Baroque. London, 1955.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.