Book Review: Franco Mormando’s “Bernini: His Life and His Rome”

a detail of the Four Rivers Foutnain in Rome, Piazza NavonaPublished this past November, Franco Mormando’s Bernini: His Life and His Rome is a wonderful biography on an artist who has left an indelible mark on Rome with his theatrical sculptures, playful fountains and building works.  Published by the University of Chicago Press, this book relates not only the life of Bernini from his auspicious beginnings to the end of his career, but it also attempts — might I say, most successfully — to recreate the “atmosphere” of Rome in Bernini’s time and my favorite aspect of this work.

Mormondo does a wonderful job of creating a psychological profile of the artist, doing his best to get into the mind of his subject and helps us to understand what he might be thinking and feeling and why Bernini does what he does.  Mormondo does not force 21st century values onto his subject and paints a picture of the artist as he should be seen: a product of his time.  This task is most certainly not an easy task, but, the author draws on primary source material in order to complete his profile of Bernini.

Primary source material from Bernini’s own son, Domenico, and observations from those of other eyewitnesses work to create a balanced portrait of the artist, his works, his temperament, and his dealings with others.  Mormondo is always careful and cautions the reader regularly that we must judge carefully Domenico’s accounts of many exploits recounted in his biography.  Using other eyewitness accounts certain helps to balance out some of Domenico’s less believable observations.  In doing so, we are able to judge Bernini through the eyes of several observers.

More importantly, Mormondo recreates Baroque Rome, providing the reader with a realistic account of Rome by discussing not only the art and patrons of Bernini but the politics and problems of the time as well as the circumstances involving Bernini’s works and commissions.  This aspect of the book I enjoyed the most, and I also appreciated the author’s dedication in keeping Rome and its cultural and political climate always “on stage” with the artist.  I enjoy how the author focuses not only on Bernini but on the major players of the time, looking at Bernini’s business rivalries, his love interests, as well as the many patrons who Bernini worked for during his lifetime.  While there is much “gossip” in the book, Mormondo refuses to place his primary source material in any kind of hierarchy:  no primary source seems to reign over any other.  This balanced approach is used throughout the book.

I was pleasantly surprised to see extensive use of Giacinto Gigli’s Diario di Roma, a diary written by one of Bernini’s contemporaries that discusses the going’s on in the Rome from 1608 to 1670. Sadly, this work was translated into English but is hard to find, and the Italian edition, republished in 1994, is also now out of print.  Mormondo cites heavily from this work and allows the reader to enjoy the Gigli’s observations about Bernini, his works, the reception of his works as well as the political and religious climate in Rome at the time.  His invaluable diary and Mormondo’s use of it in support of his research adds much value to the book.

image of Bernini's sculpture, Pulcino di Minerva, an elephant carrying an obeliskMormondo takes a lot of chances with his research, but they are gambles that are supported by his source material. Mormondo clearly understands the minds of those who lived during the Baroque.  He possesses an insight that is invaluable in understanding Bernini and his Rome.  We must admire how Mormondo never sways from reporting the various angles of a story, even when they are risque and scandalous, and he refuses to place Bernini on a “proverbial pedestal” — acknowledging the master’s faults and successes.  You might find Mormondo’s psychological insight into Bernini hard to swallow at times, but his observations help us to see a side of the artist, his works and his environs that simply cannot be dismissed.

Anyone heading to Rome would do well to read this wonderful biography.  It’s almost impossible not to see the works of Bernini while you are in Rome, and this book will help in understanding the artist and his works.

How to purchase:

I purchased this book for the Kindle app on my iPad. A hardback copy of book is available from $35.00 from the publisher (University of Chicago Press).  If you purchase the ebook directly from the publisher, they offer several options, two “30 day loan periods” as PDF or ePub for $7.00 or you could purchase the ebook for $21.00.  Prices are, of course, subject to change.  Visit the publisher’s web site for more details.