Turning marble into cushions and stone into flesh: the magic of Gian Lorenzo Bernini

This packed retrospective at the Villa Borghese is a feast of creative perversity

Seventeenth-century Roman art at its fullblown, operatic peak often proves too rich for puritanical northern tastes. And no artist was ever more Baroque than Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the supreme maestro of the idiom. But I love his work, which is why, on a spare afternoon in Rome before Christmas, I strolled over to the Borghese Gallery where the largest array of Bernini sculpture ever assembled is currently on view.

Admittedly, the Borghese collection already contains the world’s finest collection of Bernini (1598–1680) and has done so ever since the artist’s lifetime. But on this occasion some 60 loans — including many full-scale marbles as well as paintings and terracotta models — have been added. Given that much of Bernini’s work is immovably attached to the fabric of Roman churches and fountains, this is probably the fullest retrospective that will ever be seen.

It is a feast of creative perversity. The nature of sculpture is to be solid and static, yet Bernini was constantly trying to carve the insubstantial, fast-moving and softly yielding. That is, to make marble and metal do unsculptural things. The hand of the god Pluto, jovially abducting Proserpina, digs into her thigh in a disturbingly tactile manner, turning the stone into flesh. In the same way — abracadabra! — he could transform a lump of mineral into upholstery. His contribution to the restoration of a classical ‘Sleeping Hermaphrodite’ was a marble mattress so cushiony-looking that you feel your hand would sink into it.

The thin and fibrous sling with which his David takes aim is another startling sculptural still life. Bernini’s ‘Cathedra Petri’ — not in the exhibition, but the focal point of the huge basilica of St Peter’s — is the apotheosis of a piece of furniture. The throne of the saint ascends to heaven amid cherubim and fathers of the church in nodding bishops’ mitres and an explosion of clouds and rays of light.

Who else would have sculpted sunshine? Or had a go at carving the flames crackling under St Lawrence’s gridiron? ‘Apollo and Daphne’ — the masterpiece of the Borghese’s own collection — is the most paradoxical of all Bernini’s triumphs. Here is a chunk of metamorphic rock representing the split-second in which the god catches the nymph — and she turns into a tree.

It’s full of things it shouldn’t be possible to sculpt. Daphne’s face is caught at the moment when her eyes dull and her features freeze. Roots sprout from her toes, wafer-thin leaves and fronds from her fingers. This is a magical metamorphosis in more than one sense.

Number of Views 136