A precocious talent, amazing relational skills, and fervent faith are just some of the characteristics of one of the most influential artists in the history of art: Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Born in Naples in 1598, he reached Rome while still a child to follow his father, Pietro, who was working in the Pauline Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica.
In some ways, we could say that Rome radically changes the life of every artist once in the city: for Gian Lorenzo Bernini, it was the opposite! The activity of this Baroque master has revolutionized the face of the city: in almost every neighborhood, church, or corner of Rome, you can easily find a masterpiece by Bernini and his workshop. Hence, the city of Rome is the ideal place to discover an exceptional and all-round artist, as skilled as Michelangelo in all three arts, as well as in the urban and scenographic field.
An itinerary following the footsteps of Gian Lorenzo Bernini is an opportunity to admire the eternal city from new points of view and to get to know the artist as a universal man.
You will visit places such as the Church of Santa Bibiana (1624), housing the first Berninian sculptural work of religious subject: a statue of the saint. Or the beautiful Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, a place of modest dimensions, but rich in art and beauty. Here, you can admire one of his most loved works, the Ecstasy of Santa Teresa d'Avila (1647-52) which, as Filippo Baldinucci states: “Bernino himself used to say [...] to have been the most beautiful work that came out of his hands". In it, baroque taste, theatricality, colorism, light, and mysticism combine with sublime craftsmanship.
Not very far from here, proceeding on via XX Settembre and arriving on top of the Quirinale Hill, you can visit Sant’Andrea al Quirinale (1658-70), one of the most beautiful Berninian churches. Don't miss the wonderful sacristy, also designed by Bernini and frescoed by Jean La Brode.
Other examples of his extraordinary artistic and technical ability are in one of the most beautiful museums in the city, the Galleria Nazionale of Palazzo Barberini. Here, in some rooms of the palace, you can find many of his works and the monumental square trumpet staircase, also the result of his genius.
A stop at the museum will also be the perfect opportunity to understand the subtle confrontation between Bernini and his rival, Francesco Borromini. Not far away, in one of the most famous Roman squares, Piazza Barberini, the Triton Fountain (1642-43) stands majestically, a masterful example of his immense creativity and sculptural ability.
But if you want to know the Bernini sculptor, you cannot miss the next stop: the Borghese Gallery! One of the most beloved in the world, this museum preserves some of his most famous sculptures, such as his very first one, the Goat Amaltea (1615), Apollo and Daphne (1622-25), the Rape of Proserpina (1622).
In Piazza del Popolo, you will be able to admire his Baroque restoration of the ancient Church of Santa Maria del Popolo.
In via della Mercede, a few steps from Piazza di Spagna and the famous Barcaccia (1629), you can see the residence of our well-known baroque genius. But the wonders of our itinerary do not end there.
In a small square behind the Pantheon, you can appreciate Bernini's Elephantine (1667), called by the Romans the Minerva’s Chick for its small body size. A bizarre anecdote is linked to the obelisk surmounting it; a story tells that Bernini's design aroused many controversies from the Dominican friars, at the time of its execution. It is said that the artist then decided to mock the friars by positioning the rear side of the animal towards the entrance of the convent and moving its tail to the side, to better underline the burlesque gesture!
You cannot miss a visit to the suggestive Piazza Navona! At the center of this ancient square stands the Fountain of the Four Rivers (1648-51), the most beautiful one by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. In the middle of its vast basin, there is a cliff with caves. A lion and some fantastic creatures come out from them to drink in the pool. On the cliff, the personifications of the Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio de la Plata rivers, symbols of the four continents then known.
We now move to Vatican City, by crossing Sant'Angelo Bridge. Here, the famous angels rise on the high pedestals by Gian Lorenzo's pupils. The first two were by the master himself and are today preserved in the Church of Sant'Andrea delle Fratte. Once you reach Saint Peter's Square, you will be inevitably surprised in front of its magnificence. It is an immense oval space surrounded by the famous Colonnade (1656-67) of 284 columns, on 4 rows. According to Bernini, they symbolized the maternal arms of the Church "that welcome Catholics to reinforce their faith, heretics to reunite them with the Church, and agnostics to illuminate them in true faith". Not to be missed is the perspective play of the colonnade. If you place yourself on one of the two iron discs on the square, the four rows seem to converge into one.
The visit to Saint Peter's Basilica is a must. Here, in addition to the papal funeral masterpieces by Bernini and his workshop, you can admire the colossal Baldacchino (canopy) created in 1634, and the spectacular Chair of Saint Peter (1666), where the three arts merge in spectacular lighting effects, especially when the sun sets behind the apse.
Our itinerary ends in the Basilica of San Sebastiano outside the walls. Here, you can admire Bernini's favorite creation: the Salvator Mundi (1679), considered the Baroque genius's last masterpiece.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini died in Rome on 28 November 1680. However, we cannot find the greatness, the exaggeration, and the grandiose theatricality of his works in his humble burial, located on the right step of the altar in the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica.
To remember him and his family, an inscription, carved on the simple tomb-slab, says: "The noble Bernini family here awaits resurrection".
With the collaboration of the volunteers of the 2020 National Civil Service Project "Roma ti Accoglie".
The Church Of Santa Bibiana
In 1624, on the occasion of the incoming Jubilee, Pope Urban VIII commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini with the restoration of the facade of the church. This work marks the artist's first experience in the architectural field, through which he reinterprets the spaces and geometries of this ancient paleochristian building.
In addition to the restoration, the artist creates his first religious statue.
The saint is depicted after her martyrdom by flagellation. According to tradition, it took place on the red column near the entrance to the church. Noteworthy is the particular attention to details with which Bernini executes the delicate drapery wrapping the saint.
Did you know? The church was restored after the miraculous discovery of the body of the Saint, in 1624.
The Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria - Ecstasy of Santa Teresa d’Avila
The church of Santa Maria della Vittoria is a real treasure casket of sculptural and pictorial works by great artists, such as the altarpieces by Domenichino and Guercino. But the real pearl is the chapel created for Cardinal Federico Cornaro, where you can find the statue depicting the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa of Avila by Bernini. With sublime mastery, the sculptor gives life and represents the divine ecstasy of the saint that, as she says in her autobiography, is "such a sweet idyll that takes place between the soul and God".
The final effect is that the light diffuses and radiates as if guided by metallic rays on the background of the chapel.
Did you know? Initially, the church, built for the Discalced Carmelites between 1608 and 1620, was dedicated to Saint Paul. On the occasion of the temporary victory of the Catholics over the Protestants, in the battle of the White Mountain during the Thirty Years War, it was renamed in honor of the Virgin.
The Church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale
It was only in the Sixties of the 17th century that Bernini could show his talent as a designer of churches. Among these, the most important is Sant'Andrea al Quirinale (1658-70). Bernini conceived it as an elliptical-based space surmounted by a coffered dome. The artist wanted to present this place as a manifestation of a miraculous event: the ascent to Heaven of Saint Andrew, depicted in the altarpiece after his martyrdom.
The sacristy designed by Bernini himself and frescoed by Jean La Brode is also adjacent to the church.
The Galleria Nazionale of Palazzo Barberini
Erected in 1625 as the residence of the Barberini papal family, it was conceived as a real urban villa by three skilled architects: Maderno, Bernini, and Borromini. After Maderno's death, Bernini built some of the internal rooms, like the loggia with the portico, the large squared staircase matching the Borrominian spiral one.
In the palace, now home to the Galleria Nazionale of Palazzo Barberini, you can also admire other Bernini masterpieces; sculptural works such as the busts of Antonio Barberini, Urbano VIII, and Clemente X, and two paintings: Urbano VIII's portrait and David with the head of Goliath.
The Triton Fountain
In the middle of Piazza Barberini, you can discover the Triton Fountain, commissioned to Bernini by Pope Urban VIII in 1642-43. Supplied by the water of the Felice Aqueduct, this fountain has a fairytale atmosphere and wants to represent the marine world. Inside its large basin, four dolphins bear a shell on which a mythological figure, the triton, is placed while playing the shell of a murex. The three bees are the Barberini family's emblem.
The Fountain of the Bees
Not far from the Triton Fountain, you can see the Fountain of the Bees, also commissioned by Pope Barberini, as stated by the writing on its shell. The fountain consists of two open valves with three marble bees from which water flows.
The Borghese Gallery
If you want to understand the Bernini sculptor, you cannot miss a visit to the rooms of the Borghese Gallery, where you can find his most notable works. Here, you can admire one of his earliest sculptures, the Goat Amaltea (1615), a legacy of his Hellenistic stylistic research, the various all-round sculptural groups, such as Enea, Anchises, and Ascanio (1618-19), the Rape of Proserpina (1622), Apollo and Daphne (1622-25), and David (1623), rated as the greatest examples of Bernini’s virtuosity. They masterly express the pathos of the human soul through the twisting of the bodies and the intense expressiveness on their faces.
The Borghese collection also presents other examples of Gian Lorenzo Bernini's artistic versatility, such as the two refined pictorial self-portraits, the busts of Scipione Borghese, that look alive, and a terracotta study for a Louis XIV's equestrian statue, never accomplished.
The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo - Piazza del Popolo
The restoration of the entire Santa Maria del Popolo Church is commissioned to Bernini by Cardinal Chigi, future Pope Alexander VII. To the statues of the prophets Elias and Jonah, Bernini adds that of a praying young Daniel. Of particular interest are the statues depicting the prophet Habakkuk and the Angel. The artist gives the man's face a profound expressive liveliness: he is caught unaware by the playful gesture of the heavenly messenger who grabs him from a tuft of his hair. More decorative elements attributable to Bernini include the hanging lamp, decorated with a pair of flying putti, as well as the large torchmen in which design it is easy to recognize the artist's touch. Bernini's works in the church were carried out by his pupils, who executed 8 couples of saints and martyrs, placed at the sides of the windows of the nave; the marble angels located in the altars of the transept; and, last but not least, the decorations of the monumental organ, decorated with the Chigi heraldic oak.
The Porta del Popolo
The history of the Porta del Popolo is very long and complex. It dates back to Roman times when it consisted of a single arch and was part of the Aurelian walls. To reach its present state, the Porta has undergone a transformation made of three fundamental steps: a 16th-century reconstruction wanted by Pope Pius IV, who shaped the appearance of the external facade (1562-1565); the construction of the internal facade by Bernini, under the impulse of Pope Alexander VII. As the epigraph, accompanied by the papal coat of arms of the Chigi, recalls, this intervention was carried out in honor of Cristina of Sweden's visit in 1655, following her conversion to Christianity. In 1879, the Porta was changed to its current structure: the circular towers that flanked the central arch were destroyed to make room for the two lateral arches. Did you know? Before the procession to which also Queen Christina of Sweden participated with her menagerie in tow, another procession went down in history, that of 31 December 1494, when Charles VIII showed all his military power.
The Barcaccia - Piazza di Spagna
This famous fountain is the result of the collaboration between Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his father Pietro. The Romans affectionately call it Barcaccia for its peculiar shape that recalls a semi-submerged boat. The fountain is located at the foot of the Trinità dei Monti staircase, accomplishing the scenographic achievement of Piazza di Spagna.
Did you know? It was built below the street level to allow the water flow from its sides and create water plays due to the low hydraulic pressure.
The Montecitorio Palace
Palazzo Montecitorio (1653), today the seat of the Camera dei Deputati, was commissioned by Pope Innocent X Pamphilj as a wedding gift to his nephew Camillo Ludovisi. Having to adapt it to the variable ground, Bernini designed a building with a convex polygonal front. Although it was completed by Carlo Fontana, in some details of the facade, you can still see elements recalling Bernini's Baroque creativity. The rocky spurs with leaves and twigs, coming out under the window shelves, make the building look as if it was carved in the rock.
The Elephant on Piazza della Minerva
Known as the Pulcino della Minerva, the obelisk in the homonymous square is the smallest in the whole city. It is one of the nine Egyptian obelisks revisited in baroque style, according to a project by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The baby elephant, symbolically carrying the pillar, represents the strong mind necessary to support solid wisdom, as the inscription on its base says.
Did you know? A real pachyderm, an homage to Rome by Cristina of Sweden, was used as a model for the construction of the small column-bearing elephant.
The Fountain of the Four Rivers
The majestic Fountain of the Four Rivers (1648-51) is one of the greatest Bernini’s masterpieces, a magnificent combination of architecture and sculpture. Located in the center of Piazza Navona in front of Palazzo Pamphilj, it looks like a cliff holding an obelisk, under which you can see four colossal white marble statues. These personify the four most important rivers of the continents known at the time; the Danube for Europe, the Ganges for Asia, the Rio de la Plata for the Americas, and the Nile for Africa. Each of them is identified by animal and plant elements.
Did you know? For the sculpture of the Rio de la Plata, Bernini created an animal with a lizard body and an armor. We do not know if he wanted to represent a crocodile or an armadillo; presumably, he depicted an armadillo because the Jesuit Athanasios Kircher owned an embalmed one. Bernini probably had the opportunity to see it.
Also known as Hadrianus bridge, from the name of the emperor who commissioned it, Sant'Angelo Bridge hosts the splendid angel statues by Bernini and his pupils. Divided into two groups, the ten angels stand on high pedestals, bear inscriptions from the Ancient Scriptures, and hold objects from the Passion of Christ.
Bernini himself made the one with the crown of thorns and the one with the INRI inscription. Considered too beautiful and fragile by Pope Clement IX, they were replaced with copies by Bernini's pupils and moved to the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, a few steps from the Spanish Steps.
Saint Peter’s Basilica
Saint Peter’s Basilica is a real treasure casket filled with pictorial and sculptural works of inestimable value. From an architectural point of view, the Basilica is the result of the creativity of great artists, such as Carlo Maderno, Michelangelo, and Bernini. To Bernini belongs the oval-shaped external Colonnade, consisting of 284 columns (1659) of which you cannot miss the perspective play: if you stand on one of the two iron discs on the square, the four rows of columns look superimposed and seem to converge into one.
Bernini also created the monumental Baldacchino (1634) indicating Saint Peter's tomb, the funeral monument of Urban VIII (1628), that of Alexander VII (1671-78), and the Monument to Matilde di Canossa, as well as the precious gilded bronze and lapis lazuli tabernacle of the Sacrament. His Scala Regia (1663-66), leading to the pompous Sala Regia, produces a bold perspective trick. The artist himself doubted this ingenious device when he wrote: "if he had found it written by someone else, he would not have believed it".
In the adjacent Vatican Museums, you can admire the relevant clay models for the bronze sculptures of the Chair of Saint Peter (1666). They present a remarkable quality of execution and are a testimony of Bernini and his collaborators' intervention in its realization.
The Church of San Francesco a Ripa - Beata Ludovica Albertoni
On the occasion of the beatification of the Franciscan tertiary Ludovica Albertoni, Gian Lorenzo Bernini designs the Altieri chapel. He creates a marble sculpture depicting the Ecstasy of Blessed Ludovica Albertoni (1674). The statue represents her lying on a bed, the head tilted back, and the mouth half-open. Wrapped in a soft dress with deep folds, she presses her hands on her chest. Bernini turns the moment of her death into ecstasy as if death were also a conjugation with the Divine. The skillful combination of architecture, sculpture, light, and colors is the perfect sign of Baroque aesthetics.
The Capitoline Museums - The Medusa
Belonging to the Capitoline Museums, the oldest public collection in the world, the refined marble bust of Medusa (1644-48) is one of the most particular works by Bernini. Here, he was able to capture and immobilize an action amid its development and depict it with extreme clarity. The artist portrays the classic myth of Medusa during her metamorphosis when she sees her image reflected in a mirror and turns into marble.
The Basilica of San Sebastiano Fuori Le Mura - Salvator Mundi
A particular story surrounds this bust depicting the Salvator Mundi (1679), the last work of our artist now in his eighties, left as a gift to his friend Queen Christina of Sweden. This baroque masterpiece was rediscovered by art historians only recently (2001). In one of the busts from the Albani sacristy, they recognized Bernini style in the full-bodied approach to the drapery, in the thick hair with voluminous curls on the shoulders, and in the gesture of blessing frozen in time. The work, defined by Bernini himself as his Benjamin, takes us back to a mature artist who, in the last years of his life, was devoted to religious practice.
The Church of San Tommaso Da Villanova - Castel Gandolfo
Pope Alexander VII Chigi commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini with the building of the church of San Tommaso di Villanova in Castel Gandolfo (1658 -61). He designed a central plan revisited in Baroque style on a 16th-century model. Of particular beauty is the coffered dome inspired by Brunelleschi. Thanks to an illusionistic game, it acquires a strong upward momentum. Some large relief putti and high relief medallions, placed above the windows of the drum, complete the decoration.
The Church of the Assunta in Cielo - Ariccia
According to the urban redevelopment project at the behest of Pope Alexander VII for the city of Ariccia, Bernini worked on the construction of the Church of the Assumption in Heaven (1661-1664). The particularity of this church lies in its monolithic conformation consisting of a central plan with front porch and semicircular walls embracing the cylindrical structure, which makes it very similar to the Pantheon. Bernini's choice can be explained by the pope's desire for a Marian Pantheon.
The splendor of the church is even more significant inside where on the candid cornice of the dome, putti and angels hold long stucco flower festoons by Antonio Raggi, one of Bernini's pupils.