The Catholic Cardinal Who Bankrolled Bernini’s Sensual Sculptures

Alexxa Gotthardt
Dec 25, 2017 1:00PM

Candida Höfer, Villa Borghese Roma XVIII, 2012.  © Candida Höfer, Köln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy of Ben Brown Fine Arts.

In the 1610s, a powerful Catholic Cardinal with an insatiable taste for art discovered a sculptor named Gian Lorenzo Bernini. At the time, Bernini was a teenager, and still restoring ancient sculptures alongside his artist-father, Pietro. It wasn’t long after Cardinal Scipione Borghese laid eyes on Bernini’s own early work, however, that the young artist’s prospects began to change.

Borghese had an ornate villa in a quiet area of Rome that he’d begun to fill with all manner of fabulous art, by the likes of Caravaggio and Raphael. He decided that Bernini was just the modern sculptor to enhance his collection, and commissioned him to create a series of sculptures that would “stimulate the imagination” in every room of his sanctuary. Soon, Bernini was carving writhing, lustful bodies of mythical gods and heroes from massive slabs of marble—and pioneering Baroque art in the process.

Today, 400 years after Bernini met Borghese, his first and most important patron, the Cardinal’s villa and its collection of the sculptor’s masterpieces still remain mostly intact. A visit to the sumptuous building gives visitors unique access to a treasure trove of Bernini’s most ambitious artworks. Now, through February 4, 2018, the Galleria Borghese shows its largest exhibition of Bernini’s work to date—bringing many of the artist’s sculptures that have since left Italy back to Rome.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, David, 1623. Courtesy of Galleria Borghese.  

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25. Courtesy of Galleria Borghese.


Together, the sprawling group of Bernini’s marble and bronze sculptures, paintings, restoration work, and a single drawing not only reveal the full arc of the artist’s development and oeuvre—but also spotlight the importance of Borghese’s patronage to this process.

Central to the exhibition are Bernini’s best-known masterpieces: monumental marble sculptures that he made in his twenties at the behest of Borghese. Despite the more conservative tastes of other members of the papacy, Borghese gave Bernini artistic license, allowing him free reign to experiment with supple, sensuous figures.

Towering sculptures like The Rape of Proserpina (1621–22) and Apollo and Daphne (1622–25), both bankrolled by Borghese, depict mythological scenes in which gods passionately and violently pursue goddesses. In these, Bernini rendered his classical subjects with humanity, communicating carnal urges through gaping mouths and hands that hungrily grasp thighs. Apollo and Daphne, in particular, shocked some in the Catholic Church—but the sculpture only stoked Borghese’s interest in Bernini.

The story of Bernini crafting David (1623), another Borghese-commissioned masterpiece on view, shows how far the Cardinal and his friends would go to support the artist’s work. For the sculpture, Bernini is said to have modeled the biblical character’s face after his own. During the process, Borghese’s colleague Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who would later be known as Pope Urban VIII, reportedly held a mirror for Bernini as he chiseled the sculpture’s face.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Pluto and Proserpina (The Rape of Proserpina), 1621-22. Courtesy of Galleria Borghese.  

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Bust of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, 1632. Courtesy of Galleria Borghese.

The anecdote conveys the importance of Borghese as not only a patron, but also a professional springboard for Bernini, who would later go on to receive commissions from Barberini when he was Pope. In this way, the making of David presents the Villa Borghese “as the place where [Bernini] hurtles through the stages of apprenticeship and a rapidly reached maturity,” as director of the Galleria Borghese Anna Coliva notes in the exhibition’s catalogue.

Other gems in the show flesh out the importance of Borghese’s long-term patronage. The ancient sculpture Sleeping Hermaphroditus, once owned by the Cardinal but now in the Louvre’s collection, returns to its erstwhile Roman home (in fact, to the exact room where it sat before its sale to Napoleon) for the exhibition. When Bernini was still apprenticing with his father, he restored the sculpture for Borghese and sculpted a mattress upon which the figure still sits. His experience conserving great artworks, like those owned by the Cardinal, was integral to his art education.  

A duo of busts serves as a bookend to the story of Bernini and Borghese. They look identical, but a slight discrepancy between the two carries a telling story.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, detail of Pluto and Proserpina (The Rape of Proserpina), 1621-22. Courtesy of Galleria Borghese.  

In 1632, a year before Borghese died, he asked Bernini to sculpt his portrait. The artist toiled away on the likeness of his great patron, who’d also become a friend. But just as he finished the piece, a crack blossomed across its marble face. Bernini was never one to disappoint—especially when working on a commission for the man who effectively launched his career—so he rushed to make a second version, completing it in a miraculous 15 days.

Both busts, shown next to each other at Galleria Borghese, showcase Bernini’s unparalleled way with marble: the details of Borghese’s face are wildly realistic and convey a sense of the Cardinal’s decadent tastes (his cheeks are turgid, his eyes excited and searching). But they also represent the relationship between the two men—one that was symbiotic and, ultimately, changed the course of art history.

Alexxa Gotthardt