Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Naples, December 7, 1598-Rome, November 28, 1680) was an Italian sculptor, architect, and painter. He worked primarily in Rome and is considered the foremost sculptor of his generation, creator of the Baroque sculptural style.

Bernini possessed the ability to create highly dramatic narrative scenes in his sculptures, to capture intense psychological states and also to compose sculptural ensembles that convey magnificent grandeur.

His skill in sculpting marble led to his being considered a worthy successor to Michelangelo, far above his contemporaries and especially his great rivals, Alessandro Algardi and Francesco Borromini. His talent extended beyond sculpture and he was able to brilliantly synthesize sculpture with painting and architecture into a coherent conceptual and visual whole.

A deeply religious man who placed his art at the service of the Counter-Reformation, Bernini employed light as a prominent metaphorical device that completes his works, sometimes with invisible points of illumination that intensify the focus of religious worship6 or amplify the drama of the sculptural narrative.

Bernini was also one of the finest architects of the Roman Baroque, along with his contemporaries Francesco Borromini and Pietro da Cortona. Early in their careers, they all worked on the Palazzo Barberini, but later competed for commissions for major works and developed a fierce rivalry, particularly Bernini and Borromini.

Despite the undisputed quality of Borromini and Da Cortona, Bernini enjoyed the favor of Popes Urban VIII (1623-44) and Alexander VII (1655-65) and thus secured the most important project in the Rome of his time, the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica. The design of St. Peter's Square that opens before the basilica is one of his most innovative and praised architectural projects.

During his extensive career, Bernini received numerous commissions of great importance, several of them from the papacy. At an early age he attracted the attention of Cardinal Nepote Scipione Caffarelli Borghese, nephew of the Pope, and in 1621, at the age of 23, he was knighted by Pope Gregory XV.

He carried out the most outstanding works during the pontificate of Urban VIII and although he did not have as much preeminence during Innocent X, he again enjoyed the favor of the pontiffs Alexander VII and Clement IX.

The reputation of Bernini's legacy diminished during Neoclassicism, which despised Baroque art. It was not until the 19th century that, during the search for an understanding of the context in which Bernini worked, his artistic achievements were recognized and his reputation restored. In the opinion of art historian Howard Hibbard, during the 17th century "there were no sculptors or architects comparable to Bernini".

Origins and apprenticeship of Bernini

Bernini was born in 1598 in Naples, the hometown of his mother, Angelica Galante. His father was the sculptor Pietro Bernini, born in Tuscany, in the town of Sesto Fiorentino, who had moved to Naples to work on the works of the Charterhouse of St. Martin.

In the city he met Angelica Galante, whom he married. When Gian Lorenzo was six years old, the family moved to Rome, where Pietro worked under the protection of Cardinal Scipione Caffarelli-Borghese, to whom Gian Lorenzo's precocious talent was shown.

The Rome of the early seventeenth century was a city of exceptional artistic fervor, innovative and revolutionary, which welcomed artists from all over Europe in a continuous confrontation of ideas and artistic experiences. In this environment worked masters such as Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci or Peter Paul Rubens, who opened the path of the Baroque.

He received his first teachings from his father, the Mannerist sculptor Pietro, whose influence would be noticed in the first works of Gian Lorenzo. At his side the young Bernini would learn the organization of a collective workshop (in the future he would direct many) and the internal fusion of an architectural project with iconography, sculpture and painting.

Pietro Bernini settled in Rome in 1605 to work on Paul V's works. He realized, among others, the relief of The Assumption of the Virgin in the baptistery of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. He also participated in the construction of the Pauline Chapel, designed by Flaminio Ponzio to house the tombs of Popes Paul V and Clement VIII.

Bernini's First works and consecration

Bernini's works revealed his enormous talent from the very beginning. In his first stylistic phase, Bernini showed an interest and absolute respect for Hellenistic sculpture, in works that perfectly imitated the ancient style.

The Angel with the dragon and the Faun entertained by cupids belong to this period. On the other hand, works created alone by Gian Lorenzo are The Amalthean Goat in 1615, and the two bust portraits of Santoni and Giovani Vigevano for two churches.

Between 1621 and 1625 Bernini created four works that would consecrate him as a master of sculpture and make him famous. These were the four Borghesian Groups, four sculptural groups based on mythological and biblical themes commissioned by Cardinal Borghese.

The works in question were Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius, based on the Aeneid, the Rape of Proserpina, the David and Apollo and Daphne. They are monumental works that would mark a new direction in Bernini's career. All four remain today in the Borghese Gallery in Rome.

Bernini's The protection of the popes

During his lifetime, Bernini enjoyed the favor and protection of seven popes, for whom he produced numerous works. However, he was commissioned by three of them.

The Barberini papacy

1623 was a crucial year for the fate of Rome, also from an artistic point of view. Maffeo Barberini was elected pope under the name of Urban VIII, an ambitious pontiff, a lover of the arts and a great admirer of Bernini, to whom he gave the position of the architect of God.

He considered him the ideal artist to carry out his urban and architectural projects, to give form and expression to the will of the Church to represent itself with triumphant force, through spectacular works, with a strong communicative, persuasive and celebratory character.

Bernini's first commission was, in 1623, the statue of Saint Bibiana, in the Church of Santa Bibiana in Rome, which included the façade project and a statue of the saint in a moment of ecstasy. Here there is a turn towards greater expressiveness, with accentuated effects of chiaroscuro, in dialogue with the painting of Pietro da Cortona, another protagonist of the Roman Baroque.

Urban VIII's artistic association with his favorite artist would culminate in St. Peter's Basilica: the basilica built on the site of the martyrdom of the apostle St. Peter, which would represent the rebirth of the Church and its moral and spiritual revival after the crisis of the previous century.

The pope wanted the new altar to be covered by a huge bronze baldachin, built between 1624 and 1633, and crowned with the Barberian emblem. It rests on four gigantic Solomonic columns, ending in volutes and naturalistic clusters. It was inspired by temporary baldachins used during Lent or other festivities, but this time permanently cast in bronze.

In 1627 began the construction of the Mausoleum of Urban VIII, completed several years late. It was placed in a symmetrical position with respect to that of Paul III, the pope of the Council of Trent, where he initiated the reform that the current pope claimed to have concluded.

It is inspired by Michelangelo's Medici Tomb, with the statue of the pope on top. The major innovation is that death is represented as a skeleton that honors the figure of the pope.

In 1630 work began on Palazzo Barberini, begun by Carlo Maderno. He counted on the collaboration of Francesco Borromini, who would soon become his rival.

Innocent X

In 1644 the papacy of Innocent X began, much more austere due to the economic crisis of the Papal States after the Treaty of Westphalia. That same year he suffered the demolition of the bell tower of the façade of St. Peter's Basilica due to stability problems. His detractors accused him of technical incompetence, while the pope gave him his support. He would also coincide with the rise of rival artists such as Francesco Borromini and Carlo Rainaldi.

In these years he would make one of his masterpieces, the Ecstasy of St. Teresa. He also created the famous Fountain of the Four Rivers, in Piazza Navona in Rome, and the sculpture The Truth, now in the Borghese Gallery.

Alexander VII

With the election of Fabio Chigi as Alexander VII in 1655, there was once again a humanist pope, who, like Maffeo Barberini 30 years earlier, surrounded himself with architects for the execution of ambitious urban projects, such as the redevelopment of the Piazza del Popolo.

In St. Peter's the interior decoration ends with the spectacular Cathedra of St. Peter, located at the back of the apse, a reliquary containing the early Christian cathedra. Supported by statues of the Fathers of the Catholic Church, as a symbol of wisdom and papal authority. The dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit.

Outside, an elliptical colonnade is built, a space dedicated to public religious ceremonies, which represents the embrace of the church to all the people. The work on St. Peter's culminated with the Scala Regia, the official entrance to the apostolic palace, using a fugated colonnade that, flanking the staircase, corrects the irregularity of the wall and creates the visual illusion of a larger staircase.

He built two churches for the Chigi family: the collegiate church of Ariccia and that of Castel Gandolfo. He also built the Church of Sant'Andrea on the Quirinal, commissioned by Camillo Pamphili, a small elliptical church with the entrance on the minor axis and an oculus in the center.

Bernini was already an artist of international fame, and in 1664 the minister Colbert, during the reign of Louis XIV, convinced the pope to give him his favorite artist. Thus, in 1665 Bernini left for France, with the commission to restructure the Louvre Palace.

He was received like a prince, but the French experience lasted only six months. His style was not to the liking of the French commissioners, who preferred to entrust the work to Claude Perrault. He did, however, produce an Equestrian Portrait of Louis XIV.

One of the last great works commissioned by Alexander VII, was the sculpture of the Sepulcher of Alexander VII, a meditative and intimate monument that represents Alexander VII, kneeling and humble, harassed by Death, a figure that shows him an hourglass, a reminder that someday time will end. It contains four allegorical figures: Charity, Truth, Prudence and Justice.

Work of Bernini

The portrait

Throughout his life he painted numerous portraits of popes, kings and nobles, which brought him fame and wealth. He used to portray them heroically, enhancing their expression and magnificence. He himself confessed that he was inspired by Raphael.


The basis of Bernini's artistic training was the study of the Greco-Roman tradition. His restorations reveal a taste for precision, for the original interpretation of Hellenism and respect for the integrity of the work, as in the Hermaphroditus. In the restoration of Ares Ludovidisi in 1627, Bernini's intervention can be perfectly appreciated by the different color and treatment of the marble.

Bernini's Architecture

He is the most representative architect of the Italian Baroque. His characteristics as a baroque architect were:

  • To give much importance to the decorative, both inside and outside.
  • The constructive elements (columns, pilasters, etc.) are multiplied, but with decorative function, being its only purpose to give architectural rhythm.
  • Pediments, entablatures, etc. are broken, curves are blended with straight lines, always looking for dynamic pressures.
  • In churches, he prefers centralized plans, mainly the oval plan (small churches).
  • St. Peter's Square
  • Church of Sant'Andrea in the Quirinale
  • The Cornaro Chapel
  • Chapel of the Marquis Raimondi in San Pietro in Montorio, Rome
  • Collegiate Church of Ariccia
  • Church of St. Thomas of Villanova (Ariccia)
  • Montecitorio Palace
  • Chigi Odescalchi Palace
  • Scala Regia of the Vatican

Bernini in Monuments

Bernini's art was based on architecture, sculpture and urbanism, which merged in the theater. Bernini was a highly appreciated scenographer, he used all available resources to surprise the public with illusionistic effects, later reused in his architecture. This can be seen in monumental sets that combine sculpted figures, placed in an architectural setting.

  • St. Peter's Baldachin (1624) - Bronze, partly gilded, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
  • Sepulchre of Urban VIII (1627-1647) - Gilded bronze and marble, larger than life-size figures, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City.
  • Sepulchre of Alexander VI
  • Chair of St. Peter
  • Elephant Obeliscoforo (1667-1669) - Marble, Piazza Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome
  • Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo
  • Cornaro Chapel
  • Altar of the Blessed Sacrament
  • Raimondi Chapel
  • Fountain of the Four Rivers (1648-1651) - Travertine and marble, Piazza Navona, Rome (of which a mutilated bronze model is preserved in the Royal Palace of Madrid)
  • Fountain of the Barcaccia
  • Fountain of the Triton

Sculptures of Bernini


In his early works Bernini faithfully respected the classical canons, while at the same time the mannerist influence of his father could be observed. However, his style shows an evolution in the four Borghesian groups, where the artist's creativity appears strongly.

In these compositions the artist captures the climax of the drama, showing the grace and expression of the characters. But above all, what is fascinating about these works is the virtuosity, the naturalness, the effect of materiality and chiaroscuro.

On the other hand, the relationship of the sculptures with the surrounding space is novel, since they are conceived to be observed from a certain point, not to be surrounded and seen from any angle.

As an example of his mastery with stone, during the work on the bust of Scipione Borghese, a defect appeared in the marble. Borghese agreed not to pose for several days, unaware that in that time he would sculpt an identical bust from scratch.

  • St. Lawrence of the Reticule (Martyrdom of St. Lawrence) (1614-1615) - Marble, 66 x 108 cm, Contini Bonacossi Collection, Florence
  • The Amalthean Goat (1615) - Marble, Galleria Borghese, Rome
  • Saint Sebastian (ca. 1617) - Marble, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid (deposit of the Omicron Society)
  • Bust of Pope Paul V - Marble, height 79 cm, Galleria Borghese, Rome
  • Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius (1618-1619) - Marble, height 220 cm, Galleria Borghese, Rome
  • Anima Dannata (1619) - Marble, Spanish Embassy to the Holy See, Palazzo di Spagna, Rome
  • Anima Beata (1619) - Marble, Spanish Embassy to the Holy See, Palazzo di Spagna, Rome
  • Rape of Proserpina (1621-1622) - Marble, height 295 cm, Galleria Borghese, Rome
  • Apollo and Daphne (1622-1625) - Marble, height 243 cm, Galleria Borghese, Rome
  • David (1623-1624) - Marble, height 170 cm, Galleria Borghese, Rome
  • St. Longinus (1631-1638) - Marble, height 450 cm, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
  • Bust of Scipione Borghese (1632) - Marble, height 78 cm, Galleria Borghese, Rome
  • Bust of Costanza Bonarelli (ca. 1635) - Marble, height 70 cm, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence
  • Bust of Cardinal Richelieu (1640-1641) - Marble, Louvre Museum, Paris
  • The Truth (1645-1652) - Marble, height 280 cm, Galleria Borghese, Rome
  • Ecstasy of Saint Theresa (model) - Terracotta, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
  • Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1647-1652) - Marble, Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome
  • Daniel and the lion (1650) - Marble, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome
  • Bust of Francesco I d'Este (1650-1651) - Marble, height 107 cm, Galleria Estense, Modena
  • Constantine (1654-1670) - Marble, Pontifical Palaces, Vatican City
  • Christ on the Cross (1654) - Gilded bronze and wood, Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid
  • Habakkuk and the angel (1655) - Terracotta, height 52 cm, Museo Sacro, Vatican Museums, Vatican City
  • Bust of Louis XIV (1665) - Marble, height 80 cm, Musée National de Versailles, Versailles
  • Angel with the crown of thorns (1667-1669) - Marble, larger than life size, Sant'Andrea delle Fratte, Rome
  • Bust of Gabriele Fonseca (1668-1675) - Marble, larger than life size, San Lorenzo in Lucina, Rome
  • Louis XIV on Horseback (1669-1670) - Terracotta, height 76 cm, Galleria Borghese, Rome
  • Ecstasy of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni (1671-1674) - Marble, Altieri-Albertoni chapel, San Francesco a Ripa, Rome

Museums that house Bernini works

  • Borghese Gallery in Rome
  • Uffizi Gallery in Florence
  • Louvre Museum
  • National Gallery of London
  • National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh
  • Victoria and Albert Museum
  • Kunsthalle of Hamburg
  • Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Madrid
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
  • Palazzo Doria-Pamphili, Rome
  • Prado Museum, Madrid (self-portrait)
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