McPhee Reveals the Woman Behind Bernini’s Sculpture
Published: Sunday, September 29, 2013
Updated: Sunday, September 29, 2013 20:09
When admiring an artistic portrait, one seldom takes the time to inquire into the life and character of the individual portrayed. However, Sarah McPhee did just this in her lecture, “Devouring Marble: Bernini and his portrait of Costanza,” last week in Devlin Hall.
McPhee, who is the author of Bernini’s Beloved: A Portrait of Constanza Piccolomini, delved deeply into the inner and outer life of one of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s favorite women.
A lot of mystery revolves around Costanza Piccolomini, also know as Costanza Bonarelli, and different historians have defined her differently. Born in Viterbo, Italy, from a family of modest background, she lived in Rome for most of her life and became educated and literate.
Costanza was the unfaithful wife of the sculptor Matteo Bonarelli, one of Bernini’s assistants. She became Bernini’s mistress during a love affair that began in 1636 and ended dramatically in 1638.
“Costanza was the great romantic passion of Bernini’s life,” McPhee said. “For the sculptor, she was model, mistress, and muse.”
The lecture revolved around Bernini’s “Bust of Costanza.” “This work dramatically transformed female sculpture,” McPhee said.
In 1636, Bernini created the masterpiece for himself without a patron or commission, something considered highly unusual at the time.
McPhee talked in exquisite detail of the “Bust of Costanza,” exploring the radical nature of Bernini’s innovation in portrait sculpture. She discussed the revolutionary aspect of the portrait’s frank sexuality as well as the suggestive and subtle beauty captured in Costanza’s gaze.
“Bernini’s marble has the buoyancy of fresh dough,” McPhee said, “and the riveting individuality of the sitter.”
“Bernini’s portraits are composite,” she said, and “serve as both an exterior and interior portrait of the subject.”
Bernini perfectly captured Costanza’s passion, wit, and mystique in his portrait of her. “He had a way of sending through the eyes the spirit to make the stone live,” McPhee said.
She went on to say that Bernini was not only a great artist, but also a great reader. His private library suggests that a lot of his art was inspired by classical literature and poetry. The works of Pygmalion, Ovid, and Petrarch filled his shelves, inspiring beautiful and sensuous portraits of the beloved such as his Pluto and Persephone statue.
McPhee described the tragic end of Bernini’s relationship with Costanza, when he found out that she had been having an affair with his younger brother, Luigi.
Consumed by his rage, Bernini ordered his servant to slash Cassandra’s face, a practice often inflicted on prostitutes as a sign of shame. He also broke two of Luigi’s ribs with an iron rod.
McPhee hunted for six months in order to find evidence of a court case showing that Bernini had been punished for his actions. Instead, she discovered that Costanza had been forcibly sent to the Casa Delle Mal Maritate, a home for unfaithful wives, while Bernini was charged a large sum but spared from further punishment due to his connections.