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Bernini: His Life and His Rome by Franco Mormando

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This is not just a biography of an artist. It is the story of a city and a time – of Rome in the Baroque.  It is the story of Rome and glimpse into the culture and events of the fascinating period that give the book its particular power.

As a biography alone, the book would falter. The author makes it clear that there are frustratingly few sources about the more intimate details of Bernini’s life. Of these, one was a biography sponsored by the family and another written by Bernini’s son Domenico, both of which naturally try to mythologize Bernini and take out all the fascinating and scandalous bits. Mormando puts those parts back in and strives for an honest vision of the artist’s character.

 

Pursuing a scholarly narrative track, Mormando sketches out what is known and what is claimed, offering opinions on which part of the early biographies are reliable and which he believes are exaggeration. Such an approach may hinder the storytelling aspect, but in the end makes the work more interesting as well as trustworthy.  It is definitely refreshing to have to author make it clear which parts are his own conjectures.

There may be few truly intimate details available, but the glimpses into Bernini’s character do not disappoint. A man who would rage at any who would question his designs and use dirty tricks to get commissions, but was never satisfied with any of the end results. A man who was a master of dissimulation and empty flattery, but when he went to France was so miserable that he complained nonstop, apparently unable to keep up the proper behavior in his homesickness.

Bernini lived to a rather impressive old age – and so this biography of the man and the times follows the rise and fall of the Baroque period. One gets a sense of how this artwork we treasure came at great expense to the common people through a series of popes obsessed with self-aggrandizement and putting a glorious face on the counter-reformation.  We see how the papacy was used to enrich particular families and all the political scheming of the time. Machiavelli’s The Prince suddenly seems a lot more real. Bernini was very much a master of the game. At the end of Bernini’s life, we see the fading of the Baroque, as the Vatican must suddenly deal with the consequences of excessive spending and an impoverished, angry, and often starving populace – as well as shifting power relations throughout Europe.

This book can be a challenge in its organization. This isn’t such a bad thing, if you’re willing to allow yourself to get swept up on it and follow along as it weaves back in forth, jumps around in time and recalls different people to you just when you’ve forgotten them. In a way, it’s appropriate: it’s like walking the streets of Rome, or trying to describe the feeling inspired by a Bernini masterpiece. But like walking the streets of Rome, it’s kind of impossible to look back and figure out where you’ve been.

Although the book follows a mostly chronological track, there is a lot of jumping back and forth as the author delves deeper into particular topics. There are also, of course, a lot of characters to keep track of, both friends and enemies. This is not a light biography, not an “edge of the seat” storytelling of Bernini’s life. It is much more, but for that reason it requires more attention. And maybe a chart of different characters and their relations. Though that would probably get pretty messy.

My biggest regret regarding this book? Not being in Rome while reading this. How lovely it would be to read about all these works and be able to walk out and see them. Even the best photos of the most easily photographed pieces can’t nearly complete with being there in person. In fact, the whole section “Bernini and Alexander” would be wonderful to read while sitting by a fountain in Piazza del Popolo, taking periodic breaks to look at the works as they come up. This is, after all, the story of the city as much as it is the story of the man.

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