In my mind there is a “short list” of great sculptors. In chronological order, it goes: Donatello, Michelangelo, Bernini.
There are others, of course, but these guys have the corner offices. If I were being generous, I might give an office to Rodin as well, but he would be a junior partner in the firm. Up in the penthouse, there are a couple of ancient Greek geniuses from whom these guys essentially learned everything, but we don’t know their names.
Even though Bernini didn’t get to have a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle named after him (quel dommage!), his place on my personal list is assured.
Donatello was the one who picked up the torch of of the classical Greek sculptors and made it blaze again; and Michelangelo was supremely dramatic, larger than life in more ways than one; but Bernini, ah… Bernini was the mage, the sorcerer, the Vermeer of sculpture (not a phrase I take lightly). If Vermeer was master of light and time, Bernini was master of space.
I didn’t come to that conclusion from photographs of his work. The portrayal of sculpture is one area where photographs, books and the web let us down, allowing only a glimpse at the reality of sculpture as a definition of space. You only truly experience sculpture when you physically inhabit the same space. Great sculpture reaches out, like invisible Einsteinian gravitational folds, and changes the space around it, making it alive with its presence.
Painters create by adding, stone sculptors by subtracting, taking away material that defines the space around the object. Yes, painters work with the yin and yang of space and object as well, but you generally can’t saunter around in the space of a painting.
You don’t simply look at sculpture, the way you might at a painting, immersing yourself in a scene through the portal of the picture frame, you dance with sculpture. You walk around it, first one way, then the other; you step up, you step back; you alamand left, dosey doe and bow to your partner. Great sculpture reveals itself as you change your relationship to it, modifying your view until the interrelated forms, and the space they define, are assembled complete, like a CGI model in your head.
So my take on Bernini doesn’t come from books or photographs, though I was familiar with him from those sources, but from my experiences during a trip to Rome of walking around his sculptures in the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona, The Fountain of Triton in the Piazza Barberini, and in particular, his works in the Galleria Borghese. There are four of his amazing sculptures displayed prominently in the Borghese’s galleries, but I’ll focus on one of them.
Ironically, after I’ve made so much noise about viewing sculpture from all sides, Bernini meant for Apollo and Daphne (shown in two slightly different views, above) to be seen from a particular vantage point (which you never see in photographs), as though you were coming up behind Apollo, who has been struck with Eros’ famous arrow and, enraptured with love, is pursuing the nymph Daphne. Daphne has been hit with Eros’ lesser known other arrow, causing her to despise the very thought of love, and has called upon her father, the river god, to transform her into a tree to free her from Apollo’s grasp; a transformation we are witness to in the moment Bernini has cast his own magic spell, capturing them both in gleaming marble.
Daphne’s curled tresses, streaming out behind her, are morphing at their ends into leaves, intertwined with the branches of her delicate fingers. The areas where her flesh is turning to bark also serve to remind us that she is, in reality, emerging from stone, in the sculptural equivalent of a life-like painting or drawing that fades at its edges to reveal that it is actually marks on a surface and not a person, as in Ruben’s remarkable Portrait of Isabella Brandt.
Try to keep in your mind as you gaze at Bernini’s lithe and fluid figures (and other great sculptures of this kind) that this is stone we are looking at!
Compare Bernini’s David, in dramatic motion, his face contorted with intensity (and modeled after Bernini’s own), to Donatello’s beautifully modeled but weirdly effeminate version; and to Michelangelo’s famous and monumentally heroic, but statically posed, figure.
Bernini was also a painter, draftsman and architect, and designed the dramatic piazza and colonnades of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, as well as several palaces, churches and facades for churches, altars and public fountains.
The PBS series, Power of Art, continues tonight with Bernini as it’s theme, and focuses on his amazing sculptural arrangement and painted wood construction, The Ecstasy of St. Theresa. (I’m hoping this chapter of the program focuses more on the work and less on grimacing actors.)
Video is actually a much better vehicle for examining sculpture than photography, with its ability to move around the work. Short of seeing Bernini’s work in person (The Artcyclopedia lists museums where you can do that) it’s probably the best we can do, since there unfortunately is no large repository of Quicktime VR files of great sculpture on the web that I’m aware of (but what a great idea that would be)!