Art history expert Zoe Turner reveals all about Rome’s baroque sculptor and architect, Bernini – and introduces us to one of the artist’s most underrated masterworks.
The city of Rome has always been one of my favourite Italian places, with its spectacular art and architecture set amidst the hustle and bustle of daily city life.
When visiting, the usual tourist hotspots are quite rightly at the top of everyone’s list. After all, how else will you ensure your return to Rome without throwing a coin in the Trevi Fountain?
Some of my most memorable moments in Rome, however, have been away from the usual must-sees. The best moment was when I got to see a work of art I’d spent years studying at university and had always hoped to see in the flesh: the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by the exceptionally talented baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
The baroque period in art has always been a fascination of mine. It’s exciting, dynamic and it pushed boundaries, not just artistically but politically and socially. Bernini was one of the artists working at this time and he encapsulated the ambitions of the baroque with his sensational ability to make marble look as though it breathed with life.
The life and times of Bernini
Born in 1598, Bernini completed his first sculptural work around the young age of 14. It paved the way for a career in sculpture, architecture and painting. He was known for his charismatic and charming personality and was discovered by Pope Urban VIII, who at the time tipped him to be the next big artist in Rome.
He was in high demand and beat his rivals to receive some of the most coveted and prestigious commissions of the time. His most prominent brief was designing the bell towers above the façade of St. Peter’s in the Vatican City.
It was here, however, that his career suffered. Lacking the architectural knowledge to take on a project of this scale, it wasn’t long into the building process that the bell towers were demolished due to cracks appearing in the façade. The towers were too heavy for St. Peter’s. However, you can still see Bernini’s colonnade (pictured below) on St Peter’s Square.
Humiliated, Bernini kept a low profile until he was offered a commission by the Cornaro family to create a work of art to sit in their private chapel within the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. It was here that he created the master piece, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, which re-established his career.
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa
Saint Teresa was a Carmelite nun who was known for her spiritual visions. The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa depicts a particular vision that she had described in her diary – an angel appearing with a golden arrow and plunging it into her heart several times.
She describes it as a moment of what’s called transverberation, when heaven met earth and she felt spiritually connected to God, overwhelmed by his love whilst also experiencing intense pain.
Bernini’s work captures the moment the angel has withdrawn his arrow and is ready to plunge it into her heart again. She reclines on a levitating cloud, her habit taking on a life of its own as it billows and ripples, showing Bernini’s tremendous skill in making marble appear weightless. The angel gazes down on Saint Teresa, the cloth covering him appearing the texture of a fine silk as it curves around his body.
Not only does Bernini bring this scene to life, but he shows incredible patience and skill in being able to differentiate textures. The high shine of the habit would have been achieved through hand polishing, which would have taken months.
If you step back then you see the work as a whole, similar to a stage set.
The double marble columns flank the work on either side. A symphony of colour adorns the surrounding walls and the golden rays glow under the hidden window that Bernini had installed. Around the edges members of the Cornaro family lean out of their seats, desperately trying to witness this spiritual moment and hoping to be a part of the experience.
A treasure of Rome
For me, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa showcases the artistic talent that has existed in Rome for centuries and it’s fantastic that these priceless works of art are still so accessible to the public.
If you’re looking to visit then make sure you check opening times, as church services can stop you from viewing the work. Also, it’s best to keep shoulders and legs covered as a mark of respect.
If you’re a fan of Bernini’s work and wish to see more, the Borghese Gallery houses some of his most recognised sculptures and sits just outside the centre of Rome.
Discover the the museums and art galleries of Rome for yourself on a Rome city break.