Long before he became the most famous artist associated with the Baroque movement of the 17th century, a 13-year-old Gian Lorenzo Bernini stunned Italy when he created a bust of the surgeon Antonio Coppola. It was among Bernini’s earliest psychologically piercing busts—and, if you believe everything the artist’s own words, it was hardly the first he’d done. He claimed to have initially tried his hand at creating “speaking likenesses” when he was eight, but there’s good reason to doubt that—Bernini was quite a fabulist. Whatever the case may be, audiences were floored by the Coppola sculpture.
In the decades that followed, Bernini would prove again and again that he was a master sculptor. Working at a time when painting was still regarded as the most important artistic medium, Bernini showed his adeptness at imbuing bronze and marble with liveliness. His skill made him a favorite among Rome’s elite, and the creations he produced for them have endured the test of time, ranking among some of the most important artworks on view in the city.
Below, a look at five of Bernini’s most famous works.
When Bernini created this statue in his mid-20s, he became a sensation. For about a decade, Bernini had been treated as a prodigy among the Italian elite, and so it was hardly surprising that he caught the eye of Cardinal Scipioni Borghese. Around the year 1623, Borghese got to work on plans for a villa suburbana, a grand home just outside Rome. To adorn it, he had Bernini create three large sculptures, including this one.
Then as now, the best-known image of the biblical narrative of David and the Goliath was Michelangelo’s 17-foot-tall nude sculpture of the hero, which was initially situated in a Florentine plaza. Rather than the slaying of Goliath, Michelangelo’s sculptures depicts the moments before David’s battle. Bernini’s sculpture was done in a similar vein, with Goliath left invisible—yet Bernini has attempted to one-up Michelangelo.
Bernini’s sculpture is far more dynamic and extravagant. We see the moment when David twists around and readies his shot at Goliath Fabric swirls around David, twisting across one of his muscular legs. His jaw seems clenched, as if in anticipation of the highly physical feat he’s about to perform. David’s face was modeled on Bernini’s own—the artist was gunning for Michelangelo’s place in the imagination of the Italian art scene. The gamble paid off, and the sculpture was a huge success, not only with Cardinial Scipione but with the public writ large. Filippo Baldinucci, Bernini’s first biographer, wrote, “As soon as it was finished such acclamation arose that all Rome rushed to see it as though it were a miracle.”
Bernini’s greatest talent was his ability to transform marble—a cold, elegant material—into something that felt profoundly alive. His abilities are evident in works such as this one, which, like David (above), was commissioned by Cardinal Borghese for his villa suburbana outside Rome. Work on this sculpture preceded David, though Bernini halted production in the middle to work on the other sculpture. It was finished in 1625, perhaps with help from a student named Giuliano Finelli; later works by Bernini would often be crafted largely by assistants, without credit, in his massive studio.
The mythological scene shown in the sculpture involves the god Apollo and Daphne, a nymph. According to Greek mythology, Apollo had insulted Eros, the god of love, and gotten shot with an arrow because of it. He began to persistently pursue Daphne, who had committed herself to virginity and continually rebuffed him. When she could run from him no more, she called on her father, the river god Peneus, to grant her the ability to change form. He did, and she became a tree.
Bernini depicts the metamorphosis midway, with Daphne’s hands becoming branches. He designed the work to be seen from its side so that viewers could compare Daphne’s pained reaction and Apollo’s shocked response to it. In a typical touch of Baroque style, everything appears to be in motion—Daphne’s hair spins out as though blown by a gust of wind, and Apollo’s clothes appear to fly off him as he attempts to grab her.
When Los Angeles’s Getty Museum mounted the first-ever Bernini retrospective in the U.S. in 2008, critic Arthur Lubow asked curator Catherine Hess why there hadn’t been a show like it sooner. She responded, “How do you move Piazza San Pietro?” She was referring to the grand area before St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, for which Bernini acted as the chief architect. A grand plaza with columns in the shape of a key (a reference to Jesus’s remark about handing the keys to heaven to St. Peter), it ranks among Bernini’s greatest achievements and can be fully appreciated only in person.
Likewise for one of Bernini’s biggest sculptural creations, which lies inside the basilica. That 94-foot-tall structure, known as a baldacchino, is a bronze canopy that rises over the basilica’s high altar. This is not just any canopy, however—every single part of its surface feels labored over. Its columns, rather than being simple vertical support structures, appear to twist upward, and its top is adorned with ornate gilded designs and allegorical figures.
Sculptures of bees can be spotted throughout. These are references to the Barberini family, of which Pope Urban VIII, who commissioned the work, was a member. Bernini developed a particularly strong tie to Urban, who allowed the artist to begin merging sculpture, architecture, and design in his work. As Bernini’s first biographer, Baldinucci, once wrote, it was “common knowledge, that he was the first to unite architecture, sculpture and painting in a way that they together make a beautiful whole.”
By the mid-17th century, Bernini’s name was well-known to many in Rome, thanks, in part, to the working relationship he forged with Pope Urban VIII. When Innocent X assumed power in 1644, Bernini’s luck soured. Determined to stand in opposition to his predecessor, Innocent X excluded Bernini from papal commissions, essentially cutting off a vital source of income that had allowed him to amass a fortune in the years leading up Innocent’s reign. Regardless, other members of the elite continued to work with the artist.
One such commission ended up defining Bernini’s career. During the 1640s, the Venetian Cardinal Federico Cornaro brought on Bernini to design an elaborate chapel in Rome’s Santa Maria della Vittoria church, where Cornaro was to be buried. (Cornaro died in 1653, a year after the piece was completed.) The work that Bernini ended up producing features as its centerpiece a sculpture of Teresa of Ávila, who was known to lapse into states of ecstasy when she communicated with God. A floating angel is shown as it gets ready to spear her with an arrow; Teresa’s head is cocked back, and her eyes are closed. Gold-toned tubes of bronze become like rays of light shining down from the heavens. To the sculpture’s left and right, Bernini has sculpted reliefs of Cornaro and others, who are made to bear witness to the scene as though they were spectators with box seats in a theater.
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is considered the ne plus ultra work of the Baroque movement. It most purely distills that style’s emphasis on emotionalism, drama, and excess, and it is a prime example of the high-production-value commissions being undertaken at the time by artists. To achieve maximum effect, Bernini melded together techniques from multiple art forms—sculpture, theater, architecture, and more. Later on, Alexander VII would even go on to enlist Bernini for urban design projects, including a revamp of Rome’s Via del Corso.
By the mid-17th century, the Age of Absolutism had begun. Monarchs and religious officials were attempting to take total control of their respective states. That also meant jockeying each other to build up influence beyond their countries’ border. And so, when, in 1665, Bernini was summoned to France by King Louis XIV, it was more than simply an overture—it was also intended to show that his country had the power to steal away the papacy’s beloved artist.
Bernini had by this time fallen back in good graces with the papacy under Alexander VII’s reign. He was brought to France to create designs for the Louvre, which was then a royal residence. (It wouldn’t become a museum until 1793.) Bernini’s designs were met with disapproval, and the temperamental artist left Paris only half a year after he got there. He and Louis were never on good terms either. Bernini began work on an equestrian sculpture of the king, only to see it, upon its completion, partially re-carved by workers acting on behalf of Louis, who hated the work.
There was, however, one major success that arose from an otherwise ill-fated visit abroad: Bernini’s portrait of Louis. This bust shows the Sun King garbed in armor, as if he were a general. In fact, the portrait was a highly idealized one, even though Louis sat for it for extended periods intended by Bernini to allow him to properly envision his psychology. In a typical touch for Bernini, fabric billows out around Louis. Now housed at the Palace of Versailles, the bust is considered to be among the iconic images of Louis XIV, whose visage was painted numerous times by an array of artists, from Hyacinthe Rigaud to Claude Lefèbvre.