A Drama of the Flesh: Caravaggio and Bernini

Around the beginning of the 17th century, a revolution in art, both in painting and sculpture, occurred. It was driven by two Italians, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, a sculptor, and the aspiringly-named Michelangelo Merisi detto "Il Caravaggio", a painter of incredible and subtle skill.

What links these two talents, who ushered in, not the famous periodo rinascimentale of European art but its later Baroque (17th century) period? Novelty. While the Renaissance saw a rebirth of European art, belles-lettres, humanism and scientific achivement, these were mostly the result of looking-back to classical antiquity. The Renaissance was as much about "re-discovering" the formerly attained heights of civilization as it was about rebirth. While the 1500s had seen sculptors and painters attempting to copy models of Graeco-Roman sculpture and frescoes, the year 1605 was when European art achieved fruition.

In that year, both Caravaggio (Europe's greatest painter) and Bernini (its greatest sculptor) were living in Rome, which can be described unexaggeratedly as the center of the artistic world. Together, they produced a rupture in European art.

Previous to Bernini and Caravaggio, the disciplines of sculpture and painting had mostly been rather rigid, focused on the stilted, posed formal atmosphere of Mannerist painting and attempts to copy the godlike, lifeless statues of ancient Rome and Greece. What can be seen in these two visual examples of Caravaggio and Bernini's art is a new focus on the drama of the flesh, of the centrality of the human body to the human experience--a heretofore never-seen explosion of the sensual.

Look at Bernini's marble. Look closely. It sweats, and curves, and wrinkles as no stone has a right to. Examine Caravaggio's painting, and observe how he has lovingly rendered the specter of a Christian saint probing the guts of a resurrected Christ. This is God brought onto a human level, with the dirty fingers of a fisherman in his entrails.

By focusing with such genius on photo-realistic depictions of humanity, Caravaggio and Bernini produced the first ground-breaking art in European history in nearly 18 centuries, since the Greek sculptor Phidias in the 4th century B.C. As the unimpeachable masters of their respective schools, they would also pave the way for two centuries of imitation until the backlash against artistical realism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

 

Michelangelo Merisi detto 'Il Caravaggio"

He was a painter of genius, who worked with extraordinary speed, painting directly onto canvas without even sketching out the main figures. His life was sulphurous and his paintin scandalous. Michalangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio (the name of his native village near Bergamo), was a downright villain. Other artists had had brushes with justice before him: Duccio was a drunkard and a brawler. The quarrelsome Perugio was involved in street fights, and , as a young man spent time in prison. And the sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini, accused of embezzlement, murder and sodomy, was incarcerated in the Castle Sant'Angelo. Caravaggio was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned. He confessed to the murder of an opponent at tennis whom he suspected of cheating, and he was rumoured to have committed other crimes. His powerful patrons found it increasingly difficult to extract him from the prison cells in which he so often languished. Caravaggio risked his life escaping from his last prison, on the island of Malta. The evidence suggests the he was sentenced for what we would now term paedophilia. He died, a persecuted outlaw, on a beach north of Rome, perhaps a victim of murder.His body was never found.

Caravaggio is the most mysterious and perhaps the most revolutionary painter in the history of art. In rome, thirty-four years after the death of Michelangelo, he originated a violent reaction to the Mannerism of his elders, which he regarded as constrained, mawkish and academic. He created a new language of theatrical realism, choosing his models in the streets. In every subject he selected the most dramatic instant, even for the most sacred themes, like the Death of the Virgin, which he painted, almost without precedent, as a night-scene. The primacy of nature and truth was his watchword. In painting, Caravaggio is the apotheosis of what was later called the "Baroque". The work of Caravaggio entered and exacerbated this tempestuous atmosphere. Every one of his works raised a scandal, and he made many enemies. Nicolas Poussin, who arrived in Rome shortly after Caravaggio's death, observed: "He came to destroy painting". The sockwaves produced by his work were powerful and log lasting,and his reputation did not survive them.His name was forgotten, and he had to wait three hundred years for his reputation to be vindicated."With the exception of Michelangelo, no other Italian painter exercised so great an influence", wrote the American critic Bernard Berenson, who had little time for Caravaggio and deemed him "incongruous". During his lifetime, Caravaggio was deemed unacceptably provocative, and death offered no reprive. As Berenson describes it, "any work of strong chiaroscuro presenting huge, obese and vulgar protagonists, sacrilegiously posed as Christ or the Apostles, plumed heads, hordes of men and women wearing an ignoble and drunken aspect, young scallywags playing dice or cheating" was a "Caravaggio".
 

The Ecstasy of St Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Gian Lorenzo Bernini - 7 December 1598 – 28 November 1680 was an Italian sculptor and architect. While a major figure in the world of architecture, he was the leading sculptor of his age, credited with creating the Baroque style of sculpture. As one scholar has commented, "What Dante Alighieri is to poetry, Bernini may be to sculpture: the first pan-European sculptor whose name is instantaneously identifiable with a particular manner and vision, and whose influence was inordinately powerful...."  In addition, he was a painter (mostly small canvases in oil) and a man of the theater: he wrote, directed and acted in plays (mostly Carnival satires), also designing stage sets and theatrical machinery, as well as a wide variety of decorative art objects including lamps, tables, mirrors, and even coaches. As architect and city planner, he designed both secular buildings and churches and chapels, as well as massive works combining both architecture and sculpture, especially elaborate public fountains and funerary monuments and a whole series of temporary structures (in stucco and wood) for funerals and festivals.

Bernini possessed the ability to depict dramatic narratives with characters showing intense psychological states, but also to organize large-scale sculptural works which convey a magnificent grandeur. His skill in manipulating marble ensured that he would be considered a worthy successor of Michelangelo, far outshining other sculptors of his generation, including his rivals, François Duquesnoy and Alessandro Algardi. His talent extended beyond the confines of sculpture to a consideration of the setting in which it would be situated; his ability to synthesize sculpture, painting, and architecture into a coherent conceptual and visual whole has been termed by the art historian Irving Lavin the "unity of the visual arts".  In addition, a deeply religious man,[6] working in Counter Reformation Rome, Bernini used light both as an important theatrical and metaphorical device in his religious settings, often using hidden light sources that could intensify the focus of religious worship] or enhance the dramatic moment of a sculptural narrative.

Bernini was also a leading figure in the emergence of Roman Baroque architecture along with his contemporaries, the architect Francesco Borromini and the painter and architect Pietro da Cortona. Early in their careers they had all worked at the same time at the Palazzo Barberini, initially under Carlo Maderno and, following his death, under Bernini. Later on, however, they were in competition for commissions, and fierce rivalries developed, particularly between Bernini and Borromini.

 Despite the arguably greater architectural inventiveness of Borromini and Cortona, Bernini's artistic pre-eminence, particularly during the reigns of popes Urban VIII (1623–44) and Alexander VII (1655–65), meant he was able to secure the most important commissions in the Rome of his day, the various massive embellishment projects of the newly finished St. Peter's Basilica, completed under Pope Paul V with the addition of Maderno's nave and facade and finally re-consecrated by Pope Urban VIII on 18 November 1626, after 150 years of planning and building. Bernini's design of the Piazza San Pietro in front of the Basilica is one of his most innovative and successful architectural designs. Within the basilica he is also responsible for the Baldacchino, the decoration of the four piers under the cupola, the Cathedra Petri or Chair of St. Peter in the apse, the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in the right nave, and the decoration (floor, walls and arches) of the new nave.

During his long career, Bernini received numerous important commissions, many of which were associated with the papacy. At an early age, he came to the attention of the papal nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, and in 1621, at the age of only twenty-three, he was knighted by Pope Gregory XV. Following his accession to the papacy, Urban VIII is reported to have said, "It is a great fortune for you, O Cavaliere, to see Cardinal Maffeo Barberini made pope, but our fortune is even greater to have Cavalier Bernini alive in our pontificate."  Although he did not fare so well during the reign of Innocent X, under Alexander VII, he once again regained pre-eminent artistic domination and continued to be held in high regard by Clement IX.

Bernini and other artists fell from favor in later neoclassical criticism of the Baroque. It is only from the late nineteenth century that art historical scholarship, in seeking an understanding of artistic output in the cultural context in which it was produced, has come to recognise Bernini's achievements and restore his artistic reputation. The art historian Howard Hibbard concludes that, during the seventeenth century, "there were no sculptors or architects comparable to Bernini"