An Elephant in Rome: Bernini, The Pope and The Making of the Eternal City
By Loyd Grossman Pallas Athene, £19.99
Loyd Grossman, presenter of Through the Keyhole and Master-Chef, writing about Bernini, the 17th-century baroque magician who could turn stone into flesh? Surely that’s like listening to Simon Cowell on Tiepolo?
Well, no. Dr Grossman, of Boston University, the LSE and Cambridge, is a scholarly figure who became a telly host rather than the other way round. And this is a scholarly yet thoroughly jolly book about the sculptor and architect who left a greater mark on Rome than anyone else in history.
The elephant in the title refers to the joyful beast, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1660), carrying an Egyptian obelisk and standing outside Santa Maria sopra Minerva, near the Parthenon. In a characteristic concetto – or conceit – the elephant sweeps aside its tail in preparation for defecation. That shocking audacity, along with his sheer skill, is what made Bernini: whether it’s Apollo’s fingers digging so deeply into Daphne’s pudgy side or her fingers miraculously turning into twigs in the Villa Borghese, or another obelisk in Piazza Navona, precariously balanced on Bernini’s figures, depicting the world’s great rivers.
In fact, it was one of Bernini’s assistants who crafted those astonishing details on the statues of Apollo and Daphne. Not because Bernini couldn’t do it himself – he was the ultimate master, and vastly superior to his sculptor father and sculptor son. But because Bernini was so frantically busy he had to delegate. Of the 10 angels on the Ponte Sant’ Angelo, only two were by him. The rest are by assistants, including his poor son, and the gulf in quality between master and acolytes is vast.
Throughout Rome, you will find Bernini’s angelic touch, most famously – and on the grandest scale – in his colonnade at St Peter’s. There, as so often, Bernini infused cold stone with human warmth. As he said: “Since the church of St Peter’s is the mother of nearly all the others, it had to have colonnades, which would show it as if stretching out its arms maternally to receive Catholics, so as to confirm them in their faith; heretics, to reunite them to the church; and infidels, to enlighten them in the true faith.”
Again and again, Bernini was ultra-flexible, not just with his nimble fingers, but in the way he adopted his projects to circumstances and difficulties. When he made a clay preparatory model for Alexander VII’s tomb, he constructed a movable head so that the composition could be adjusted. The tomb then had to be built around an existing door in St Peter’s. Bernini turned this to his advantage, converting the door to a gateway into the next world.
Grossman is an engaging guide to Bernini’s greatest hits. In between the master’s works, he points out Ditta Gammarelli, the papal tailors who sell socks in appropriate colours for bishops, cardinals and popes. There’s also a delightful tour of Rome’s 13 obelisks – more than there are in Egypt.
But this is principally a guide to Bernini’s works and the man himself. While his father was born near Florence, he was born in Naples – which explains the wild, baroque strain in Bernini’s soul.
Although of humble origins, Bernini had a way with words and a supreme confidence which allowed him to converse happily with a string of popes, notably Alexander VII, who commissioned him so often. His arrogance extended to romance, too. He cuckolded an assistant by having an affair with his wife, Costanza Bonarelli – who then had a fling with Bernini’s brother Luigi. Bernini promptly broke his brother’s ribs with an iron bar – not quite what you expect of effete sculptors.
These days, the not very nice Bernini would have been “cancelled”. But you can forgive anyone practically anything when they are capable of inducing supreme, aesthetic joy in, say, the St Teresa and the Angel in the Cornaro Chapel.
A flood of dazzling light pours down golden rods, illuminating St Teresa in supreme ecstasy. On either side, the Cornaro family lean out of their theatre-box pews, pointing and marvelling at the sight. As Bernini put it, “Ingenuity and design constitute the Magic Art by whose means you deceive the eye and make your audience gaze in wonder.”
That could stand as a pretty good definition of baroque – originally from the Portuguese barroco, meaning a misshapen pearl. Bernini never misshaped anything. But, boy, what a pearl he was.