Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 20, 2013
Genevieve Warwick Bernini: Art as Theatre New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. 224 pp.; 24 color ills.; 42 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780300187069)

With Bernini: Art as Theatre, Genevieve Warwick has produced one of the most significant contributions to the recent surge of literature on Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Her fascinating book is articulate and thoughtful, its arguments sound and convincing. It incorporates a wide body of scholarly literature and mines archives and primary sources to provide new looks at well-known objects. Warwick presents an innovative understanding of the aesthetic culture of seventeenth-century Rome, reconstructing the visual expectations of Bernini’s audience and the settings in which his objects were made and displayed. Bernini’s art has often been described somewhat dismissively as theatrical, suggesting that his art lacked substance and employed cheap visual tricks. Warwick, however, engages theater as something substantive, rejecting the notion that theatrical art was a “sham” (5). The aesthetic sensibilities of Bernini’s audiences were infused with theatricality, and their expectations informed by ever-present processions, ceremonies, and displays. The key idea is that art parallels theater in illusion. Warwick contextualizes Bernini’s works as “events,” demonstrating “that his audiences viewed art’s illusions as a form of cultural play similar to those of theater’s scenographies” (17).

The first chapter, “Palace Scenographies,” reviews the emergence of theater in Rome and Bernini’s theatrical work. Entertainments such as banquets, official visits, processions, dances, recitals, weddings, and holiday activities were a constant in Rome; and they combined music, ritual, and rhetoric with visual and performing arts. Warwick documents connections between art and theater, noting that ephemeral and permanent art shared the same genius. Bernini wrote plays, acted, and designed stages; and his theater, like his art, employed amazing visual effects that attempted to obscure the line between real and fictive. Bernini’s Two Academies (1635) depicts life in the workshop and was likely developed there. In it, Bernini plays the role of master, while his assistants play the role of assistants, thus blurring the line between performance and reality, delighting audiences. Bernini was a good actor, and his acting gestures often informed the poses of his carved figures; for instance, when carving The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (ca. 1617), it is rumored that Bernini held his own leg over a flame, thus enacting the role of the martyr and becoming actor-model for his work.

Chapter 2, “Theaters of Piety,” on religious performances, focuses on Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1647–52). Warwick contextualizes it with discussions of other works including Baroque ceiling frescoes, Bernini’s Cathedra Petri (1657–66), and numerous prints depicting St. Teresa. Warwick presents an informative discussion of the Quarant’ ore, the display of the Eucharist for forty hours that was a central ritual for the exuberant post-Tridentine Church. The Quarant’ ore often employed theatrical devices to wondrous affect: Paolo Segneri comments on these displays saying, “in a perspective of splendours, in a theater of majesty, in a nucleus of glory, you will see God” (quoted in Warwick, 49). It is in this context that one can see the genesis of Bernini’s St. Teresa. Teresa’s canonization involved processions, dramatic reenactments, fireworks, festive decorations, and music. Bernini’s sculpture, a reenactment of Teresa’s ecstasy in a theater-like setting before an “audience” of Cornaro patrons, is a permanent stand-in for ephemeral events, specifically, the saint’s ecstasy and canonization. Warwick completes her discussion of St. Teresa with a thorough analysis of the saint’s unprecedented pose, noting that this gesture of piety was linked to acting, the two employing a “common vocabulary of bodily figuration” (71).

The third chapter, “Pastorals,” provides crucial information about the display of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne (1622–25) in the Villa Borghese. Warwick notes that the nude figure of Daphne was considered too lifelike and might offend the virtuous eye. As a remedy, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini (later Pope Urban VIII) offered poetic verses that cautioned against lust, thus providing a positive moral purpose for the work and absolving it from charges of lasciviousness. Interestingly, Barberini’s lines actually preceded the statue, indicating that there was a tradition of didactic speaking about sculpture. People expected performances associated with art and “in Bernini’s rendering, performed poetry became sculptural form” (129). Warwick masterfully reconstructs the experience of visiting the Villa Borghese in the early seventeenth century, a necessary precondition to understanding Bernini’s sculpture. For Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who built the villa, entertaining was part of his job as papal nephew to Paul V, and the villa was built to entertain and display art (it had no bedrooms, for example). Set in the verdant landscape just north of Rome’s walls, the villa’s design was based on literary descriptions of the gardens and villas of antiquity. The villa and its works were arranged for performances: people walked through the gardens and villa, talked about poetry, viewed works of art, and in general enjoyed the delizia of Rome. The Villa Borghese employed sculpture, frescoes, gardens, and inscriptions to invoke Ovid’s Golden Age: just as theater “transports” the audience to a fictional realm, the Villa Borghese transported visitors to Ovid’s arcadian world of love and lust, of defied expectations and realized dreams, of shifting reality and transcendental metamorphosis. The location and display of objects was essential to the experience of visiting the villa. For example, the Apollo and Daphne was moved around its rooms, each new location providing visitors with a fresh viewing point emphasizing a different point in the Ovidian narrative. Thus, sculpture and space enacted the story in “a changing and dynamic spectacle of reception” (113).

“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).

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.

Matthew Knox Averett
Associate Professor, Department of Fine and Performing Arts, Creighton University