On the first of Decemeber, 1662, the bells of Santa Maria Maggiore were tolling. Inside, beneath the squared and gilded ceiling, Saint Catherine knelt before her own execution, painted in tribulation. Below the block where she would soon rest her head, a woman’s body was laid out, dressed in a rich black. In accordance with the Signora’s wishes, there would be two thousand masses said to hurry her soul onwards, one hundred on the day of its departure and more in the months to come.
She had died young, forty-eight years old. She had left behind a great collection of art, paintings and sculpture, and a large fortune, as well as a daughter, seven years old, who stood by at the bier as her mother’s body lay in wake. Her father stood behind her, silent in mourning of a woman who had been neither his wife nor his mistress. All in all, there were nearly fifty candles, this in a time when the volume of wax was worth the pound of flesh, signifying the lifely status of those they were lit for. She would be buried behind the Holy Door, trodden on by popes and parishioners, and her grave would be forgotten, lost to renovations and revisions of history.
There was a sizeable cortege; the papal officials of Rome had appeared to pay their respects. Apart from the parish priest and his clergymen, there was a guard to watch over the body, the family of the dead woman, business colleagues, servants, a deacon. People were barred from coming in or out during the service, glancing curiously as they passed outside. The guests had been accounted for, but one stood in the back, separated from those standing vigil over the body.
He was an old man, no longer cutting the debonair figure he once did, but he remained in the shadows lest he be recognized. One of his works lay not ten yards away, hailed as a masterpiece. He stood at the end of the very nave where two decades before he had raged through the basilica, trying to beat his brother to death with a pipe in revenge for his crimes, committed with the woman who now lay dead on the bier.
He could only make out the shape of her at that distance, but he knew if he dared go closer, he would see her face, bloodless, which he had not seen so intimately in twenty years. She had aged, surely, as he had, but he feared seeing her; he could not see the scars that he himself had inflicted by proxy, the face he had once loved so intensely he had immortalized it forever in stone.
It was the week before Gianlorenzo Bernini’s 64th birthday. He had come to cast a last look upon the love of his life, the woman who had impassioned and enraged him, and led him to create one of the greatest sculptures of all time: Costanza Bonarelli.
“What Shakespeare is to drama, Bernini may be to sculpture: the first pan-European sculptor whose name is instantaneously identifiable with a particular manner and vision, and whose influence was inordinately powerful….” – Eustace Katherine
It had not been completed for a commission. There had been no papal order, no receipt, no scudi paid or due. He had sculpted her out of love, and it had destroyed him.
Bernini came from a family of artists. His father, Pietro, was a sculptor, eventually overshadowed by the prodigy of his son and ultimately working as his assistant by the end of his life.
He was, in some ways, the successor to Caravaggio as a master of the Baroque, although he pioneered the style of sculpture, not painting. Like Caravaggio, however, kings, popes, cardinals, the rich and famous, all set out to have their lives and splendor commemorated in his work, and were willing to pay handsomely to have Bernini carve his name on their legacy. He was known to give the coldest material a breath of life, and from fountains to busts, friezes to tombs, his work was renowned throughout his life for ensnaring the inner psychology and traits of the beings he captured.
His career in Rome began under the tutelage of his father, who showcased him at eight years old to Pope Paul V, the very same who had hastened Caravaggio from his exile, only to receive the news of his death on Porto’Ercole. Perhaps looking for another promising talent to recover the spoiled artistic potential, he turned the young boy over to Cardinal Scipione Borghese, his nephew, who had been promised the last paintings Michel Merisi da Caravaggio had completed, the price of his safe passage.
Borghese proved to provide an educational patronage, and in the first few years of his burgeoning career, Bernini crafted some of his most famous masterpieces: The Rape of Prosperine (1621-2), Apollo and Daphne (1622-4), and Bust of Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1632), all pictured below.
Bernini’s methods were as unconventional as they were revolutionary. Instead of having his subjects sit for him, he instead followed them around incessantly, attempting to embody their mannerisms and everyday ephemera once they were set to stone. As an artist, he used his talents to translate what he saw and memorized into his work, but as a person, charming, intelligent, handsome, he had little problem in getting his subjects to agree to his peculiar and unique process.
Due to this intensely personal emphasis on the subject’s presence, the more Bernini knew of his sitters, the more personal and well-rounded his work would become upon its finishing, and there was no one he knew quite as well as Costanza Bonarelli.
Compared to the biographies of the artist, completed by close confidantes and even his own son, there is relatively much less known about the woman who inspired one of his greatest attributes to human feeling. Thanks to the hard labor of Sarah McPhee, we are much more certain of certain aspects of Costanza’s life than we would be if she were relegated to her standard two line summary.
She was in her early twenties when her husband, Matteo, ten years her senior, was hired by Bernini as an assistant sculptor. Accounting for the ledgers from the various work he completed for the master, he was hired as an assistant sculptor in 1636. It is unknown when exactly his wife and Bernini met or began their affair, but considering the fact that the bust was certainly completed by the end of 1637, it must have occurred quickly.
All that we are left with to determine Costanza’s personality is what Bernini has shown us; the rest of her is left to official documents and correspondence, and what they reveal of her nature is either bureaucratically sterilized or nonexistent. Bernini’s gift is that he recreates in stone what could be flesh to the audience, and what we see when we view the bust of Costanza speaks to this gift.
Her lips are parted, as if she is about to speak. Her hair is upbraided in a fancier patrician style, but has come loose around her face, with one cowlick reaching outwards on the right. She wears a chemise that is ribboned at the hem, the adornment speaking perhaps not to a great wealth but a comfortable one. There is an expression on her face that speaks to immediate fervor, her eyes wide and her brow furrowed, startled into fervency; she stares with the intensity of love, all-consuming and immediate.
The fact that Bernini initiated and completed this bust without commission is incredibly telling; it was his passion project, and he chose to craft his lover in marble, his best and most expensive medium. This was a personal choice through and through, and speaks of his investment at every turn.
Since his devotion reveals itself in his art, however, we have no idea of how Costanza herself felt. Certainly, she must have cared for him; she, too, was intelligent, and literate, uncommon for her time. He was handsome and well-read, rich, one of Rome’s most famous artists, and she was young, with nowhere to go but up.
Whatever he had seen within her and whatever he had decided to immortalize, Bernini proved to have been consumed by her, caught in the gaze he crafted. And their tale would not end happily, but in blood.
Rome suffered under the heat. Much like the summer that brought tidings of Caravaggio’s demise, the dry sun pressed downwards onto the city, churning plumes of dirt and hot air.
The pope steams in his summer home on Quirinal Hill. The end of the steps to the palace leads straight to the rented house of a promising sculptor’s assistant and his young wife, no less cool in the shade. Nearby, carriages and horses are moving especially slowly around the Trevi, the sound of the water torturously enticing to coachmen and animals alike as they wind through the streets down the narrow Vicolo Scanderbeg, the air full of the smell of warm horses, their limbs lazy from the heat of the unrelenting sun. There is one carriage parked in the piazza near that house within the shadow of the papacy, its driver waiting patiently on the box.
The door to the home opens. The archway is travertine, much too ornate for a house of a patrician, more appropriate for the palace on the hill than at the bottom. A man leaves, escorted out by a women dressed only in a nightgown, hair disheveled, collar loose, much like the bust that was made of her.
The carriage starts up at a sudden rap from below, heading the other way. He does not need to chase him on foot; he knows where he is going.
Presumably, Luigi Bernini arrives at Saint Peter’s Basilica after his brother, but Gianlorenzo was waiting for him. They are scheduled to do restorative work on the crumbling façade, and the scene is lined with scaffolds, the sound of chipping stone piercing the air like the beaks of pecking birds. Perhaps he ambushed him, perhaps there was a fight, accusations, gradual escalation, but Gianlorenzo has already seen enough, seen the proof with his own eyes. He wants to humiliate his brother the way he himself has been humiliated, hurt him the way he hurts. Whatever the starting action, the motivation and the cause remained the same: Bernini, enraged, takes a metal pipe and attacks his brother, in full view of the crew, including the originally wronged man, Matteo Bonarelli. He is a sculptor with a steady and balanced hand from a lifetime of striking away at hard stone; he swings hard and with accuracy. He breaks two of Luigi’s ribs before his brother gets away, staggering down the steps. He follows.
The sun is hot, and it feeds him. His sword is drawn—it leads him through the sweltering streets. His brother has hidden at their home first; he chases him through the house, attested to by his mother’s later letter to the Pope for clemency. Luigi escapes him again, to Santa Bibiana then to Santa Maria Maggiore, where his brother has claimed sanctuary.
The Bernini family had long ties with the Santa Maria Maggiore basilica, which featured their artwork and sculpture as well as their tomb. Brother and brother alike would be buried there, as it would also be the final resting place of Costanza Bonarelli. Luigi probably thought that his brother wouldn’t dare draw blood in a church, but Gianlorenzo would not be cowed. The priests in the sacristy do not dare to stop him. He is one of the most celebrated and famous men in Rome, and his great pride has been wounded, not only by the woman he is infatuated with but by his own blood. He felt the pedestal wobble.
Ultimately, he does not kill his brother, but not for lack of trying. The Pope intervenes, and sends Luigi to Bologna to separate the two. Bernini’s vengeance, however, was two-fold.
After Luigi left, Costanza returned to her bedroom. Her house, though rented, though middle-class at the outset, was furnished and decorated expensively, with both marble and gilded paintings. Her room was lined in boards of pinned and tooled red leather, a luxury. She was a woman who wanted for nothing, and reveled in her comfortable position; safely married, and the lover of a famous artist as well as his brother.
There was a knock at the door. Bernini’s servant had come, offering two flasks of Greek wine. She lets him in, stepping aside to receive the gifts. Perhaps she makes small talk with him, or she moves to go back upstairs, but just as she turns away, there is a flash of silver and a searing pain across her face; the servant, on orders of his shamed master, has slashed at her face with a razor, marring the flesh forever.
Slashing is not an uncommon practice in Rome at the time, particularly directed at women from wounded men acting through a middleman. It was an attempt to humiliate and shame, because once the wound scarred it would be obvious to all; a scarlet letter.
The bust is all that is left of her face as it was. Even now, through an ageing of the marble, there is a faint line across her forehead and the bridge of her nose, as if in parody of later wounds, although of course we do not know exactly where she was injured, or to what extent.
This is perhaps the tragedy inherent in the story: man loves woman, man, Pygmalion-like, translates her beauty into marble; woman wrongs man, man then has her face mutilated, but her image remains, untarnished, in the work that he himself has immortalized her in. All that work, the passion, met an equally passionate end, but his intent in scarring her face was all for naught, because he has ensured that she will live on as she was, as he made her.
His punishment was extraordinary, in that he was hardly punished at all. His servant, the physical perpetrator, was exiled permanently, and the artist was fined the traditional amount for a slashing offense, although this fine was waived by his patron, the Pope, in light of his services to the papacy. He was ordered to marry, and did so quite happily, eventually fathering a brood of children.
And what of his victim? For all intents and purposes, Bernini’s attack did not destroy her life, although she did spend a brief but intense period at the Monasterio di Casa Pia, a social reform institution for prositutes and malmaritate, women who had been separated from their husbands with the option of either reconciliation after penitence or taking the veil. Eventually, on the merit of a letter sent by her to the Governatore, a sign of her own uncommon literacy, Costanza Bonarelli is sent home to her husband, Matteo. Although she died relatively young, she led a successful later life, taking over as her husband’s executor after his death. A year later, she had a daughter, Olimpia. She died, by most accounts, a wealthy woman, with a keen eye for art dealing. We must forgive her story for having a human ending instead of a definitive one.
After he was married, Bernini sold the bust to Francesco D’Este at the court of the Duke of Modena. It travelled to the Medici in Florence, then to its final place at the Bargello (which will be featured next in the art mystery series).
What are we, ultimately, to take away from this story? Is it that dangerous love has dangerous consequences? Is it that we should not hold our feet to a fire which burns too hotly? Is this a tragedy, or just another tale?
What drew me to write about it was the shock I had when I first read about Bernini’s attack; the lost potential of it all, which is at the heart of tragedy but not necessarily making it a tragedy itself. This story is not tragic; Bernini does not kill his lover then himself; his brother does not die, and a family remains united. Even Costanza’s husband continues to work for him until his own death. There is no rent faction apart from the sculptor from the woman, and the damage done is both minimal and significant. Minimal in its physicality; significant in its meaning.
This excerpt of history begins with a love so strong it commemorates itself in a grand artistic gesture, one that is singular and beautiful, due in equal parts to Bernini’s talent and fervor, but it ends in an inverse portrait, one of disfigurement and inflamed rage; it presents a dichotomy of love and its consequences; the artist and muse; the talent and celebrity against human foible. What this story tells me is that it is something which will always happen, again and again, because people will always be the same, act on the same impulses, commit the same atrocities against each other, and we will continue onwards. This is a tale of humanity embedded in the art it can create, what that art can teach us about ourselves, and how if one looks closely, there is much more meaning underneath a work of art than just what is in front of you.
Next in Art History’s Mysteries: Da Vinci and The Execution of Bernardo di Bandino
McPhee, Sarah. Bernini’s Beloved: A Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini. Yale University Press. 2012.
Schama, Simon. The Power of Art. Viking Press. 2006.