Bernini’s Passionate Affair

Regular visitors to Florence’s Bargello, home to its great sculpture collection, know well the frustration of finding rooms, sometimes the whole second floor, closed. Imagine my shock in June to discover that not only was the second floor open but galleries I had never seen before. In one, amidst display cases with coins, was a treasure I didn’t know existed, but learned later was quite famous and considered perhaps Gianlorenzo Bernini’s finest portrait sculpture – his bust of Costanza Bonarelli. According to the label,

This celebrated bust is the most famous of Bernini’s portraits. It is a very ‘private’ image that he perhaps made for himself and kept in his home for a long time…

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Portrait of Costanza Bonarelli, marble, 1637-1638. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.

Costanza was the wife of one of Bernini’s assistants, when the artist was in his late thirties and working in Rome. He fell passionately in love with her and carried on an illicit affair.

Sensuality is a hallmark of Bernini’s work. The passion in his Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is well-known to every art history student. Gazing at his much more direct portrait of Costanza, it is not hard to share the feelings of the sculptor for this young woman. She seems to be portrayed just after a liaison. Her hair is disheveled, her dressing gown is wrinkled, unbuttoned, and hangs loosely across her breasts. One can easily imagine that her make-up is long gone. Costanza looks out with parted, sensual lips and seems a bit dazed.

Bonarelli was no servant girl, but a member of the noble Piccolomini family of Siena, whose members included two popes, the dukes of Amalfi, and the patron of Galileo. However, by the 1600s the fortunes of her family line had tumbled and, before she married, the young Costanza had received money from to religious fraternities to keep her from a life on the streets. Her husband, Matteo, began working for Bernini about two years before this sculpture was made in 1637 or 1638. At the time, Costanza was about 24 years old and had been married for five years.

The affair ended in violence, but not between Bernini and Matteo (who continued to work for the sculptor for the rest of his life). Not long after the sculpture was completed, Bernini heard rumors that Costanza had begun another affair. He hid outside her house one evening and was shocked to see his brother and most valuable assistant, Luigi Bernini, sneaking out, his clothes disheveled.

Enraged, Gianlorenzo ran after and attacked his brother with a metal crowbar, breaking two of his ribs. Then he chased him back to the family home with a sword. Luigi made it inside first and their mother bolted the door. Overcome by rage, Bernini broke the door down and chased his brother out into the streets. Luigi made it into the papal basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore before his brother. Those doors proved too strong for Bernini.

To make matters worse, the greatest sculptor of the Baroque period then sent one of his servants to Costanza to take revenge. Under orders by Bernini, he slashed her cheek with a razor. As a final act, Bernini, who had painted a picture of himself and his mistress, went home and cut her face out of the painting.

Word of this scandalous affair did not take long to reach Bernini’s patron, Pope Urban VIII. By this time, the wounded Luigi had already fled Rome. Unwilling to lose the services of so talented an artist, the pope delivered an ultimatum to Gianlorenzo Bernini — marry or else!  Which he did, in what turned out to be a happy marriage to Caterina Tezio that lasted 34 years with 11 children. [There was apparently a mutual understanding. Bernini agreed to treat his wife ‘exquisitely if she will prove capable of tolerating his nature, which is neither easy nor ordinary.’] A fine was imposed – ironically the amount was approximately the value of a portrait bust – but later waived by the Pope. The servant who disfigured Costanza was sent to prison.

Costanza remained married to Matteo until his death in 1654. They became sufficiently well off to provide a handsome dowry for their daughter and even own an art collection. After she was widowed, she donated a painting by Poussin to the Louvre. She died in 1662.

Luigi would later return to the family business and work on important commissions with his brother. He did not stay out of trouble, however. He was jailed for brutally raping a young boy and breaking several of his bones. Bernini paid off fines to the boy’s family and the Church and even got the Queen of Sweden to testify in his brother’s defense (claiming that sodomy was common in Rome and among Florentines like Bernini’s family).

Gianlorenzo Bernini, who died in 1680, is buried along with his large family inside the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where his brother Luigi finally escaped him. Over the years, the passionate young man became more and more religious. The sculptor who created the flamboyant tomb of his patron Pope Urban VIII in Saint Peter’s, asked for only a modest marker that most people never notice — a step on the way to the main altar.

Florence: Great Art Without the Crowds

Gozzoli-LProcession-BR800Everyone knows that there is great art in Florence, Italy.  What the Taj Mahal is to India, Big Ben to London, and the Eiffel Tower to Paris, the Uffizi, Accademia, and Duomo are to this Tuscan city.  Here throngs of tight-packed tourists from all over the world follow in the wake of their multilingual guides, anxious for a chance to finally see the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, Michelangelo’s David, and Brunelleschi’s Dome.  Unfortunately, the Birth of Venus is hidden by a pane of glass and so badly lit that it looks better in reproductions; the David is magnificent but the space around it usually packed with other viewers.  The dome of the Duomo is indeed fabulous outside and in, but disappointingly located in a cathedral from which most of the original decoration has been removed to a museum, now closed for renovation.

Yet Florence offers other treasures, less famous and far less crowded, but equally rewarding. In fact, although these works of art are not among those featured on 72-hour tours, they are easier to spend time viewing.  In particular, we recommend three under appreciated places to enjoy art in Florence: the Orsanmichele, the Magi Chapel of the Medici-Riccardi Palace, and the Bargello.  In all three, without reservations or long lines (without even an entry fee at Orsanmichele), you can spend the time it really takes to study and enjoy artwork in a peaceful setting.  The three little-known artists we highlight here are Orcagna (Andrea di Cione, c.1308-1368), Benozzo Gozzoli (c.1421-1497), and Desiderio da Settignano (c.1428-1464).


Orsanmichele, Florence

Orsanmichele, Florence

Florence’s Orsanmichele is a common tourist stop, but most groups come only for a look at the famous statues on the outside by Donatello, Verrocchio, and Giambologna (ironically, all copies).  Originally constructed as a place to store and sell grain, the ground floor was converted into a church in the 14th century.  Here Orcagna (the leading painter, sculptor, and architect of Florence at the time) was commissioned to create a tabernacle to house a sacred image of the Madonna and Child by Bernardo Daddi.  This painting replaced a fading fresco by an unknown artist, a picture of Orsanmichele,_interno,_tabernacolo_dell'orcagna_03the Virgin which had attracted its own following through miraculous powers. Not accidentally, Daddi’s masterpiece, known as the “Madonna della Grazie,” was completed in 1347, a year after the Black Death struck Florence.  It is a masterpiece of Italian Gothic painting, yet not as unique as the ornate structure that frames it.

The preservation and restoration of this tabernacle is so amazing that it seems to have been built in the Gothic revival style of the 19th century, not in the actual medieval period more than 650 years ago.  The marble glows, the inlays of glass and lapis lazuli sparkle, the gold accents glint, reflecting the gold leaf of the halos and throne on the painting it houses.  The Madonna seems to be enclosed in a tiny chapel of her own, a church within a church.  Intricate yet harmonious, the carvings intersperse religious scenes and figures with decorative patterns.  Orsanmichele,_interno,_tabernacolo_dell'orcagna_07.detail

The interior of the Orsanmichele is perfect for the quiet contemplation and appreciation of a Gothic masterpiece.  Perhaps because Florence is primarily known for Renaissance art, Orcagna’s tabernacle (and Daddi’s Madonna) remain overlooked gems.

Our next stop, however, takes us into the Renaissance and even into the palazzo of the patrons most associated with Renaissance Florence, the Medici.  The palace known today as the Medici-Riccardi, conceals within its massive walls — so typical of Florentine architecture — another uncrowded surprise.

Medici-Riccardi Palace

Medici-Riccardi Palace, Florence

Benozzo Gozzoli is far from a household name in the United States, even for art aficionados.  Yet this Medici palazzo owes its appeal to a single room decorated with his frescoes.  The walls of the “Chapel of the Magi” (1459-61) create a magical space where the three Wise Men — here interpreted as elderly, mature, and youthful kings — their courtly followers, horses, servants, and pet animals (including a cheetah) wend their leisurely way toward Bethlehem.  Dressed for display in the sumptuous brocades that made Florence wealthy, they pose attractively amidst a landscape of rocks, where a long cavalcade of of travelers climb and descend among picturesque hills and valleys.  In fact, with their handsome mounts and weapons, they seem more like nobles on their way to a hunt or a joust than the mystic scholars of the bible story.

In fact, Gozzoli, a pupil of Fra Angelico and an assistant to Ghiberti, incorporated several portraits in this scene which stretches around three walls of the small chapel.  Art historians don’t completely agree on the identifications, but it seems that the figure in black (below) is Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464), founder of the dynasty and patron of this work, on a modest donkey. The figure next to him, on the white horse, is his son Piero, father of Lorenzo di Medici.

Cosimo I (in black)

Cosimo I (in black)

Other identifications are less certain.  The young king has often been called an idealized portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who was only a boy at the time.  Another boy in the cavalcade has been called Guiliano, his younger brother who was later killed in the Pazzi Conspiracy.

The fresco even includes portraits of the artist — Gozzoli himself — one wearing a red hat, and another holding up his hand as if to say he made this work.

The Bargello, Florence

The Bargello, Florence

The third site we recommend for art appreciation is the Bargello, Florence’s museum of sculpture.  The Bargello is to Florentine sculpture what the Uffizi is to Florence’s painting. In fact, many of its works were formerly part of the Uffizi Collection. Here you may recognize well-known masterpieces of the Renaissance by Donatello, Verrochio, and Michelangelo.  We recommend that you widen the scope of your discoveries to include the work of Desiderio da Settignano.

Settignano-Marietta-StrozziA Renaissance sculptor who attained popularity at about the same time that Gozzoli was painting the Chapel of the Magi, Desiderio is known for particularly graceful and sensitive portraits and relief sculptures.  At the Bargello, you will see his portrait of Maria Strozzi, a head of John the Baptist, and a beautiful Madonna and child — among other notable works.    Once you recognize his style, you will be able to identify other sculptures as well.














Of the three artists we have focused on here, Desiderio is best represented in collections outside of Italy – for instance, you can find his work in the National Gallery of Art, in Washington D.C.

Great art is everywhere in Florence; these are only a few examples of where to find it “off the beaten track.”  If you prefer to enjoy your art without crowds of tourists more intent on selfies than the masterpieces in front of them, we recommend venturing to one of these locations and immersing yourself in more relaxing art appreciation.