Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 27, 2013
Irving Lavin Bernini at Saint Peter's: The Pilgrimage Visible Spirit: The Art of Gianlorenzo Bernini, vol. 3.. London: Pindar Press, 2013. 386 pp.; 272 color ills. Cloth $390.00 (9781904597469)
Thumbnail

Scholars are fortunate to now have a convenient new edition containing all of Irving Lavin’s numerous articles on the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Published under the collective title Visible Spirit: The Art of Gianlorenzo Bernini, the third and final volume is Bernini at St. Peter’s: The Pilgrimage. Unlike the preceding volumes, it represents a single monograph unto itself, printed in a much larger format with a great deal of unpublished material and excellent color photography. Lavin’s thesis concerning the many works of art that he subjects to detailed visual and historical examination is that “Bernini’s career at St. Peter’s was a lifelong effort to convert the church and the Vatican into a vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem to which every believer aspires” (228). In this Bernini was entirely successful, in Lavin’s estimation, achieving in and for the papal seat a remarkable artistic and spiritual unity, despite all obstacles.

Lavin, with his acute powers of observation and firm mastery of the primary sources, provides a thoroughly illuminating, nuanced explication of the works in question, as art objects located in a specific physical space and in relationship to other objects, as well as bearing theological, historical, and spiritual meaning. Few scholars have observed Bernini’s works as carefully and as intelligently as Lavin. The best example of this is his examination of the Baldacchino (inaugurated 1634), dismantled visually and symbolically from top to bottom, all the way down to the woman giving birth on its marble bases. In Lavin’s telling, there is nothing pertaining to the construction, decoration, or furnishing of St. Peter’s and environs that is devoid of symbolic meaning. Some of the symbolism is obvious or easily deciphered even today—e.g., the Fathers holding up Peter’s throne in the Cathedra Petri (inaugurated 1666)—but some of it is quite arcane and all but forgotten, such as that pertaining to lizards eating scorpions (105–23), the papal “dung chair” (91–92), and the Virgin Mary’s breasts as symbolic of the Old and the New Testaments (317).

Because there is little from Bernini or his patrons by way of explicit explanation of the concetto of the individual projects or the meaning of their component details, one must engage in reasonable conjecture, based on visual evidence and contemporary sources. In this, Lavin is virtually always convincing. On one point, however—that troublesome motif of Maria Sacerdos, the Virgin as Priest (317–18), which Lavin sees invoked in Bernini’s Sangue di Cristo drawing (1670)—I would need further documentation from seventeenth-century sources in order to be convinced. St. Bonaventure’s claim (quoted by Lavin, 320) that “one cannot reach the benefaction of [the Eucharist] without the protection of the Virgin” would have struck post-Tridentine theologians as a manifestation of the excesses of medieval Mariolatry that the Counter-Reformation church sought to eradicate. As for the symbolism inherent in the very fabric of the new St. Peter’s basilica, what is missing in Lavin’s account is acknowledgement of the fact that by the time Bernini arrived on the job, construction of the new basilica had been in progress for one hundred years and the building had already been the subject of much symbolic “investment,” as recounted, for example, in Marie Tanner’s Jerusalem on the Hill: Rome and the Vision of St. Peter’s in the Renaissance (Turnhout: Harvey Miller, 2010), not cited by Lavin. Did Bernini know of this preceding history, and, if so, how did he interact with it?

To decipher religious iconography, a competent knowledge of Catholic theology, liturgy, history, etc.—or access to someone with such knowledge—is essential. Lavin has long had both that knowledge and that access. However, sometimes even the great Homer nods, and one comes across statements that well-educated Catholics would (or, at least, should) never make. For instance, “The punishments themselves—hanging, decapitation, quartering et al.—were those traditionally meted out to the sinners in Hell” (243). The Church has never claimed to know what really goes on in Hell; and, moreover, with regard to Hell, how can one speak of “tradition”? Again under the rubric of “even Homer nods,” regarding the notion of the bona mors (good death), about which Lavin has written a great deal and here invokes again (309), what is missing from his exposition is mention of the widespread, and then fully orthodox Catholic, belief that at the moment of death the devil made his last attempt to win over the soul of the dying person through a series of vigorous temptations whereby a whole lifetime of virtue and sincere belief could be vanquished by Satan in one final moment of weakness. Without awareness of this belief, one cannot fully understand Bernini’s own anxiously elaborate preparation for death or his son Domenico’s description of death as a cimento, a test.

A publication of 1665, first introduced to the Bernini literature a decade ago by Tomaso Montanari and offering valuable information about the physical state of St. Peter’s, is L’ateista convinto dalle sole ragioni, by Filippo Bonini, Cardinal Antonio Barberini’s vicar of Palestrina. Bonini reports, most notably, that there were grave concerns about the very stability of the basilica in part due to cracks in the masonry that were allowing rainwater to enter and wreck havoc on the fabric of the structure—a perilous situation for which Bonini and not a few other contemporaries in Rome were blaming Bernini. Lavin cites Bonini (253) but ignores his criticisms of Bernini; he focuses, instead, on Bonini’s treatise on the problem of Tiber flooding, while dismissing the Ateista as, in effect, the discreditable work of a hysteric malcontent that “was quickly placed on the Index of Prohibited Books” (and rightly so, Lavin (253) appears to feel). Instead, the Ateista‘s polemical content—not just about Bernini—is echoed in any number of contemporary, respectable sources and is worthy of the attention of scholars. Lavin calls the book’s title “provocative” and “scandalous” (253), but it is neither: translating as “The atheist converted [to faith] by the force of reason alone,” it accurately describes the edifying outcome of the debate therein between believer and atheist.

Whatever criticisms Bernini may have faced, I agree with Lavin that the final result of the artist’s labors in St. Peter’s is a wonderful unity of aesthetic design. Accordingly, Lavin begins and ends his monograph with an invocation of his concept of the bel composto, that is, the creation of a large, complex work of art in which all the forms of art are expertly employed together, blending seamlessly so as to create an aesthetically unified, integral whole. I say “his,” that is, Lavin’s, concept and not Bernini’s or Bernini’s first biographers’ concept, because contrary to Lavin’s claims in Bernini and the Unity of the Visual Arts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), the “bel composto” as Lavin defines it has no roots in any of the early Bernini sources, including the biographies of Domenico Bernini and Francesco Baldinucci that Lavin explicitly cites as the foundation of his exposition. Although the idea of the “bel composto” as defined and popularized by Lavin remains an entirely useful and necessary way of describing Bernini’s achievements, it was a foreign concept to Domenico and Baldinucci, who never use the term as Lavin does and who never describe any of his projects in that fashion. Time and space do not allow detailed explanation of this point: I refer readers to pages 46–49 of the introduction to my edition of Domenico’s Life of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Domenico Bernini, The Life of Gian Lorenzo Bernini: A Translation and Critical Edition, with Introduction and Commentary, by Franco Mormando, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011).

Although representing only a brief moment in this lengthy monograph, Lavin’s treatment of Bonini’s Ateista is characteristic of his editorial stance, in general, in the present work and in his scholarship on Bernini and Baroque Rome. By and large, his representation of Bernini, of the popes, and of Baroque Rome relies almost entirely on “official” and therefore apologetic sources, especially when describing contemporary responses to the artist, his work, or his various ecclesiastical patrons. Any unflattering or otherwise negative views are usually ignored, relegated to footnotes, or dismissed as unworthy of attention. To cite a small but telling example in the present volume, Lavin’s claim about the edifying effect on the populace of the piety of Pope Alexander VII on Corpus Christi day has as its primary source none other than “the pope’s friend Sforza Pallavicino” (167), the same Jesuit sycophant who wrote the entirely pro-papal History of the Council of Trent and who was raised to the purple by the same Alexander VII. Hardly an impartial, reliable eyewitness. Lavin does quote diarist Gigli to corroborate Pallavicino; nonetheless, his unapologetic citation of Pallavicino seems naïve on the part of a well-seasoned scholar. About the same Alexander, however, Lavin is unable to ignore the unflattering views of Roman courtier Lorenzo Pizzati, made famous by Richard Krautheimer’s Rome of Alexander VII (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987). Here (303–6) and for the third time in Visible Spirit, Lavin attempts to at least partially refute Pizzati’s charge—one shared by many a contemporary and by much of posterity—that in his vast expenditures to build a more magnificent Rome, Alexander callously neglected the urgent needs of his suffering subjects. Lavin’s attempted refutation—in all three redactions—is unconvincing.

This predilection for official sources is also true of Lavin’s exposition of the symbolic meaning—the concetto—of Bernini’s works which occupies most of this volume: Lavin is primarily concerned with what Bernini and his patrons intended the viewers to understand and how they were supposed to respond spiritually and emotionally, namely, in a properly orthodox and pro-papal fashion. There is nothing wrong with this choice of point of view or subject matter. However, a steady diet of this kind of scholarly fare inevitably produces results that are highly abstract and divorced from reality. After years of reading the unofficial sources—private diaries and letters, avvisi, diplomatic correspondence, police chronicles, court trials—I have come to doubt that many contemporary viewers responded to Bernini’s works in the intellectually proper and spiritually orthodox manner intended by the official program. In any event, one must balance the picture by firmly contextualizing Bernini and his work in the fully three-dimensional, at times dark and dirty and gritty, everyday reality of Baroque Rome, even if it means speaking inconvenient truths about “Roma sancta” and “Bernini sanctus.” To say this, however, does not diminish the enduring, monumental accomplishments of Lavin’s work—his permanent place of honor in the pantheon of Bernini scholarship is firmly assured. It is simply to caution that, just like the bee that produces its sweet honey—to use a favorite Barberini image—by collecting pollen from a wide host of different plants, so too must we arrive at our understanding of Bernini and Baroque Rome through a healthily diverse gathering of data from all available sources and points of view.

Franco Mormando
Professor of Italian, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, Boston College

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.