We know that all artists are influenced by earlier ones, and that sometimes the impact is so profound that a revered elder or ancestor will be put on a pedestal. But the relationship between Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) and Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564) is unlike any in the history of art. From his earliest days, Bernini studied Michelangelo’s work and measured himself against him. Over the course of his career, Bernini borrowed from him, sought to best him, was likened to him (“the Michelangelo of his age” said Pope Urban VIII), took up his subjects (the David), and took over his projects (the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica). As late as the mid-1660s, when Bernini was working (unhappily) for Louis XIV in Paris, he was still talking about Michelangelo. Given how large il Divino loomed in Bernini’s life, the latter could have been forgiven had he, overburdened by the past, become a mere pasticheur. So it is surely one further measure of Bernini’s greatness that he not only avoided that fate but also rose to such heights of artistic achievement that he came to define his age as thoroughly as Michelangelo did his own.

It’s a commonplace of art history that the three Michelangelo sculptures in Rome during Bernini’s youth, the Pietà (1498–99) in St. Peter’s, the Risen Christ (1521) in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, and the Deposition (ca. 1547–55, also known as the Florentine Pietà after the city to which it was moved in 1671), left their mark on his early work. Their influence can be seen in such early sculptures as The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (ca. 1614–15), The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (ca. 1615–16), Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius Fleeing Troy (1619), and David (1623–24). But so far there has been no in-depth exploration of the nature and extent of Michelangelo’s impact on Bernini. That lacuna has now been filled exceptionally well by Bernini’s Michelangelo by Carolina Mangone, an Assistant Professor of Art and Archeology at Princeton University.1 As a study of artistic influence, it is surely unparalleled in its sweep, depth, and wealth of detail.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, David, 1623–24, Marble, Galleria Borghese, Rome.

Mangone goes beyond the usual formal analysis to look at Bernini’s work in the context of the ideas of his time. Aesthetically and theologically it was a turbulent one, and in her telling Bernini navigated it with shrewdness, imagination, and no small amount of chutzpah. He’d been born into a world that—hard as it is for us to imagine this today—had gone sour on Michelangelo. Under the leadership of the Carracci, the brothers Annibale and Agostino, advanced art was turning away from Michelangelo’s dramatic, heavenly bodies toward an art more grounded in the appearance of actual things and more appealing to the eye. At the same time the Church, needing to use art to recruit and inspire the faithful in response to the march of Protestantism, declared Michelangelo’s contorted, dramatically twisting nudes—described by one influential critic as sforzate (forced)—undecorous, even unseemly, their rippling musculature overblown, so much heaving, body-built anatomy for its own sake. (Three hundred years later Constantin Brancusi, reacting against Michelangelo through Rodin, would coin his own critique of this figure style: biftek—beefsteak.)

The trouble was, Bernini liked the sforzi, and he liked flesh, too, not because he was necessarily partial to the nude but because depicting flesh allowed him to match sculpture’s illusionistic possibilities against those of painting—as he does so spectacularly in showing the impress of hand into soft thigh in The Rape of Proserpina (1621–22). What to do? As Mangone sees it, Bernini’s response was to pick his battles. Thus the appeal of the David figure, which allowed Bernini to go toe-to-toe with Michelangelo, but with a sforzate pose that was integral to the Biblical story. You can’t fling a stone without twisting your body, so there was no danger of Bernini being accused of intemperateness.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Habakkuk and the Angel, 1656–61, Marble,  Cappella Chigi, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.

Mangone also paints an intriguing picture of Bernini as a wily combatant in the art feuds of the day, particularly in his efforts to respond to, if not blunt altogether, the newly ascendant reputation of Raphael, one of Michelangelo’s archrivals, in the middle of the century. Witness his two statues for the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, Daniel and the Lion (1655–57) and Habakkuk and the Angel (1656–61). In Mangone’s reading, Bernini, at a time when doing so went very much against the prevailing aesthetic grain, created deliberately Michelangelesque figures (the pose of Habakkuk, she argues, being derived from that of Jonah on the Sistine ceiling) to critique and upstage two pre-existing statues, one of Jonah and the other of Elijah, that had been carved by Lorenzetto (Lorenzo Lotti) from designs by Raphael four decades previously. Bernini had also done something similar twenty years before, Mangone contends. She interprets the pictorialism of Bernini’s effigy for the tomb of Pope Urban VIII (1627–47), with its rich variety of colored materials—marble, bronze, and a variety of polychromed stones—as a down-to-the-last-detail replication in sculpture of Raphael’s frescoed portrait of the first Pope Urban in the Vatican, meant to demonstrate the superiority of sculpture over painting. These two are among the most absorbing passages in the book.

The one flaw in Bernini’s Michelangelo is the author’s occasional tendency to over-interpret. This is most evident in the section on David, in which the subject’s face is a self-portrait. As Mangone reminds us, King Saul had given his own armor to the young warrior to wear into battle, but David rejected it as too bulky. Bernini includes a cuirass—the armor piece that covers the torso—on the ground of his sculpture. This leads Mangone to spin an elaborate connection between it, Bernini, and Michelangelo.

The sculpture suggests this act of rejection [of the armor] by the cuirass that slumps like the hollow flesh of a flayed torso between David’s legs. If Bernini’s statue can be seen as self-reflective [owing to the self-portrait], it is possible to understand his rendering of David’s rejection of Saul’s armor as an allegory of the sculptor’s independence from Michelangelo. By selecting the cuirass alone—and not Saul’s other gifts of a helmet and sword—and representing it as a rejected skin, Bernini evokes not only Michelangelo’s anatomical study but also the shedding of flesh with which the latter was identified in Condivi’s Vita, in his own writings, and in his possible self-portrait as the flayed Saint Bartholomew in the Last Judgment. Through the self-portrait as David, shown straddling the rejected vestige of armor that stands in for Michelangelo, Bernini thematizes his ambition to contain and overshadow an authoritative artistic father. To take the analogy between the sculptor and his subject to its natural conclusion, one might say that just as David revealed that he was the elect second king of Israel by asserting his self-sufficiency, Bernini’s statue likewise staked his claim as the second sovereign of the modern history of sculpture.

This strikes me as being several bridges too far. Granted, a work of art is a symbolic object in which every element exists for a reason, and Bernini was not only supremely ambitious but also obsessed with Michelangelo. But interpretation needs to take place in the realm of common sense, not that of Oedipal fantasy. A more sober reading of the cuirass’s presence would propose that it is there for two reasons, neither having anything to do with Michelangelo. First, it enlarges the temporal scope of the narrative, adding recent past to climactic present and implicit future in the story the sculpture is telling. The second reason is practical. The cuirass is joined to the figure of David by a swath of heavy drapery that partly wraps around his waist before falling across his right inner thigh and terminating at the top of the armor. This means that lower torso, drapery, and cuirass form a single column of stone that absorbs the thrust of the arcing upper works and directs it straight down to the ground in the manner of a pier in a church crossing. (Bernini would shortly begin a second career as an architect.) It is this that makes possible the sculpture’s signature feature: its dynamic, twisting pose and cantilevered upper torso. Without the cuirass, the otherwise top-heavy marble would be in danger of snapping off at the ankles. Part of the genius of this work is that although its support mechanism is literally front and center for all to see, we do not at first register it as such. Mesmerized by Bernini’s art, we miss his artifice. Still, Mangone isn’t the first art historian to have outrun her headlights, and we should not allow her occasional flashes of rhetorical excess to blind us to the considerable importance of this book.

Michelangelo, Deposition, ca. 1547–55, Marble, Museo dell' Opera del Duomo, Florence.

Valuable as Mangone’s study is, it’s in the nature of books like this to unintentionally diminish the artist under investigation, by tying him so closely to the work of an earlier master as to make him seem merely an acolyte, lacking any independent artistic identity of his own. Thus Mangone writes early on that Bernini’s was “a long and productive career distinguished by far-reaching and persistent imitation of Michelangelo—a substantial feature of Bernini’s art that narratives about him as a trailblazing innovator regularly ignore.” So we need to remind ourselves that Bernini was more than Michelangelo, that he was a transcendently inventive artist. This becomes clear when we look at that aspect of his work for which there is no precedent in Michelangelo: his portraits, this being one form the older artist never worked in. Bernini revolutionized the sculpted portrait as it had existed since the fifteenth century with his so-called “speaking likenesses”—images of preternatural realism and psychological presence. Yet even when operating on Michelangelo’s own turf, Bernini’s was a sensibility that would not be contained. For proof, one need only compare the Medici and Cornaro chapels. Bernini takes the understated theatricality of Michelangelo’s vision and remakes it, pulling out every possible stop to create a dizzying architectural, sculptural, and pictorial Gesamt-kunstwerk that enfolds the breathless viewer in its visionary narrative to the exclusion of everything else. For all his debts to il Divino, this is the real Bernini. May we never lose sight of that fact.

1 Bernini’s Michelangelo, by Carolina Mangone; Yale University Press, 288 pages, $65.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 10, on page 50
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