Certain artists contrive not simply to be their own era’s perfect imagemakers but to embody its essence within their private lives. Such a one was Gian Lorenzo Bernini. To the crisis-ridden Italy of the 17th century, with its wars, famines, plagues and rebellions, his sculpture, in works like Apollo and Daphne or The Ecstasy of St Teresa, proposed an alternative world of rapture and exaltation. As Rome’s chief architect under six popes, he effectively re-created the city’s imperial grandeur in the swirl of St Peter’s great colonnades, the fantastic baldachino within the basilica itself and the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona.
Bernini was profoundly attuned to the Baroque’s underlying quirks of fancy, fretfulness and excess. Ages in advance of the Romantic cliché that requires ‘creatives’ to justify their special status by behaving badly, he knew just how an artist should conduct himself, whether in telling a French courtier, ‘You are not