Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 7, 2013
Sarah McPhee Bernini's Beloved: A Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. 280 pp.; 75 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780300175271)

Costanza Bonarelli, known previously to scholars as Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s bewitching mistress, and beguilingly depicted in his eponymous sculpture (1636–37), is resurrected by Sarah McPhee’s groundbreaking study from being a footnote—albeit a scandalous one—in Bernini’s biography. McPhee succeeds in reconnecting Costanza with her ancestry and repositioning her in the artistic and social milieu of seventeenth-century Rome. This significant contribution to Italian art history, social history, and gender studies offers a portal into the machinations and patronage of art, particularly sculpture, in early modern Rome by way of painstakingly unearthed documents. These documents allow McPhee to parse fact from fiction, and reveal a compelling and complex female protagonist—Costanza Bonarelli (ca. 1614–1662), born Costanza Piccolomini. The Piccolomini was an illustrious Italian noble family from Siena, which also produced two popes: Pius II and Pius III. McPhee’s book plays a crucial role in shifting the conversation from the often male-centric studies of early modern Italian art history—sculpture in general and Bernini in particular.

Bernini has long been celebrated as the sculptor par excellence of seventeenth-century Europe, and rightfully so. Bernini scholarship is too vast to rehearse in its entirety. Useful, however, is an understanding of where McPhee’s text fits into this ever-burgeoning area of scholarship. There are, of course, the pioneering studies: Rudolf Wittkower’s Gian Lorenzo Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque (London: Phaidon Press, 1955; enlarged in 1966 and revised in 1981), Howard Hibbard’s Bernini (New York: Penguin Books, 1965), and Irving Lavin’s Bernini and the Unity of the Visual Arts (London: Oxford University Press, 1980). Recent studies, including Tod Marder’s Bernini and the Art of Architecture (New York: Abbeville Press, 1998), McPhee’s own Bernini and the Bell Towers: Architecture and Politics at the Vatican (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), Tomaso Montanari’s edited volume Bernini pittore (Milan: Silvana, 2007), and Franco Mormando’s Bernini: His Life and His Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011) have shed further light on Bernini’s architecture and biography, as well as his practice as a painter. Following on the 1997 installation at the Fogg Museum, Bernini: Sculpting in Clay (Metropolitan Museum of Art and Kimbell Art Museum, 2012–13) importantly focuses on Bernini’s process as a sculptor. Absent, however, has been a gendered examination of Bernini’s oeuvre. Costanza Piccolomini provides the perfect entrée into such an examination. Whereas Richard Krautheimer’s The Rome of Alexander VII, 1655–1667 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985) provided an opulent overview of Alexander Chigi’s transformation of urban topography at the latter end of the seventeenth-century in Rome, McPhee succeeds, in the vein of the historian Elizabeth Cohen (“Honor and Gender in the Streets of Early Modern Rome,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 22, no. 4 (1992): 597–625) and the art historian Patrizia Cavazzini (Painting as Business in Early Seventeenth-Century Rome, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008), in accessing the less trodden realms and less explored figures of seventeenth-century Rome, paying a debt to the patronage studies focused on early modern Roman women and nuns by Carolyn Valone (“Roman Matrons as Patrons: Various Views of the Cloister Wall,” in The Crannied Wall: Women, Religion, and the Arts in Early Modern Europe, Craig A. Monson, ed., Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992, 49–72) and Marilyn Dunn (“Nuns as Art Patrons: The Decoration of S. Marta al Collegio Romano,” Art Bulletin 70, no. 3 (1988): 451–77).

Divided into eight chapters, which more or less chronologically follow Costanza’s life, McPhee’s takes Bernini’s famed half-length, marble portrait bust of Costanza as the book’s focus. Bernini’s Beloved is, however, as much about modes of portrayal and their afterlife as about the history of this specific portrait. The text commences with the scandalous aspect of Costanza’s life—her face slashing by a servant of Bernini for her supposed indiscretion with his brother, Luigi. In the prologue, McPhee evinces a literary sense of narrative—perhaps a nod to the recent florescence of accounts of historical heroines, sometimes adhering strictly to the interpretation of historical documentation, as in Caroline Murphy’s 2009 Murder of a Medici Princess (New York: Oxford University Press), or sometimes taking artistic liberties, as in Alexandra Lapierre’s 2001 Artemisia: A Novel (New York: Grove Press). At the same time, this structural choice allows McPhee to get the salacious sensibly out of the way. It enables her to move beyond superficial scandal to ever-deeper historical, social, and literary inquiry. Costanza’s notorious face slashing serves as a foil to the development of her story and her historical—and art-historical—role.

In chapter 1, McPhee deftly concentrates on the art object—Bernini’s portrait bust itself—that has captivated the imagination of scholars and travelers alike for centuries. As anyone who has ever stood in the presence of this dynamic and full-blooded marble sculpture knows, Bernini’s technical facility overwhelms. In a period in which portrait busts most often served as official representations of powerful women, such as, as McPhee points out, Olimpia Maidalchini or Maria Barberini Duglioli, Bernini’s portrait of and homage to Costanza has a decidedly personal and intimate character. As McPhee describes her: “The woman portrayed is changeable: she is fiery, she is youthful, she is matronly; she is intelligent, disheveled, composed. She is individual” (15). At first blush, Bernini’s portrait of Costanza may appear singular; McPhee, however, artfully situates it within the genre of seventeenth-century Roman portrait sculpture, as well as period innovations within the type.

Costanza was born and raised a Piccolomini, and we learn much about her familial lineage in chapter 2. This adjustment of fact is not a matter of luxuriating in the minutiae of history, but rather underscores how a family name, even without attendant familial wealth, alters the educational and social possibilities of an early modern woman in Rome. This chapter provides information on Costanza’s life and lineage by way of archival materials (e.g., her will, parish records, and notice of dowry). She is, for example, granted a dowry by the Confraternity of the Gonfalone to marry Matteo Bonucelli on February 16, 1632, in the Roman church of S. Lorenzo in Lucina. Chapter 3 tackles the career of Costanza’s husband, Matteo, who hailed from Lucca and worked as Bernini’s assistant at St. Peter’s. As McPhee hypothesizes, this professional relationship is likely the channel through which Bernini first encountered Costanza. Unclear is the degree to which Matteo was aware of, or possibly even sanctioned, this affair. Chapter 3 ends with a fascinating foray into the history of early modern face slashing. These chapters both successfully present Costanza as an individual and complicate the historical figure of Bernini. Often given hagiographic treatment—as discussed in Mormando’s 2011 edition of Domenico Bernini’s biography of his father—Bernini, in McPhee’s telling, is seen in a far more flawed and human light than we are accustomed, or perhaps comfortable.

Chapter 4 begins dramatically—the “sbirri [policemen] came for Costanza” (49). It provides background on how period notions of “honestà”—whether real or fabricated—led many women to be incarcerated in reformatory social institutions. In the case of Costanza, she was placed in the Domus Pia de Urbe, known as the Monasterio di Casa Pia, which was founded in the 1560s by Carlo Borromeo to provide a safe haven for converted prostitutes (convertite). Based on circumstantial evidence, McPhee convincingly speculates that Costanza was committed on the grounds of adultery, although no conclusive evidence has been located. She situates Costanza’s confinement within the larger context of another fallen woman, the Mary Magdalene. Drawing analogies between the two women, McPhee captures the vulnerable state in which early modern women found themselves, and aptly demonstrates how Costanza employed her literacy to get herself out of confinement. McPhee shows how Costanza’s written petition for release relied on her invenzione in phrasing, rather than on the generic formula—often the only avenue available to illiterate women in the period.

Chapter 5, “Matteo scultore,” turns to Costanza’s husband. It traces his career based on the roles of Fabbrica payments at St. Peter’s and explores his involvement in the trade of ancient sculpture as well as his work for the pope’s nephew, Camillo Pamphilj. A contract in Rome’s State Archives, dated January 7, 1650, records an agreement between Diego Velázquez and Matteo for the production of twelve bronze lions for the King of Spain, Philip IV, and attests to Matteo’s work beyond Italy. This chapter also situates Matteo, and by extension Costanza, within the complex and ever-overlapping international network of artists in mid-seventeenth-century Rome, including, beyond Bernini, the sculptor Alessandro Algardi; the Flemish portrait painter for the Medici, Justus Suttermans; the Belgian painter Michael Sweerts; the Flemish sculptor François Duquesnoy; and the French painter Nicolas Poussin. This group of friends and acquaintances explains why, as Félibien documents in his journal, “at the home of Signor Matteo,” he saw Poussin’s Plague at Ashdod (ca. 1631) and Parnassus (ca. 1630–31) (71). These were very valuable pictures at the time, and their presence in his household attests to their comfortable financial situation. This is also indicated by the value of their home purchased in 1649 and located at Vicolo Scanderberg 43, near the Trevi Fountain. This chapter—while a fascinating addendum to the career of Matteo and seventeenth-century Roman sculpture—leaves unresolved questions about Costanza’s role in his output during his life.

McPhee restricts Costanza’s involvement with Matteo’s sculptural production and studio to chapter 6, which follows her career after her husband’s death in 1645—at which time Costanza served as his universal heir. Widowed at the age of forty, Costanza began receiving bills addressed to “Costanza scultora,” which suggests she continued Matteo’s sculpture business. As McPhee notes, “for a woman to be involved in business in Rome in these years was not uncommon” (84). Not only did Costanza oversee her family’s sculpture business, but she also acted as an informed guardian of the family’s valuable collection of eleven pictures (Michelangelo Cerquozzi, Agostino Ciampelli, Michael Sweerts, Johann Heinrich Schönfeld, etc.), including the aforementioned works by Poussin. She was, in fact, asking a sizable one thousand scudi for Poussin’s Plague at Ashdod and would not part with it for one scudo less, even for a patron as exalted as the French king’s chief minister, Mazarin. McPhee writes: “Costanza emerges sharply from these exchanges as a woman involved in the picture trade who knows the value of the market and is determined to hold out for her asking price” (91). It is hard to know exactly how the collection evolved and whose taste and leverage was paramount—Matteo’s or Costanza’s. Or should the collection be viewed as a collaborative venture? McPhee’s insistence in this chapter, however, on considering Costanza’s material possessions as a whole, rather than discussing the sculptures or paintings in isolation, is constructive. Details such as a room lined with a hundred panels of red leather tooled with gold to house a lone harpsichord dovetails with McPhee’s exploration of Costanza’s wardrobe, including jewels. Her eleven dresses in addition to “jackets, blouses, sleeves and bloomers, velvet collars, and Turkish veils . . . bed hangings with yellow and blue fringe valued at eighteen scudi alone, and yards of black silk” (108) build upon recent scholarship on early modern material culture, often related to women, led by Suzanne Butters (The Triumph of Vulcan: Sculptors’ Tools, Porphyry, and the Prince in Ducal Florence, 2 vols., Florence: Olschki, 1996). Readers also learn in this chapter that by February 1655 Costanza was a mother—her offspring Olimpia Caterina bore the matrilineal surname, Piccolomini.

Chapter 7 opens with the purchase of Costanza’s chestnut coffin and the sale of Poussin’s Plague at Ashdod to the Duc de Richelieu in 1661 for her unwavering asking price. Despite the sale of valuable property, Costanza continued to invest in luxury garments for her own use (rose damask from Venice and French silk the color of moss, etc.), as well as numerous shoes and dresses for her daughter Olimpia, nicknamed Nina. Costanza died on November 30, 1662, and was laid to rest in the Roman pilgrimage church of S. Maria Maggiore. McPhee’s analysis of her burial—just inside the Holy Door, opened once every twenty-five years by the pope for the Jubilee, where he would have trod over her mortal remains—further bolsters Costanza’s sense of entitlement and family position, as well as the financial means necessary to carry out such a burial. In her will, Costanza charged Cesare Rasponi and Domenico Salvetti with the care of her child. It remains an open question who was her lawful father, if either one. Beyond her property, which was her most valuable asset, and as a result of her infidelity, Costanza was forced by law—instituted by Pope Leo X—to leave one third of her worldly possessions to the church and convent of S. Maria Maddalena delle Convertite to support nuns who had found refuge from their sins. In order to assess how much Costanza owed this charitable institution, Carlo Antonio dal Pozzo—brother of the well-known Cassiano dal Pozzo and treasurer of the Convertite—was sent to her house in Vicolo Scanderbeg. “One hundred and eleven paintings, four drawings, and eighty sculptures, bonds, clothing, silver, jewels, furniture, bedding, materials pertaining to Matteo’s business, and improvements he had made to the house, all were agreed to be worth a total of 7,800 scudi” (118). According to McPhee, the total seems artificially low, but due to the uncertainty of selling art, the nuns were willing to accept their share of 2,600 scudi. Of particular interest, Costanza stated in her will that if her daughter had children they could only inherit her estate if they bore the Piccolomini name. As children were considered the property of their fathers in the seventeenth century, this matrilineal assertion is noteworthy.

In chapter 8, McPhee fittingly places Bernini’s bust of Costanza in the grand poetic tradition of the poet and his beloved—of which Petrarch and Laura exist as the foremost example. Bernini was deeply affected by the writers of his generation, including the seventeenth-century Neapolitan poet Marino. Bernini’s portrait bust, writes McPhee, “encompasses the lusty longing of Marino’s verse but also captures the riveting individuality of the sitter. The passion of her youth, the recklessness of her behavior, the intelligence that would see her to wealth and success are all suspended in the stone” (145). We know from Bernini’s inventory that the artist owned tomes by Petrarch and Dante, Ariosto and Tasso, as well as by Marino. Bernini’s portrait bust of Costanza is equal parts experience and poetry. And McPhee, like Pygmalion, brings Costanza to life. Myths are unraveled and facts are dutifully sought, if not always found, by way of the archives. The documents published in the appendices (149–215) are testament to this journey and, ultimately, allow readers to form their own conclusions. This book exhibits years of research, thought, and passion.

Eve Straussman-Pflanzer
Curator and Head of Italian and Spanish Paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.