ecstasy of st. teresa verisimilitude
The art historian Rudolf Wittkower wrote:
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (alternatively Saint Teresa in Ecstasy or Transverberation of Saint Teresa; in Italian: L’Estasi di Santa Teresa or Santa Teresa in estasi) is the central sculptural group in white marble set in an elevated aedicule in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. It was designed and completed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the leading sculptor of his day, who also designed the setting of the Chapel in marble, stucco and paint. It is generally considered to be one of the sculptural masterpieces of the High Roman Baroque. It depicts Teresa of Ávila.
The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa
Gian Lorenzo Bernini
The final chapter, “The Performance of Practice,” examines Bernini’s famed trip to Paris in 1656. Focusing on Bernini’s Bust of Louis XIV (1665), Warwick produces a portrait of the artist at work in “a kind of court performance” (194). Unlike Michelangelo who jealously guarded his works until they were completed, Bernini often opened his studio to courtly visitors and allowed them to watch him work. Visitors could observe Bernini take chisel to marble and listen to him hold forth on any number of topics, including aesthetic maxims and various paragoni interspersed with commands to assistants and technical instructions. Bernini would also “perform” by quickly rendering caricatures that mixed wit and flattery. Warwick notes that in some ways Bernini’s success stemmed from his artistic ability and conversational skills. At other times, however, Bernini did not speak. Instead, he worked in a “trance,” essentially another kind of performance in which visitors entered noiselessly and watched Bernini transform marble into life (202). The purpose of the trip to France was for Bernini to make Louis into a new Alexander, with Bernini acting as Apelles. The culmination of this enterprise was Louis’s portrait bust in which Bernini casts Louis as Alexander through an erudite combination of direct observation of Louis and reference to antique prototypes. Bernini and Louis cultivated a kind of intimacy echoing that of Alexander and Apelles. (Pliny notes that Alexander trusted only Apelles to capture his greatness and later rewarded the artist with a beautiful wife, Campaspe.) Warwick recounts an illustrative anecdote in which Bernini would watch Louis in order to capture the essence of the king. Analyzing Louis in this manner was a breach of protocol, and when Bernini was “caught” he would apologize humbly with “Sto rubando,” to which Louis would reply magnanimously, “Si, ma è per restituire” (218). Bernini finishes the portrait by setting the gaze using Louis as model in the presence of the court. The bust was criticized because Bernini rendered “defects” in Louis physiognomy, which were included for verisimilitude but also to show his intimacy with Louis. The French court in keeping with custom, however, refused to see these defects in Louis. Warwick concludes that the bust, while an example of “virtuoso dissimulation in Rome,” could only be a failure in Paris (222). In the end, the Louis bust was a “performance of court life out of which it arose” (229). Here and throughout the book Warwick is successful in changing “theatrical” from a formal descriptor into a powerful interpretative lens. The result affords a fuller understanding of the creation of Bernini’s art, its display, and reception.
“Fountain and Festival,” the fourth chapter, discusses Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain (1648–51), which replaced a drinking trough in Piazza Navona. Bernini’s fountain transformed the piazza from a workaday space into a “scenographic representation of papal power,” a stage upon which was enacted the drama of post-Tridentine Catholic expansion across Europe and around the world (144). The piazza had been host to ephemeral performances before, but the monumental Four Rivers Fountain was a perpetual ceremonial display commemorating the resurgent church. As Warwick expertly illustrates, the fountain was simultaneously “model and monument; permanent and ephemeral; princely and popular; private and public; local and global; long ago and far away” (164). Yet the transformation of the piazza came at a price, as the well-known Pasquinades attest. There was popular anger over the cost of the fountain, but also over the loss of a space for markets and accessible drinking water. Hence, popular tradition contends that the Nile does not cover his head to indicate the mystery of the river’s headwaters, but rather in shame over the outrages the papal family visited upon the people of Rome by the transformation of the piazza (181).
Claude’s work greatly influenced J.M.W. Turner who painted Dido Building Carthage (also known as The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire) (1815), echoing this painting. Turner felt this was so important to his oeuvre that initially his will requested he be buried wrapped in the canvas. He later amended his will to request that the painting be shown, paired with his Sun Rising through Vapour, Fishermen Cleaning and Selling Fish (1807), along with Claude’s pair of paintings.
This iconic painting, which translates to “Maids of Honor,” presents a sumptuous scene in which the five-year-old Infanta Margarita, the heir to the Spanish throne, is surrounded by her ladies in waiting and other attendants in Velazquez’s spacious painting studio. She is the daughter of King Philip IV, of whom Velazquez was court painter, and his second wife, Mariana of Austria. The large seven by ten feet painting also reveals Velazquez himself, standing behind a large canvas on the left side. The strongly foreshortened wall on the right has three rows of artwork, which help to establish the space. More than half of the space is dim, dark, and empty around the figures. The royal couple is shown as a reflection in a mirror on the back wall. Two court dwarves, and a large dog linger in the bottom right hand corner. Behind the dwarves, two women, a nun, and a lady’s guard are in conversation while the queen’s quartermaster is seen on the stairs at the rear in front of an open sunlit door.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born on 7 December 1598 in Naples. He trained with his father, Mannerist sculptor Pietro Bernini, who moved to Rome when Bernini was a young boy. His talents recognised soon after he arrived in Rome, Bernini was presented to Pope Paul V who was impressed by the youth’s skill. Bernini gained a detailed knowledge of the antique from the papal collection in the Vatican and also from his early work restoring antiquities for Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s villa collection. The soft, supple skin contrasted with the dense fur of his youthful Goat Amalthea with the Infant Jupiter and a Fawn (1609-15) displays his precocious talents and close observation of nature.
Aeneas Fleeing Troy, 1618-19, marble, Galleria Borghese, Rome.