Gian Lorenzo Bernini: Creating his legend with Michelangelo’s help

The legend of Michelangelo was still a powerful force in the art world in Rome a century after his death, especially for aspiring artists who wanted to become legends themselves. Michelangelo’s remarkable talent in the arts, and the works he left behind to prove it afforded him the luxury of a listening audience – he was able to control how the world remembered him by instructing a faithful student to write a biography that would be seen as the most first-person account possible, especially after the artist’s death. Thirty-four years later Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born, another multi-talented artist whose primary skill was in sculpting, and he followed Michelangelo’s example, creating his own legend by closely instructing his biographer on what to write and how to write it. While Michelangelo wrote to contest false rumors purported in his first biography published by the Italian artist and author Giorgio Vasari, Bernini was sure to preemptively create his own legend before the same thing could happen to him, already having learned from Michelangelo that the artist’s own words are the most powerful way to combat any sort of negative light that could be shed upon his memory.

Self-portrait of Michelangelo
via Casa Buonarroti, Florence
Self-portrait of Bernini
found here.

Scholars have examined these biographies for centuries, working to prove which aspects of each were likely exaggerated or even made up altogether. Both artists had secondary biographers as well; men who knew the artists personally but wrote without his direct instruction. What is most interesting, however, is Bernini’s adaptation of the biographical formula set forth by Michelangelo in his own instruction to Domenico, especially concerning Ascanio Condivi’s The Life of Michelangelo. He probably did not have a copy of the text in hand while instructing his son, and there was a biographical standard for artists thanks to Vasari’s Lives, but even so the similarities between the Condivi and Domenico’s biographies cannot be ignored. Bernini was sure to stress some of the same artistic attributes, but also added information or anecdotes that he probably considered to be improvements, almost as if he were still competing with Michelangelo in the very final art of the legend-creation. These lessons Bernini took from Michelangelo could even be broadened to include how he conducted himself throughout his career, carefully avoiding Michelangelo’s mistakes with the papacy and instead branding himself an artistic genius that was also easy to work with. The first time Bernini was granted the presence of a reigning pope, Paul V said, “This child will be the Michelangelo of his age;” a comparison Bernini surely kept in mind as he went to record how he wanted the world to remember him.

Condivi and Domenico had very different approaches in the way they wrote these biographies, which may be one of the first indications that Bernini was working to make his legend seem even better and more credible than Michelangelo’s. Condivi writes The Life of Michelangelo completely in the first-person, always acknowledging that the book is merely his recordings of what happened, admitting that he is not a writer but instead an “honest collector” of truth. He begins with a letter addressed to the “Holy Father,” followed by another addressed “To the reader,” and in both he makes very clear that his intention with this biography is to honor his master and set the record straight because so many “have said things about him which never were so,” including most notably the first edition of Vasari’s biography which was later revised upon the release of Condivi’s. Domenico’s biography on the other hand is written entirely in the third-person, and he refers to himself only as the “author of the present work,” even where he talks about “Domenico” being the last of Bernini’s sons. By phrasing things as an outsider when in fact he was just the opposite, Domenico makes the stories appear more factual because they are presumably being presented by a third party and therefore with less bias. Bernini is attempting to reveal his life as a straightforward account of events that could be told by anyone; perhaps he felt that Condivi’s first-person narrative sounded too much like a fan letter, and by keeping the author and story separate in his own biography, it would appear as a more serious transcription of reality.

Michelangelo and Bernini had very different relationships with their fathers, part of the story that Bernini used to his advantage, as a way of suggesting that destiny was paving the way for him like it had not for Michelangelo. Of Michelangelo’s father Condivi writes, “On this account he was resented and quite often beaten unreasonably by his father and his father’s brothers who, being impervious to the excellence and nobility of art, detested it and felt that its appearance in their family was a disgrace.” On the opposite side of the parental spectrum, Domenico writes that Bernini’s father “gave his son the freedom to work as he wished, since he realized what higher aspirations were at work motivating the youth to make such great progress.” While Michelangelo’s story of struggle against his father might resonate more with a modern audience who have come to associate artists with some sort of strife, Domenico crafts Bernini’s fortune into fate, writing that “Heaven” had destined Bernini for greatness, laying the foundation with a supportive father so that the artist would have every opportunity to succeed. This theme of divine intervention on Bernini’s behalf continues throughout the entire biography: “But, in fact, we can justly conclude that the circumstances had been orchestrated by Heavenly Providence Most High, which, from that moment on, desired to prepare the hearts of future popes to be favorably disposed toward Gian Lorenzo.”

Success in seventeenth century Rome meant being in the favor of the reigning pope, which is why this intervention by Fortune and Heaven on Bernini’s behalf is almost always connected to the papacy. Bernini’s love affair with the papal throne is by far the biggest difference between he and Michelangelo, both in their lives and biographies. Domenico always includes mention of the death of each pope along with a description of the selection process for the next one, usually to draw attention to the fact that the next papal successor already loved Bernini, especially in the case of Urban VIII. The same day Urban was elected he called Bernini to his office and said, “It is a great fortune for you, O Cavaliere, to see Cardinal Maffeo Barberini made pope, but our fortune is even greater to have Cavalier Bernini alive during our pontificate.” Indeed Bernini’s every action is made with the pope in mind, a lesson he seems to have learned from Michelangelo who left Rome when the pope offended him, and sacrificed more than fifteen years worth of commissions after losing the favor of Pope Leo. Michelangelo was notoriously difficult to work with, a stubbornness that came through in Condivi’s writing; when Pope Julius kept asking when Michelangelo would finish the Sistine Ceiling, he repeatedly answered, “When I can.” Bernini created the opposite reputation for himself, always appeasing, obliging and “kissing the papal feet,” almost becoming an entertainer, and indeed Domenico even grants a whole chapter to Bernini’s work in writing and directing Comedies. Bernini’s reliance on the pope for his extraordinary success is reflected in his biography, a large chunk of which is dedicated to discussing the papacy.

Michelangelo’s David
found here.
For Michelangelo’s David, Condivi begins with how the piece of marble was quarried in a shape that limited the figure so much that no one had been able to make any use of it, writing that once Michelangelo was done he was able to form the shape so perfectly to the original block of marble that the rough parts could still be seen on the top and bottom. He continues on to say that this ability “is characteristic of great artists and the mastery of their art,” then praising it even further and concluding with how much money it earned. Of Bernini’s David Domenico is exceptionally brief, only telling of how Cardinal Maffeo Barberini frequently held the mirror “with his own hands” so that Bernini was able to sculpt his own features “doing so with an expressivity completely and truly marvelous.” Both biographers admire their artists but Condivi focuses on Michelangelo’s ability to create within confinements while Bernini is praised for dynamism and expressiveness, in a story that, as expected, includes the involvement of a future pope and Bernini’s biggest eventual benefactor.

Domenico’s The Life of Bernini also included a number of sections and topics that were never discussed in Michelangelo’s biography, a selection of improvements, including a rather large section dedicated to Bernini’s own religious beliefs and his strong conviction in the Catholic faith. Condivi hardly included any mention of Michelangelo’s personal beliefs, which could result in Michelangelo appearing mad rather than spiritually inspired. In one passage Condivi writes that the artist dedicated himself to his art so much that “the company of others not only failed to satisfy him but even distressed him, as if it distracted him from his meditation,” a meditation not linked to the Catholic faith. Contrarily, Domenico describes Bernini as a theologian as well as an artist; Domenico dedicates a sizable portion of the final two chapters to descriptions of Bernini’s extreme faith and piety: “So much did he become inflamed with these spiritual sentiments and so high did the acuity of his genius ascend, that the aforementioned men were astounded that someone who had not dedicated his life to letters could so often not only succeed in intimately penetrating these most sublime mysteries, but also raise probing questions about and offer logical accounts of the same…” Similarly, Domenico tells of Bernini erecting his painting of Jesus on the cross at the foot of his deathbed, and he spoke with many religious leaders in his final days. Including these mentions of Bernini’s own spiritual convictions brings even more substance to the works he spent his life creating because he actually believed in the messages they were purporting. The same may have been just as true for Michelangelo, but it is a point that he did not stress to Condivi for inclusion in his biography, which results in the impression of a slightly mad Michelangelo and a divinely possessed Bernini.

In the same way that Bernini learned from Michelangelo’s mistakes, he was also sure to learn from his successes; both biographies heavily stressed the artist’s virtues of piety, self-motivation, modesty, and generosity, both with their money and with their craft through teaching. Michelangelo’s abstemiousness is a character trait Bernini works to duplicate in his own biography; Domenico repeatedly includes mention of Bernini not eating because he was so enraptured by a project or too dedicated to his work to be bothered. Domenico writes that Bernini “was abstemious in eating,” and for the marble portrait of Cardinal Borghese, Bernini, “except to replenish his energy with a bit of food, did not rest from this labor for the space of three days, when he brought the work to completion.” These mentions seem to be derived at least subconsciously from Condivi who writes, “Michelangelo has always been very abstemious in his way of life, taking food more out of necessity than for pleasure, and especially while he had work in progress, when he would most often content himself with a piece of bread which he would eat while working.”

Michelangelo was also abstemious sexually, a piety that Bernini could not logically include given that his biography is written by his son. Although only mentioned in a notation written down by Michelangelo’s student Tiberio Calcagni that was incorporated into later versions of Condivi’s biography, Michelangelo gave advice to “refrain from sexual intercourse in the interest of long life.” However, Bernini was sure not to be outdone by Michelangelo, and since he could not include sexual piety, he includes anecdotes that show a physical devotion to his art that is even more powerful. In his creation of the statue of St. Lawrence, Domenico writes that Bernini, “placed his own leg and bare thigh near the burning coals” in order to accurately “reflect in the saint’s face the pain of his martyrdom.” Had this inclusion been a direct rebuttal to Michelangelo’s abstinence, it would have been a very clever reversal of situation, turning a rather boring form of personal devotion into an exciting, vivid one where Bernini sticks his own arm into fire for the sake of realism in his sculpture. At the very least, it is certainly an augmentation of Michelangelo’s overwhelming desire to create works true to nature: “…he was determined to acquire not through the efforts and industry of others but from nature herself, which he set before himself as a true example.”

Bernini’s David
found here.

There is another similarity between the stories told by Condivi and then Domenico that seems too close to be accidental. One of the few times Michelangelo is in favor with the pope, Julius III remarks that he would “gladly give up some of his years and some of his own blood to add to Michelangelo’s life,” continuing on to say that if he outlived the artist “he wants to have him embalmed and kept near him so that his remains will be eternal like his works.” A story from Domenico is eerily similar; he writes of a gift Bernini received from Pope Urban VIII, a magical liquid that “would revive the vital forces in marvelous fashion,” continuing, “A gift truly worthy of the affection of that pontiff, who, had it been possible, would have wanted Bernini embalmed and rendered eternal.” The use of the word “embalmed” appears to be borrowed directly from Condivi, especially considering that it was applied to Michelangelo in a direct papal quote and only inferred from a gift that Bernini received.

Regardless of how consciously Bernini instructed Domenico to write his own biography after the template left by Michelangelo, the two books do have striking parallels that at the very least confirm that Bernini had read Condivi’s work to learn the characteristics of the “artistic genius” that he wanted to apply to himself as well. Of course, Bernini’s reputation as a problem-solver prevails as he works to improve on what many considered to be Michelangelo’s faults, fulfilling what Domenico describes as Bernini’s motto: “He who does not at times depart from the rule never exceeds it.” Domenico arranges of the pieces of his father’s life in a fashion similar to Condivi’s arrangement with Michelangelo, but with more repetition of his successes and less acknowledgment of Bernini’s competition and critiques. Ironically, Domenico’s third-person biography included more overpraise and excessive flattery of the artist than Condivi’s first person account of Michelangelo. It seems as if Bernini’s attempt to leave a lasting legacy resulted in the creation of a hyper-idealized version of what he thought an artist was supposed to be; a fault that surely became more noticeable as the time passed and the biography’s readers grew smarter and more aware of how easily the truth can be shaped for personal gain.

I originally wrote this piece as a final essay for my Bernini class at NYU, hence the citations and (boring) academic nature. 
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  1. Well said, and made all the better by the rigor. Fascinating, fascinating stuff.

  2. Thanks so much Jeb! My professor gave me an A- so I think she agreed:)