A scholarly study of Bernini’s first biographers

On a winter’s night in Toronto in 2000, three friends engaged in an informal discussion of the biographies of Gianlorenzo Bernini, as produced respectively by Filippo Baldinucci in 1682 and by Domenico Bernini (youngest son of Gianlorenzo) in 1713. This informal discussion led on to a fully-fledged conference in Rome in 2002, of which this book, comprising ten essays, was the eventual outcome.

The end-result is a collection of varying degrees of readability and interest but, as a whole, an outstanding contribution to a subject of signal importance. It may be churlish to expect such a gathering together of disparate approaches to constitute the last word on the subject, as indeed is recognised by the editors in their introduction; the reader needs nevertheless to be forewarned of some significant omissions. It would have been helpful, for example, to be told a little more about the rights and wrongs of Bernini’s alleged failings in his work on St Peter’s in 1645-46: to what extent should the blame have been attributed to his predecessor, Carlo Maderno? And, in the same vein, this reviewer could have done with a fuller explanation of the reasons why Bernini’s work on the Louvre, undertaken in 1664-65 at the specific request of Colbert in his capacity as Louis XIV’s Surintendant des Bâtiments, was quietly set aside by the French monarch at a time when the foundations were just being laid. Last but not least, it is surely regrettable that, amid much discussion of the two biographies that constitute the sources of the book, no significant mention is made of Baldinucci’s other biography of Bernini, as contained—albeit much abbreviated—in his masterly Notizie dei Professori del Disegno da Cimabue in qua.

This is not, however, a book that anyone with an interest in Bernini and his two earliest biographers can afford to be without. It deals well with the way in which Gianlorenzo Bernini was seen as the lineal successor to Michelangelo, a point brought out by both Robert Williams and Maarten Delbeke in their respective essays. This reviewer was also struck by a very plausible resolution of the debate between those who, on the basis of publication dates, regard Baldinucci as the predecessor of Domenico, and those who, in the light of Domenico’s family connections, take a rather different view. Notwithstanding the editors’ insistence that this problem is, on currently available evidence, insoluble, what seems to emerge clearly is that the Bernini family, riled by the accusations levelled at their late father with regard to the cracks in the substructure of the south bell-tower of St Peter’s, gathered together the available evidence for the benefit of Filippo Baldinucci, believing that he, as an already noted expert on art-historical matters, would be best placed to incorporate this evidence in the book that Queen Cristina had commissioned him to produce. Years later, Domenico, by now a respected ecclesiastical historian, and doubtless fired by an access of filial piety, felt it appropriate that he should again take up the cudgels on Gianlorenzo’s behalf.

A final word of admiration must go to Sarah McFee for her essay on Costanza Bonelli, Baldinucci’s mistress. Dr McFee’s lucidly expounded revelation that Costanza, far from being Rudolf Wittkower’s “woman of the people”, was in reality a wealthy, hard-headed business woman, constitutes a convincing example of the value of those many hours spent in the often thankless task of archival research. Brian Tovey

o Maarten Delbeke, Evonne Levy, and Steven F. Ostrov (eds), Bernini’s Biographies: Critical Essays (Pennsylvania State University Press), 419 pp, £65 (hb), ISBN 9870271029014

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