In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gian Lorenzo Bernini

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bernini in Baroque Surveys
  • Surveys of Bernini’s Works and Catalogue Raisonné
  • 18th- and 19th-Century Writings About Bernini
  • Primary Sources
  • Exhibitions
  • Anthologies
  • Bernini in Context
  • Art Theory
  • Early Sculptures
  • Portraits
  • Tombs
  • Painting
  • Piazzas, Fountains, and Streets
  • Bernini in France
  • Bel Composto: Chapels
  • Patrons
  • Religion and the Church
  • Theater, Ephemera, and Performance

Art History Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Evonne Levy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0021


The outline of the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (b. 1598–d. 1680), the major figure of the Italian Baroque in sculpture and architecture, vaunted as a universal artist and the heir to Michelangelo, was established in the two biographies following Giorgio Vasari’s model: Filippo Baldinucci’s Vita di Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1682) and Domenico Bernini’s Vita del cavalier Gio. Lorenzo Bernino (1713) (see Early Modern Biographies). In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bernini’s work, full of movement and pathos and media-blending ensembles, and long out of favor, was largely decried amid the centuries-long embrace of academic classicism. The second centenary of Bernini’s birth, in 1898, marked the beginning of modern scholarship on the artist, with the first monograph, by Stanislao Fraschetti (see Fraschetti 1900, cited under Surveys of Bernini’s Works and Catalogue Raisonné). In the early 20th century, studies of Bernini’s work on a small scale rapidly multiplied, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that scholars began to undertake seriously the cataloguing and analysis of all the components of his oeuvre. In the postwar period a handful of scholars emerged dedicated to the study of Bernini, who have defined what is important in Bernini’s oeuvre (largely located in Rome), setting the themes for the field. Rudolf Wittkower, together with Hermann Brauer, took a crucial step in cataloguing Bernini’s drawings, providing a way of studying the genesis of Bernini’s many large-scale public projects, especially those he erected in the environs of the Vatican for the eight consecutive popes he served. Cesare D’Onofrio’s research in Rome’s archives informed many publications, particularly on Bernini’s magical fountains. Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco’s view of Bernini’s work through theater inspired the turn, in the 1960s, toward Bernini’s ephemera, the spontaneous public-shaping works of the streets. Irving Lavin pushed Wittkower’s argument for Bernini’s modernity in his loosely executed bozzetti and his revolutionary combination of the arts, establishing the 17th-century precursor to the Gesamtkunstwerk—the bel composto—as a much debated key to Bernini’s chapel ensembles. Other articles by Lavin, posing questions about Bernini’s precociousness, his religiosity, the semantics of his corpus of sculpted portraits of leading figures of the papal court and European leaders, his contribution to social satire through his caricatures, his approach to his interventions at Saint Peter’s Basilica (tombs, crossing and baldachino, Cathedra Petri and Chapel of the Sacrament) as a meaningful whole, and other topics, have set the terms of discussion from the 1970s to the early 21st century. Rudolf Preimesberger redirected the study of Bernini’s sculpture toward the themes of art theory, with a series of highly influential articles that have had rich consequence in the literature, especially on late-20th- and early-21st-century work on Bernini’s biographies. The question raised by D’Onofrio of the “precedence” of the two closely related biographies was given a documentary foundation by Tomaso Montanari in the first serious investigation of their genesis. Montanari has also been systematically revisiting the classic themes, asking new questions, turning up new documents. His major publication is on Bernini’s paintings (a minor part of Bernini’s oeuvre). Maarten Delbeke was the first to examine the Bernini biographies, the major gateway to a view of Bernini’s thought and ideas by those in his immediate milieu, as thematically unified works enmeshed in a rich intertextual world of art theory, theology, and poetics.

General Overviews

Short introductions to the life and work of Bernini have been written in French, Italian, German, and English since the 1910s, though not many have attracted an enduring readership, and few remain in print. An exception is Hibbard 1965, a very readable survey of Bernini’s work touching on the major scholarly issues, suitable for undergraduates and graduates alike. The monograph Avery 1997 (cited under Surveys of Bernini’s Works and Catalogue Raisonné) is more comprehensive and better illustrated. Mezzatesta and Preimesberger 1996, a short but intelligent encyclopedia entry, provides a quick entry point to the issues and literature. Highly recommended for beginning students is Simon Schama’s clever episode on Bernini in Schama’s television series (preserved on video) The Power of Art (Hindmarch 2007). Beautifully filmed, this show offers perhaps the best introduction to the peculiar visual qualities of Bernini’s work as well as his life story.

  • Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. Pelican. Baltimore: Penguin, 1965.

    This very readable survey of Bernini’s work is suitable for undergraduate and graduate students as a general introduction. Although many parts are outdated, the text remains unsurpassed in its coverage of works and issues and its affordability.

  • Hindmarch, Carl, dir. Simon Schama’s Power of Art. DVD. New York: BBC Video, 2007.

    This video, which more or less responsibly conveys scholarly consensus on Bernini, and delightfully captures Bernini’s close relationships with his papal patrons, is especially recommended for students who have not been to Rome because of the sense of scale, lighting and materials, and atmosphere the video successfully conveys.

  • Mezzatesta, Michael P., and Rudolf Preimesberger. “Bernini.” The Dictionary of Art. Vol. 3. Edited by Jane Turner, 828–840. New York: Grove, 1996.

    A useful, economical introductory survey, partially illustrated, of Bernini’s life, work, workshop processes, and posthumous reputation. With useful cross-references to Grove articles on patrons, monuments, and other artists and architects. Available online by subscription.

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