Spiritual Spaces

A Passion for Bernini

Across Rome—in places ranging from obscure churches to public squares to the most famous place of worship in the Christian world—are astonishing works by Baroque sculptor Gian Bernini, born in Naples in 1598. He was dubbed the “animator of marble”. His art is innovative, and dynamic. Like his predecessor Michaelangelo, he was also a gifted architect who helped shape the image of the Eternal City. Some of the finest and best-known examples of his genius are in Rome.


Vatican City is an independent country, a microstate, within Rome, and home to the magnificent Saint Peter’s Basilica. Bernini designed Saint Peter’s Square (“Piazza San Pietro”), the immense open space before the basilica. The piazza is flanked on each side by curved, sweeping colonnades. Atop the 284 Tuscan columns are statutes of 140 saints (sculpted by a number of different artists, but not by Bernini). The design represents the arms of the church embracing the faithful. In the center of the square is a fountain designed by Bernini. The obelisk that stands in the fountain is from ancient Egypt and was brought to Rome in 37 AD.

Within the basilica, beneath the massive dome designed by Michaelangelo, is Bernini’s Baldachin (“Baldacchino”), the towering bronze canopy that stands over the over the tomb of St Peter.

Other Bernini works of art in Saint Peter’s Basilica include “Chair of Saint Peter” in gilded marble. A massive bronze monument to the church’s first pope, incased in the altarpiece in the apse, is a chair believed to have been used by St Peter. The altarpiece is a depiction of St Peter receiving the keys from Jesus. Rays of sunlight are often used in Bernini’s art with a dramatic effect. The St Longinus statue stands boldly nearby. There are many other works of Bernini’s here but these were my favorites.

A short distance from Vatican City, the Ponte Sant’Angelo stretches over the Tiber. Built under the rule of Emperor Hadrian in 136 AD, the bridge was renovated under Bernini’s direction in the late 17th Century. His plan added ten larger-than-life statues of angels, carrying the instruments of “The Passion” (the cross, the crown of thorns, the whip, etc.) He personally completed two angels (“Angel with the Superscription INRI” and “Angel with the Crown of Thorns”), but Pope Clement IX kept them for himself. They are now in basilica church Sant ’Andrea delle Fratte. Most of the angels on the bridge now are inspired versions of the original angels.


Villa Borghese (formally “Villa Borghese Pinciana,” as it is on the Pincian Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome) was built in the early 17th Century, with its large English-inspired gardens, as the residence of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. The villa now houses the Borghese Gallery, with many magnificent paintings and sculptures. Much of the Roman, Renaissance and Baroque art.  was commissioned and collected by the cardinal himself.

The gallery contains some of Bernini’s finest work. The masterpieces among them are:


The Rape of Persephone

In Greek mythology the goddess Persephone is seized by her uncle, Hades (Pluto to the Romans), drawn to Hell, and made Queen of the Underworld. Bernini’s statue is stunning, but his genius is in the details in the marble: Persephone’s tossed hair as she struggles; her soft skin pressed by Pluto’s grasp. Bernini was only 23 years old when he sculpted the masterpiece.

Apollo and Daphne

Bernini was 26 when he completed another tale from Greek mythology. The god Apollo falls in love with Daphne, a mortal woman sworn to remain a virgin. He pursues her and as he grasps Daphne, she transforms into a laurel tree. Bernini captures the moment of her metamorphosis in midair as Daphne’s fingers transform into leaves. Her startled face with mouth wide opened shows her surprise and fear. The figures appear in a frenetic motion.



Cardinal Borghese commissioned the life-sized statue of David. It was completed in seven months between 1623 to 1624. The energy and power in this piece are remarkable as the biblical David is twisting to throw the stone to take down his unseen foe Goliath, a Philistine giant.

Michaelangelo and Bernini both achieved perfection with their Davids. Michaelangelo’s David stands erect, posed for battle. Bernini’s is in the act of battle. Many of Bernini’s figures are portrayed in moments of spectacular movement.

There is also a self portrait in the gallery.

The Borghese Gallery is an intimate museum. Tickets with reservation times can be booked online. Booking well ahead of time, especially during the peak tourist season, is not only recommended, it is necessary.


Bernini has many exterior fountains and free-standing sculptures throughout Rome. Below are some of my favorite sculptures and fountains.  His body of work of provocative and expressive sculptures shaped the Baroque Age.

The Ecstasy of St Teresa

Bernini considered this statue his most beautiful located in the Cornaro Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. Saint Teresa’s mystical and joyous religious awakening is staggeringly sensual. As we walked through the Chapel there was complete silence as people seemed transfixed by this masterpiece.


Death of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni

This is my favorite Bernini sculpture. It is sensual like the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, but the death struggle with the angels looking on invokes tragedy and sorrow. The passionate emotion in this death scene is mesmerizing. The work is located in the Altieri Chapel of the Church of San Francesco a Ripa. This modest church is quiet and intimate, and you can get close to the sculpture.

The church is in the section of Rome known as Trastevere, a bit of a walk from central Rome over the Tiber River. Trastevere had its own character and history and is worth an afternoon.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers

One of Bernini’s most spectacular public monuments is The Fountain of the Four Rivers in Rome’s Piazza Navona (1648-51). It is dramatic with an Egyptian obelisk rising over travertine rock with four statues representing the four continents and river gods: the Nile representing Africa, the Danube representing Europe, the Ganges representing Asia, the Rio de la Plata representing the Americas. The symbolism runs deeper for Berrnini as the four rivers  of paradise as described in the book on Genesis.



The Triton Fountain

The Triton Fountain (1642-43), in Piazza Barberini, is a lively deviation from the earlier, more stylized Roman fountains. Four dolphins rise out of the pool supporting a huge open shell from which the sea god emerges blowing a conch shell. It is pure poetry in sparkling motion!

Other Berninis in Rome include busts, funeral monuments and paintings. The pieces described are my favorites and not to be missed if you visit Rome. Bernini’s final resting place is in an inconspicuous spot in the Church of Santa Maia Maggiore.


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