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Bar-sur-Loup Provence France

Why Bernini was a genius

It's only one man's opinion but...

Son of a sculptor, in his early 20's Gianlorenzo started creating his own works.  His David, Apollo and Daphne, and Pluto and Persephone alone are worth a trip to the Galleria Borgehese.  Maybe even a trip to Rome.  (The Wikipedia articles on these works are good starting points.)

But the one that I find the most amazing is his Constantine.  He was commissioned by the Pope to do a work for a niche of the Scala Regia staircase, which leads from the Vatican to Saint Peter's (the stair was also designed by Bernini, wearing his architect hat.  Like Michaelangelo, he was good at a wide range of things.).

I'd like to start with that.  He had to make a statue for a long, shallow, niche ; it requires a special sort of inspiration to take that starting point and decide to create a life-sized mounted figure.  In order to fit it he had to remove a limb from the horse, but who's counting?

The statue depicts the moment before the battle of Ponte Milvio, when Constantine saw the Holy Cross in the sky and converted to Catholicism.  True to the Mannerist / Baroque style of Bernini, he has chosen a moment of emotional intensity and violence.  Remember, this was the first person to think of doing a David in the moment before he throws the rock.  Not the pretty, petulant victor of Caravaggio's painting or Michelangelo's statue, but a muscular, intense athlete putting all his body and soul into the rock and the sling, not knowing (of course) what the outcome would be.

Back to Constantine.  Above the niche there is a window, so light is thrown directly down on the statue from above.  Mounted on the horse, twisting up and slightly to the left as the horse twists to the right, the emperor Constantine is staring straight up into the daylight ; his face is fully lit while the rest of his body and the horse are partially shadowed.  This is good old chiaroscuro and contrapposto and everything else that you learn about Mannerist and early Baroque art.  The clothing, the muscles of the horse, the expression of the emperor -- all of them are executed with the detailed perfection of his workshop and his style.

When I first saw the statue, and looked at the placement, the choice of subject, the execution, the form, the use of the existing window ... I was stunned.  It was worth having to argue with security guards and jump a couple of queues to get a closer look when we were in Rome in November, even though the Swiss Guard looked ready to start swinging halberds at me.  If you ever get to Saint Peter's, you should do it too.  In my books, for that statue alone Bernini deserves all the accolades he has been given.

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Bar-sur-Loup Provence France

December 2011

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