Posted by: mkl325 | April 1, 2013

Bernini and Alternative Portraiture

Today I had to give a presentation on Gianlorenzo Bernini and Alternative Portraiture focusing on three articles, one by Michael Hill and two by Irving Lavin. Lavin is an author that we have read several articles from throughout the semester. I find his articles challenging, as there is not a lot of give and take within his arguments, although the information provided is extremely interesting. My difficulty comes from the tone of his work, as though he is the final word on all things Bernini. According to our professor, Lavin has in fact been the final word in the Bernini world for many years, therefore the tone is justified but it is this arrogance that sometimes overpowers the work. On the opposite side of the coin we have Michael Hill. Hill’s article references alternate arguments, outside of his own, forming a more complete understanding of Bernini’s work. While his article is short, Hill is able to show several points of view while keeping the flow of the argument sound and connected.

M. Hill, “Cardinal Dying: Bernini’s Bust of Scipione Borghese,” Australian Journal of Art 14, no. 1 (1998): 9-24

This is Bernini’s bust of Cardinal Scipione Borghese


It was made in 1632, one year before the Cardinals death at age 57. Scipione was not only the nephew of the late Pope Paul V. He was referred to as “The Delight of Rome” for his jolly manner, he was basically a Santa Clause -type figure (except for the rumors of sexual misconduct that were covered up by his uncle). There has been a lot of discussion on why Bernini depicted Borghese the way that he did, in particular, the way he depicted Borghese’s mouth.

Rudolf Wittkower gave a talk on the sculpture Bernini did of Louis XIV, and said that Bernini shows his subjects as though in a snapshot, and in the case of Borghese, about to speak. This argument quickly became seen as a fact since that lecture. It is important to realize that Bernini uses the detail of an open mouth for several purposes. Hill decides to not only show Bernini’s use of the open mouth to show divine ecstasy (such as with his St. Teresa),


sensuality (as the case of his mistress, Constanza),


and moments of prayer (Gregory XV)

Gregory XV

and wonder(Gabriele Fonesca),

BerniniGabrieleFonseca1b web

as well as discuss the previous argument of Bernini depicting Borghese with an open mouth because in real life he was having difficulty breathing. At the time that Bernini was sketching for the portrait, Borghese was one year away from his death, dealing with gout, dropsy and gall stones. His weight and no-cares lifestyle was taking its toll on his body. The idea that Borghese was in failing health is not only seen in the letters of the Cardinal’s physician but in Bernini’s original sketch for the bust, where Borghese seems run-down and weak. Hill leaves the argument open-ended, allowing either the reader to decide for themselves what Bernini’s motives were or allowing for those motives to be unknown.


The two articles by Lavin discuss Bernini’s use of Social Satire and his depictions of the soul as an individual portrait. Although these are the longer articles –  I am going to cut out a lot of interesting information as there is just too much to discuss. I think that these are worth-while articles to read if you are interested in Bernini.

I. Lavin. “Bernini and the Art of Social Satire.” In Drawings by Gianlorenzo Bernini from the Museum Der Bildenden Künnste Leipzig, German Democratic Republic, ed. I. Lavin et al. (Princeton: 1981), 27-54

This article discusses the influences on Bernini as he developed his techniques for caricatures culminating in his caricature of Pope Innocent XI in 1676.


According to Lavin Bernini took his influence from children’s drawings, graffiti, satirical prose (called a Pasquinade) and the study of physiognomics. The most interesting part of these influences is that of the Pasquinade (as the children’s drawings and graffiti are fairly self-explanatory). The Pasquinade is a tradition, begun in the early 16th century, of satire in verse or prose that is written on a piece of paper, in Latin or Italian, and attached to a fragmented ancient statue. These writings were meant to poke fun at the religious and civil leaders of Rome, for their personal foibles and the city’s ills attributed to their greed and ineptitude. As a result the writings are very bitter in tone. The sculptures are known as “talking statues”. The most famous is the sculpture known as the Pasquino, which Bernini once called his favorite ancient sculpture.


All the sculptures used in this tradition were ancient sculptures as the early Christians considered all Pagan sculptures as the work of the Devil, possessing demonic powers, such as speech.

The Caricature of Pope Innocent XI comes from the history before it, but it is different as it is a purely graphic image – as were all of Bernini’s caricatures – and it is the first satirical image that we have of someone so exalted as the Pope. Innocent XI and Bernini had a difficult relationship as the Pope not only had an open and notorious hostility towards the arts, but his prudish attitudes forced Bernini to alter some of his own work. There was certainly no love loss between the two, and as Bernini was 78 years old and at the end of his life, he was not willing to take the criticism. The caricature, therefore not only shows Innocent’s exaggerated features, but also emphasizes the well-known aspect of Innocent’s nature – that is his tendency towards seclusion and hypochondria – by showing him giving a blessing from his bed.

Here is an example of another caricature of Bernini’s – that of Cardinal Borghese, one of Bernini’s earliest patrons and a friend. There is a very distinct difference in the depiction. Although fascinating, Bernini’s caricatures were not meant to ever be published.

Cardinal Borghese

I. Lavin, “Bernini’s Portraits of No-Body,” In Past-Present: Essays on Historicism in Art from Donatello to Picasso, ed. I. Lavin (Berkeley: 1993), 101-25

This article focuses on the busts commissioned by Monsignor Pedro de Foix Montoya in 1619, with an unknown purpose, of the Anima Beata, the saved soul


 and the Anima Dannata, or damned soul.


This article focuses on the expressions of the busts and discusses them as “soul portraits”. Firstly, they are reminiscent of the comedy and tragedy masks from classical theater.


In each case, there is a play of opposites. One half of the pair is male, with his face twisted and grimacing in a shout and the other is female, in the midst of  “transmitting some lofty and portentous truth”. Lavin claims that Bernini took this influence along with the Middle Ages tradition of depicting the “Last Four Things” (death, judgment, damnation and salvation) to create the Anima Beata and the Anima Dannata. The difference from earlier depictions of damned and saved souls is that Bernini reduces the souls to a single pair (instead of the traditional group) and takes them out of their narrative context. That is to say, he only shows the reaction of each soul to the realization of their forthcoming eternity, even creating a spacial element of the present life, the look upwards to heaven and downwards to hell. In this way, the busts are very theatric and interactive with the viewer.

Lavin also claims that Bernini took some inspiration from the works of Alexander Mair, who radically reinterpreted “The Last Four Things” in 1605 by making each stage an individual moment, rather than a group experience. Below are Mair’s Death and Damnation.

Mair 1605 Mair 1605

While there is probably some merit in this claim, Bernini still differs from Mair’s work through eliminating any narrative elements and changing the medium. Bernini’s most interested in the interplay between the psychological and moral implications given through facial expressions. The busts are reacting to their fate, leaving the viewer to imagine what that fate would look like. As with his other article, Lavin crams a lot of different genres into his argument, making it a little difficult to completely pull apart. There is obviously a lot more that could be said but I think that I would go on way too long.

I leave you with this image from this last article of Lavin’s, it is by Franz Messerschmidt, and 18th Century artist, and is titled The Yawner. Lavin uses it to show how the development of extreme facial depiction continues far past Bernini. I love it. I think it is wonderfully expressive and funny at the same time. Plus, it almost makes you want to yawn yourself when looking at it, like when yawning becomes contagious when around people. I dare you to stare at this picture and not yawn!

messerschmidt yawn


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