There is no shortage of art galleries in Rome, but first-time visitors may be unaware of how much world-class art is visible for free (or a small charge to turn the lights on) throughout the Eternal City.
Rome’s churches and squares are filled with incredible art by the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael and Caravaggio, all of whom lived and worked here. The most prolific of them all is perhaps Gian Lorenzo Bernini, whose style defined the Italian High Baroque of the 17thcentury and immortalised the memory of the 5 popes he worked for.
Talented and charming, Bernini produced an incredible number of sculptures throughout his career. Many of them are now in Galleria Borghese, but if you don’t feel like waiting to get in there, visiting some of his more public works will take you on a great tour of discovery through the city.
1 Santa Maria della Vittoria
A short walk from Termini Station, is the church which will be familiar to anyone who has read Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. On the left, the chapel closest to the altar is the Cornaro Chapel, which was built for the Venetian Cardinal Cornaro at the time of Innocent X, when Bernini’s papal patronage had ended. The chapel is dominated by the statue of St. Teresa in Ecstasy, depicting a moment from the saint’s autobiography which describes the joy and pain she experienced when an angel pierced her heart with a spear. Bernini has created a piece of theatre, both with his use of natural light, shining down on the saint and by giving her an audience; the cardinal and his family watching on from boxes on the side walls, discussing the event they are witnessing.
2 Piazza Barberini
This piazza might be a less than desirable location today, but in Bernini’s day it was to be a monument to the powerful Barberini family. On one side was their family palace (today the National Gallery of Ancient Art), which was worked on by both Bernini and Borromini. Take a look and make sure to check out the 2 staircases – Bernini’s is a grand, monumental affair, while Borromini’s is smaller, but an intricate twisting oval.
In the center of the piazza is the Triton Fountain which Bernini sculpted for the Barberini pope, Urban VIII. The muscular triton knells, spraying water through the shell he holds which splashes playfully down onto him, in the middle of a modern traffic junction!
In the corner, where the square meets Via Veneto, most passerby fail to notice another of Bernini’s creations. The Fountain of the Bees (the symbol of the Barberini Family which crawl over many of Bernini’s works), was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII as a public gift in the form of a watering trough for the city’s horses!
3 Sant’Andrea della Fratte / Ponte degli Angeli
The ‘Bridge of Angels’ in front of Castel Sant’Angelo, was one of Bernini’s final large projects. Along the bridge, 10 angels hold the symbols of the Passion of Christ, most of them were done by his students, and the two that Bernini did complete never made it onto the bridge as the pope decided to keep them for himself! Today there are copies of these on the bridge, while the originals are in the church of Sant’Andrea della Fratte, close to Piazza di Spagna. Avoid going during mass, and you will be able to get very close to these wonderful statues.
As you come out of the main entrance of the church, note the plaque on the corner house across the street, telling us that Bernini once lived here.
4 Santa Maria del Popolo
This church can’t quite rival St. Peter’s for the big names on display here, but it comes pretty close! Another location that inspired Dan Brown, the dark interior not only has sculptures by Bernini, but also a chapel by Raphael and 2 glorious paintings by Caravaggio (if you are walking here from Santa Maria sopra Minerva, take the time to stop in San Luigi dei Francesi and Sant’Agostino to admire some of Caravaggio’s other masterpieces).
5 Santa Maria sopra Minerva
One of Rome’s cutest statues has to be Bernini’s elephant just passed the Pantheon,which the Romans oddly refer as ‘Minerva’s Chick’!
Make sure you go inside the church as well and look for the memorial to Maria Raggi. Attached to a pillar in the church, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the way Bernini has created billowing cloth from a static piece of marble.
6 Piazza Navona
In the center of the square stands the Fountain of the Four Rivers, created for the Pamphilj pope, Innocent X, who local legend says didn’t want to commission Bernini but simply couldn’t resist his design! The fountain represents the 4 major rivers in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas, each of the rivers identifiable by a symbol: the head of the Nile is covered, as its source was unknown at the time, the Danube, the closest to the Papal power in Rome, touches the pope’s crest , the Ganges holds an oar representing how easy it was to navigate and the Plate has a pile of coins, a sign of the potential wealth the New World could bring.
7 San Francesco a Ripa
Inside this Franciscan church in the Trastevere area, is the funerary monument of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni which was one of Bernini’s final commissions (he was 71 years old when he started it!)
St. Peter’s Basilica
Probably more than any of the numerous artists who worked on St. Peter’s, Bernini influenced how the building looks today, with its gilded dome, famous square and spectacular baldachin twisting its way up to cover the papal altar. Although it is possible to do the entire itinerary in a day, crossing from Piazza del Popolo to the Vatican, most visitors prefer to dedicate a day to visiting the basilica, Vatican Museums and climbing to the top of Michelangelo’s famous dome.
Bernini came back to St. Peter’s again and again throughout his career under successive popes:
URBAN VIII Barberini 1623-1644
The stunning baldachin that stands over the papal altar, under the magnificent dome, was commissioned by Urban to mark with ceremony the grave of St. Peter which rest below. Solomonic columns were inspired by those in the old Constantine basilica, which were said to have come from Soloman’s Temple in Jerusalem. If you can get close enough (depending on whether mass is going to be celebrated in the basilica), you’ll see that the columns are decorated with bees, a symbol of the Barberini, the pope’s family.
Bernini decided to decorate the four massive pillars that Michelangelo had created to support the dome, to commemorate the most precious relics held inside the basilica. Of the four, Bernini himself only sculpted the statue of St. Longinus, the Roman soldier holding the spear with which he pierced the side of Christ at the Crucifixion. The other statues – St. Veronica holding the veil she used to wipe Christ’s face, a piece of the True Cross brought from the Holy Land by St. Helena and a relic of the skull of the apostle Andrew, Peter’s brother, who is shown holding the X-shaped cross on which he was crucified –were made by artists of Bernini’s workshop.
Tomb of Urban VIII
The tomb depicts the pope seated, with the figures of Justice and Charity either side in white marble. Below the papal throne the black figure of death holds a parchment with the pope’s name.
INNOCENT X 1644-1655
Due to the rivalry between the Barberini and Pamphili families, Pope Innocent X (Giovanni Baptista Pamphili) intended to avoid using Urban’s favoured artist,though he did allow him to continue with the decoration walls and floor of the nave in St. Peter’s.
ALEXANDER VII 1655-1667
St. Peter’s Square
To understand the effect that Bernini was aiming for, approach St. Peter’s for the first time along Borgo Santo Spirito. As you approach, you’ll catch glimpses of columns and facade, until the end of the street where you are greeted by the incredible view of the wide open square and the magnificent basilica. Sadly, the effect was otherwise ruined when Mussolini destroyed the Medieval and Renaissance buildings that once stood in place of the Via della Conciliazione.
The style is simple compared to the church, but the monumental size makes for the theatrical effect you have now come to expect from Bernini. Make sure to find the central point on each side of the square, marked by a circle on the ground, where the four rows of columns disappear into a single one.
Tomb of Alexander VII
Bernini was 81 when he completed the tomb, representing the pope and the virtues. The tomb is best known for the almost lifelike folded drapery that partly covers a skeleton holding an hour glass, reminding us that time and death are inevitable
Apse with the Cathedra Petri
In Bernini’s day, the Cathedra Petri, or Chair of St. Peter, was in a state of deterioration when the Pope charged the artist with creating a splendid housing for it. The result is the magnificent bronze throne that seems to float unsupported on the wall of the apse, behind the papal altar. Above, rays of natural and sculpted light shine down, with the Holy Spirit at the center.
True Bernini devotees may want to make the trip to the tiny church of Santa Bibiana, located behind the Termini Station. Be warned that the church is frequently closed. The statue of the Roman saint, Bibiana, was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII at the beginning of his papacy. Bernini was just 28 at the time, but his love of theatricality was already visible, with light pouring from a window above, adding a sense of mysticism to the scene.
Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore
When Bernini died in 1680, he was buried in his family’s tomb in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, marked by nothing more than a simple plaque on the floor.
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