If for nothing else, social media interactions can spur discoveries and offer interesting shares that one might have been unfamiliar with. Block out the irritations of the Internet and some cool stuff can come your way. The Ashmolean Museum recently posted an image to Twitter that caught my attention. It was this self-portrait by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the celebrated sculptor of the Baroque era. I’ve seen most of his self-portraits – he did quite a few – but I’d never seen this one before. He created it in black, red, and white chalk, circa 1635:
The drawing has a strange intimacy to it that intrigues me. His gaze is hard to pinpoint. Oddly, it is direct but a little preoccupied. Engaged but a little jaded. Cool but a little confused. I honestly can’t decide if he’s saying “You lookin’ at me, pal?” or “Whatever, dude”. His overall appearance is informal, with unkempt hair and a five o’clock shadow. He could almost be a young hipster barista making cappuccinos at a coffee bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn instead of the 17th century artistic wunderkind.
Bernini, the uniquely gifted sculptor who could turn marble into flesh and render stone creations with stunning action and theatricality, is a compelling and charismatic figure in art history. One cannot imagine a survey of Western art without his Ecstasy of St Teresa or Apollo and Daphne. The man himself possessed a personality which matched the intensity of his art. His notoriously hot temper was offset by his gregarious, outgoing disposition, well-roundedness (he was also an architect, poet, writer, and stage designer) and dedicated work ethic. It’s been said that he would chatter up a storm while he worked, telling jokes and sharing gossip with his assistants as he chiseled away in his studio. Like many sculptors he was physically strong and agile. And because his astonishing talents were evident to all, Bernini enjoyed a largely easy ride in terms of his career. He was showered with praise and recognition from his early years and it never waned. This, as I’m sure you all know, can be both a blessing and a curse.
Bernini was neither a sweetheart nor a monster. At only one point in his life did he go completely batshit crazy. And that one time sure was a doozy. A disturbing, mad, jealousy-infused doozy. Are you ready for the twisted soap opera? Fasten your seat belts.
In 1636 Bernini began an affair with Costanza Bonarelli, the wife of Bernini’s assistant Matteo Bonarelli. To describe it as “hot and heavy” would be an understatement. Bernini’s sculpture of her will tell us everything we need to know. She is tousled. She is lusty. She seems to be in some ravished stage of pre or post coitus. Her lips are parted, her blouse is undone. She is fleshy and earthy. She is not a proper aristocratic lady sitting decorously for a commissioned sculpture bust. She is, quite clearly, Bernini’s lover and object of his infatuation.
At the height of the torrid affair, Bernini was tipped off that Costanza was possibly sleeping with another man – not her husband but yet another lover. The lady got around apparently. The other man turned out to be none other than Bernini’s brother Luigi who was a rather unsavory character. Bernini, in the throes of unhinged jealousy, went ballistic. He spied on Costanza to confirm the rumor and, sure enough, spotted his brother emerging from her house. What ensued was pure madness. Bernini chased down Luigi and attacked him with an iron crowbar, breaking his ribs. He chased him again, this time with a sword, threatening to kill him. When his brother sought refuge in a church, the raging Bernini attempted to kick down the doors. But he wasn’t done with his vengeful impulses. Bernini ordered one of his servants to go to Costanza’s house and slash her face, which the man did, with a razor blade.
As for the fallout of this gruesome incident, Luigi fled to Bologna, fearing for his safety. Costanza, disfigured for life, was imprisoned for adultery. The servant who did the slashing was also sent to prison. And Bernini was issued a fine – a fine – which was eventually waived by his benefactor Pope Urban VIII, under the agreement that Bernini would marry, get his shit together, and live a respectable life. It pays to have friends in high places.
Another Bernini self-portrait:
So Bernini went unpunished for his behavior, and Costanza paid the criminal price for adultery which the men eluded. This was, of course, 17th century Europe and a society structured in ways that baffle us. On the other hand, it’s not so baffling in that some aspects remain constant and are unlikely to ever change. Esteemed and advantaged people, like Bernini was then, receive special treatment, much like they do today. But for what it’s worth, Bernini did go on to marry, father eleven children, and live a pious life as a devout Catholic attending mass regularly. It appears he learned his lesson. Bernini suffered a stroke in his elderly years and died at the age of 82.