Crimes and Misdemeanors

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.

14 thoughts on “Crimes and Misdemeanors

  1. Bill says:

    Excellent posting. I’ve been reading about Michelangelo lately, and it’s refreshing to be reminded that not all great sculptors were solely interested in marble.

    Although it also demonstrates how enthused an artist can become about life sessions. Here she is — beautiful, tousled, blouse undone, passionate. And here he is — and how does he respond? “Darling, I love you so much — you would make such a beautiful sculpture! Of course we will make passionate love but, first, could you hold that pose for about 3 months? And try to stop blinking. . .”

    I’m surprised that she didn’t slash his face first 🙂

    • artmodel says:


      I like your take! Although Bernini apparently did enough posing of his own for all those self-portraits, so he had some idea what it’s like.

      Thanks for your comments!


  2. caseyklahn says:

    As they used to say in the army, “shit rolls downhill.”

    I always stop here for true art history depth, Claudia. Please keep them coming. And, have a Merry Christmas!

    • artmodel says:


      Thank you so much! I do my best. No dry, tedious art discussion here. That’s not the Museworthy way 🙂

      And a merry Christmas to you too! Hope you’re well.


  3. artmodelandrew says:

    The self-portrait at the top of the post does look like it could be a barista in some overpriced coffee house in the U.S.–it’s timeless. In contrast, the self-portrait at the bottom of the post looks like it came from Bernini’s era.

    “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.” Claudia, have you considered writing 17th century erotica e-books? You could corner the market. 😉

    • artmodel says:


      I like how you added “overpriced” to the coffee house setting! 😆 And it’s true. That drawing is, indeed, not as period specific as the painting, which is what we like about it. Beautifully done. Kissable lips.

      As for my erotica-writing skills, maybe that should be my next endeavor! But honestly I’d rather live it than write it 😉

      Thanks for your comments!


  4. scultore says:

    It’s terrible to think things haven’t changed much but its true, in regards to crime and punishment. Bernini as great a sculptor as he was, was also a terrible architect, nearly causing the collapse of St. Peter’s with his bell towers due to his egotistical refusal to consult with people who knew more about engineering.

  5. Lynn Kauppi says:

    Tragically women in much of the world still endure such crap as a matter of course. And in this country we have domestic violence.
    It’s wonderful that Bernini repented but his mistress and his assistant never got that opportunity.
    On a much lighter note, a blessed Advent Claudia!


    • artmodel says:


      Usually we see continued patterns in people’s behavior. Here, Bernini’s actions with regard to Costanza were a one time thing. Doesn’t excuse it of course, but yes it appears he straightened up as a result.

      And a blessed Advent to you too! The joy of the season is upon us. Thanks for your comments!


  6. ” I honestly can’t decide if he’s saying “You lookin’ at me, pal?” or “Whatever, dude”. ”

    Having read the rest of the post, I think it’s more likely: “I suggest you stop before you make me angry.”

    • artmodel says:


      Ha, good call! But I wonder, if we didn’t know the story, if Bernini’s portrait would feel like that. I’d say no. He doesn’t look vicious at all.

      Thanks for commenting!


  7. fredh1 says:

    Sometimes it’s dismaying to learn that artists that could produce such sublime work could also be such jerks. Human nature is such a mixed bag!

    • artmodel says:


      I long ago accepted the reality that many brilliant artistic creators have been deeply flawed human beings, as flawed as anyone else really. A mixed bag, like you said.There is no correlation between gifted talents and good moral character.

      Thanks for commenting!


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