As a seven-year-old, Gianlorenzo Bernini, born in Naples, accompanied his sculptor father to Rome and lade himself useful at the latter’s workplaces. His talent did not stay hidden for long: at first Bernini attracted ttention as a sculptor, but soon he was in demand as an architect. And finally there was no holding him: o other artist has had such a huge influence on the cityscape of Rome as Bernini.
As the start of the 17th century, hardly a stone was still in its place in the Eternal City: streets and squares were laid out, and the Vatican was architecturally integrated into the city, for it was the popes themselves who were strenuously promoting urban modernization. And in the course of his career over more than six decades, Bernini was able to rely on the patronage of several popes. If he fell out of favor with the Vatican, there were still illustrious secular patrons to be found to make use of Bernini’s services, including King Louis XIV of France. No wonder that Bernini did not hide his light under a bushel. When there was criticism of the nose in a newly completed portrait of Louis, he responded curtly: “That is how I see it.”
Bernini combined his talents as a sculptor and architect in his largest and most spectacular fountain. In the middle of the Piazza Navona in Rome, four marble river gods are enthroned on a rock, representing the parts of the earth known at that time: the Ganges and the Nile, the Danube and the Rio de la Plata form the basis of the monumental Fountain of Four Rivers, from whose center a Roman obelisk towers up. In 1656, on the opposite bank of the Tiber, and within the Vatican City, Bernini began his most important project, the redesign of St Peter’s Square. From the viewpoint of the existing square, the effect of the mighty dome of the basilica was hardly to be perceived.
Bernini first designed a trapezoid arrangement, and then toyed with the idea of a circular shape. Finally, he decided in favor of two adjoining areas, appropriate to the huge dimensions of the church: the Piazza Obliqua, 140 meters in depth, consists of an ellipse running diagonally to the church, to which is adjoined the Piazza Retta, which widens in trapezoid shape to 90 meters towards the basilica of St Peter. At the edges of both areas, Bernini placed wide rows of columns to enclose the Baroque complex effectively.
A tireless worker, Bernini continually pursued parallel tasks to this one, including the building of the church of Sant’Andrea on the Quirinal Hill. The decisive shape of this Jesuit church is the oval, and the ground-plan oval is even set diagonally. A circular staircase leads up to the portal, which in its turn is shielded by a canopy. Curved walls project on to the street from the portal. Bernini’s urge to design did not stop at the facade: the design extends to the interior too, where the oval forms are continued. The architect himself often visited the little church even after its completion, considering it one of his masterpieces.