Of all the great and still celebrated seventeenth-century artists, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) is the only one to induce both a sporadic smirk and a shudder. Bernini’s best-known work, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1645–52), provokes interest not so much because it is the prototype for overwhelming multimedia ‘total artworks’, but because the implausibly glamorous saint seems to be experiencing multiple orgasms over the altar (the real Teresa was plain and prematurely aged by ascetic practices). Bernini’s best-known deed is a gruesome double crime of passion – the attempted murder of his brother for sleeping with his own mistress (who was the wife of one of his assistants), followed by the slashing of the mistress’s face with a razor by Bernini’s henchman. His cause has not exactly been helped by Jeff Koons being his most high profile and vociferous fan, especially during Koons’s Cicciolina period: ‘I use the baroque to show the public that we are in the realm of the spiritual, the eternal.’ With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Franco Mormando’s biography, Bernini: His Life and His Rome, starts off in breathless, seedy style. The opening section of the first chapter is entitled ‘A TWELVE-YEAR-OLD PREGNANT BRIDE’, and the first word of the text is ‘Pedophilia’. My first thought was: ‘Gadzooks! A scoop worthy of the late News of