Western Art History Survey II
Dr. Rod Miller
18 April 2012
A Classical Story, a Baroque Interpretation, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini
When told his son would surpass him in artistic brilliance, Pietro Bernini of Florence simply responded, “…remember, that in this game the loser wins” (Fagiolo 9). A conversation held in the distant past, there was no way for Pietro to know that his son, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, would come to be known as one of the most talented artists the world has ever seen. Fully immersed in the art world at a young age, Gian Lorenzo Bernini catapulted to artistic prominence soon after his initial commissions within the papacy. One of his earliest works, Bernini’s sculpture of Pluto and Proserpina not only illuminates Bernini’s astonishing skill in marble craft, but also serves as a perfect manifestation of Baroque ideals while simultaneously solidifying Bernini as a key artist of the Baroque art period which began its sweep across Europe during his lifetime.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born on December 7th, 1598, in the city of Naples, Italy (Fagiolo 3). His father, Pietro Bernini, was a gifted Florentine sculptor who moved his family to Rome in 1606, the city in which Bernini would live until his death (Fagiolo 3.) In his youth, Bernini spent a great majority of his time and training in his father’s workshop; it was here that Pietro taught his son “to exercise hand and eye continually in his craft” (Fagiolo 3). After moving to Rome, his father worked for several years in the service of the Borghese Pope Paul V (Wittkower 3). Through his father’s fortunate connection with the papacy, the young and extremely gifted Gian Lorenzo caught the eye of the Pope and his nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese (Wittkower 3). This initial discovery launched Bernini into his lifelong successful artistic career. From 1618 onwards, Bernini was consistently employed, creating incredible and awe-inspiring artworks in the city of Rome: “For more than half a century he was sculptor-architect to eight popes, all of them…so respectful of Bernini’s genius that they gave him the richest commissions any artist has ever received” (Wallace 10). Following years of countless commissions—including what some might call his most prominent and well known, the architectural design of St. Peter’s Square outside of the Vatican—Bernini died on November 28th, 1680 at the age of 81, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy which is still pertinent in present day Italy: “…only the Romans had a greater influence on Rome than Gianlorenzo Bernini” (Bent).
The story behind Bernini’s Pluto and Proserpina stakes its origins in ancient Greek mythology. Copied from the Greeks by the Romans, “The Rape of Persephone”—daughter of the Greek goddess of the harvest, Demeter—was written in order to explain the forming of the four earthly seasons: fall, summer, spring, and winter (Fairbanks 176-178). In the story, Persephone is in a meadow, picking flowers as she walks, when she spies a narcissus flower that is “finer than the rest” (Fairbanks 178). As she stoops to claim it for her bouquet, the ground opens up and Hades, god of the dead, on his ghastly chariot, abducts Persephone and drags her to the underworld against her will (Fairbanks 178). Demeter, who discovers her daughter’s fate from Apollo, pleads with Zeus to return Persephone to her. (Fairbanks 179). To Demeter’s dismay, Persephone had ignorantly eaten pomegranate seeds of the underworld, and was therefore obliged to remain with Hades (Fairbanks 179). However, an agreement was made in which Persephone may spend half of a year in the underworld with her king, and the other half on Earth with her mother (Fairbanks 179). In the spring, when Persephone returns to the earthly realm, Demeter causes the flowers to grow in order to welcome her daughter home (Fairbanks 179). When Persephone must return to the underworld, Demeter mourns her daughter’s leaving, causing the leaves to wither and fall...