Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 1, 2021
Carolina Mangone Bernini's Michelangelo New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020. 288 pp.; 143 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300247732)

By the time Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) had reached his early thirties, he was already being hailed the “Michelangelo of his age.” The epithet was direct acknowledgment that no living artist was as successful as Bernini at imitating Michelangelo’s style and also at matching his grandiose ambitions as a sculptor and an architect. Bernini’s earliest biographers, including his son, Domenico, were quick to latch on to the conceit, constructing narratives that pushed the theme of Bernini’s imitatio Buonarroti (in imitation of Buonarroti)—that the path Bernini chose to pursue with his art was a path that deliberately followed Michelangelo’s. But did Bernini in fact approach his art as a sustained imitatio of the sixteenth-century master? Until recently the answer has been that Bernini and other artists came to reject Michelangelo, whose art they saw as antithetical to the new norms of classicism that were emerging in Rome during the 1630s and 1640s. Carolina Mangone offers an important corrective in her new book, Bernini’s Michelangelo. As she persuasively argues, Michelangelo was a force that Bernini reckoned with throughout his career. This is not to mean that he was always out to imitate him in the traditional sense. Rather, in his desire to bring Michelangelo into the seventeenth century, Bernini found ways to be like Michelangelo through a process of critical interrogation—thus, emulation by challenging. With a vividness that only a few studies of the artist have accomplished, Mangone allows us to step into Bernini’s mind as it worked to make sense of his artistic world and who he wished to be.

Divided into five chapters, the book does not attempt a comprehensive survey of all the ways Bernini’s art acknowledges Michelangelo’s. Instead Mangone aims to capture the wide range of approaches Bernini took when engaging with Michelangelo’s example. Her investigation is centered on those works she sees as being most tightly bound up with the critical debates surrounding Michelangelo’s art, theory, and practice. Accordingly, for those wishing to understand Michelangelo’s critical reception in Rome during the seventeenth century, there is hardly a better source than this book. Here the introduction is key, featuring a section entitled “Michelangelo’s Canonicity.”

The rest of the study is split into two halves—the first on sculpture, the second on architecture—and it is arguably the second that is the richer. The first chapter, “Figura serpentinata (Serpentine figure),” deals with sculpture, investigating how Bernini, throughout his career, adapted Michelangelo’s style of muscular, twisting bodies for use in his own sculptures. Mangone makes the important point that many of Bernini’s youthful works are religious in subject, which shows that he was willing from an early age to stand up against the reform-minded critics of the period who decried Michelangelo’s unnatural, severely contorted poses as sacrilegious. Bernini gained confidence in his approach from members of his circle at the time, especially those affiliated with the Barberini family, who admired Michelangelo’s art precisely for its vigor, as is clear from some of their poems.

After reviewing how Bernini’s youthful productions imitate Michelangelo’s figura serpentinata, Mangone focuses on two works from Bernini’s maturity, his sculptures in the Chigi chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, Habakkuk and the Angel and Daniel and the Lion. Here he was motivated to double down on his Michelangelism in the face of two new pressures. The first was Michelangelo’s plummeting reputation at midcentury. The second involved the artist who supplanted Michelangelo as the model of artistic excellence, his legendary rival, Raphael. It was to Raphael that the two statues already in the Chigi chapel, Jonah and Elijah, were commonly attributed in the seventeenth century. As Mangone cogently argues, Bernini could not ignore the resulting face-off, and he developed figures that were pointedly serpentine and that thereby reasserted his claim to being the “Michelangelo of his age.”

Chapter 2, “Colore (Color),” centers on one of the more significant ways Bernini departed from Michelangelo’s example: the painterly qualities he brought to the tomb of Urban VIII, including the use of bronze and colored marbles and the supple carving of the flesh. After exposing these “innovations” as atypical of Michelangelo, however, Mangone reverses course, arguing that they “summon” him—albeit “obliquely” (22). Here the reader begins to wonder whether the author may be trying to prove an influence that does not exist. Mangone goes on to contend that as Bernini sought to bring a new vitality, or colorism, to the format of the papal tomb, he could not help but reflect on aspects of Michelangelo’s production, including the body-clinging drapery of the latter’s Leah and Rachel on the tomb of Julius II. Works by Michelangelo’s followers are also given as examples, such as the Strozzi chapel in Sant’Andrea della Valle, where an imitator, Gregorio de Rossi, converted elements of his architecture and sculpture into a rich assemblage of colored materials. Mangone is correct that Bernini’s solution for the Urban VIII tomb represents a certain amount of filtering down from Michelangelo. But as she duly notes, the relationship should not be described as direct.

By contrast, in architecture, Bernini’s imitation of Michelangelo was extremely purposeful. In Chapter 3, “Ut sculptura architectura (As is sculpture, so is architecture),” Mangone suggests how Bernini’s whole conception of the architect’s profession was modeled on Michelangelo’s, which Bernini took to be rooted in the belief that sculptors were uniquely qualified to be architects because they were skilled at judging spatial relationships by eye. Professional architects lacked this giudizio dell’occhio (judgment of the eye), as Michelangelo called it, having been trained to put their trust in measurements, mathematics, and rules. Accordingly Bernini believed that in order to assert his credentials as an architect, it behooved him to align himself with Michelangelo, whose mastery of the discipline, in spite of his being a sculptor, was unquestioned. Mangone shows how Bernini pursued the strategy by imitating Michelangelo’s process, especially in his use of full-scale models, and by focusing on Michelangelo’s greatest building, Saint Peter’s, which Bernini attempted to make his own by giving the facade the proportions, or sense of balance, that he thought Michelangelo had originally imagined for it. (Michelangelo’s centralized design for Saint Peter’s had been radically altered since his tenure as chief architect of the basilica—most especially by Carlo Maderno, who served in the position between 1603 and 1629.) The story of how Bernini botched the structural engineering of his interventions is well known. Mangone’s important contribution is to set this failure in the context of the period debates surrounding the practice of architecture and the attempts to cast Michelangelo as an exemplar of the profession not because of his giudizio dell’occhio but because of his engineering prowess. As she concludes, in trying to compensate for his architectural shortcomings through Michelangelo, Bernini ended up killing off his own kind: the figural artist who could make the leap to professional architect.

Architecture is also the focus of the next chapter, “Licenzia (License),” which investigates the relationship between Bernini and Michelangelo in the realm of architectural ornament. Mangone discusses how Michelangelo’s capitals, pediments, and other forms, in spite of their outlandish designs, came to be revered during the seventeenth century, joining the five ancient orders (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Tuscan, and composite) as part of the architectural canon. Mangone acknowledges that there were still plenty of detractors who decried Michelangelo’s approach as blasphemous. Predictably Bernini was not one of them. From the start of his architectural career he was constantly devising new kinds of ornaments inspired by Michelangelo’s example. The chapter also deals with Bernini’s main rival in architecture, Francesco Borromini, who was equally indebted to Michelangelo for his ornamentation, although in different ways. Over time—especially during the papacy of Alexander VII—Bernini became the restrained “classicist,” with Borromini questioned for his extreme licentiousness, even disparaged as “Gothic.” The interesting twist is that by the end of the century both approaches had come to be seen as exemplary because of their shared roots in Michelangelo.

The final chapter, which could easily have formed part of chapter 3, returns to the concept of giudizio dell’occhio. Mangone draws attention to Baciccio’s late portrait of Bernini, in which the artist gestures with his left hand in a way that seems to acknowledge a portrait of Michelangelo that Bernini would have known in Rome. She connects the gesture with how an artist might hold a compass, which leads her to read it as a symbol of giudizio dell’occhio—how the eye acts like a compass, providing good measurement or proportions. This sets up the overarching conclusion of the book: Bernini’s imitatio Buonarroti was fundamentally about his ability to judge. Bernini had to use his good judgment to reconcile Michelangelo’s shifting reputation with his own sense of where the art of his time should go. He became the “Michelangelo of his age” by doing as Michelangelo had done, by trusting his eye as he performed the delicate balancing act of reinventing the canon while respecting it.

C. D. Dickerson III
Curator and Head of Department, Sculpture and Decorative Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC