Rome day 4

The art of Bernini including the Cornaro chapel and other sights

A day trip along the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini and some other sights that we encounter along our route of churches, fountains, statues and squares. We leave the hotel and walk north along the Piazza della Repubblica towards the S. Maria della Vittoria. On our way to this church, we will encounter a large bathhouse that was converted by Michelangelo into a church: Santa Maria degli Angeli.

Piazza della Repubblica
Piazza della Repubblica Rome
Thermae from Diocletian in Antiquity model and an aerial picture
Youtube Thermae of Diocletian recontruction Capeware (1.04 minutes)
thermae from Diocletian in Antiquity model

Pius V declared the ruins a church and a monastery in 1561. Michelangelo was tasked to build a church in a part of the bathhouse. After the Porta Pia, this became the crowning jewel of how this area of the neighbourhood was handled. Unfortunately, much changed in the 18th century and entire parts of the walls and ceiling are covered in a baroque layer of plaster. If you look through this, the simplicity of Michelangelo’s design can still be seen. At entering the church, we first find ourselves in the rotonda.

Etienne Du Pérac  ‘Thermae of Diocletian’ 1575 Rijksmuseum Amsterdam original and large size
Piranesi ‘Thermae of Diocletian’ 1748-1778 Rijksmuseum Amsterdam large size


Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri    Facade    Interior
Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri Rome

Michelangelo had to work within the dimensions and existing guidelines he was given (the map of the Santa Maria degli Angeli in the baths of Diocletianus). The dark lines are the additions made by Michelangelo.  He used the distance of the large hall (frigidarium, see map; from E to F) as a measure for the main axis that ran from the entrance to the choir behind the altar. This established a Greek cross in the old bathhouse. This way, these heathen thermae, commissioned by the infamous emperor Diocletianus who had many Christians slaughtered, still receive a typically Christian plan. Michelangelo did have to elevate the floor by some two metres. Because the floor ended up higher than the original one, Michelangelo had no choice but to adjust the columns. The columns still continue below the floor. The visible basement is not what supports the column, but rather encloses it. The cut shows that the base comprises of two parts; placed around the column on the floor. In addition, the rejuvenated part of the column above the basement is not a pink-red granite, but plaster. After this modification, the columns stand at a height of 13.8 metres. The floor to the right still shows the meridian of the city of Rome that was established in 1702.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi ‘Veduta del Castello dell’Acqua Felice’ 1751
Giovanni Battista Falda ‘Fontana dell’ Acqua Felice’ 1653-1691
Giovanni Battista Piranesi Veduta del Castello dell'Acqua Felice 1751

We leave the church, Santa Maria degli Angeli, and head north along the Via E. Orlando. On our right hand side at the intersection, we see the Fontana dell’Acqua Felice, also called the Moses fountain.

Fontana dell’Acqua Felice large size
Fontana dell'Acqua Felice Rome


The Romans called the fountain ‘Il Mose ridicolo’, the ridiculous Moses.

‘Antichi reportedly made the mistake of starting his sculpture without first making a model, and moreover, he did not place the block of marble upright but rather on the ground. The artist is said to have begged Pope Sixtus V to be allowed to correct his work, but the stern pope refused. He wanted the statue to remain as it was, not because he found it so attractive, but so that it would bear witness to Prospero’s hubris and incompetence for a long time to come. Some sources list Leonardo Sormani as the sculptor.’

Cited and translated from: Luc Verhuyck ‘SPQR Anekdotisch reisgids voor Rome’ Rainbow, Amsterdam 2019 p. 73

Pope Sixtus V, who put a great deal of effort into renovating this neighbourhood, tasked Dom with constructing this fountain at the end of the Felice aqueduct. For the first time since 1586, clean pipe water again entered the city. The sculptor Bresciano was ordered to sculpt a statue of Moses for this fountain. His inspiration was the famous Moses of Michelangelo, found in the San Pietro in Vincoli. Unfortunately, Bresciano was no master of anatomy. The story goes that when Bresciano put the final touches on Moses, the latter began to frown. The Hebrew text of the old testament was poorly understood in the 16th century as well. The horns that adorn Moses’ head are the result of the old testament being wrongly interpreted.


 Battista Falda ‘Chiesa della Madonna della Vittoria de Padri Carmelitani Scalzi’ 1667 – 69 original large size
 Battista Falda 'Chiesa della Madonna della Vittoria de Padri Carmelitani Scalzi' 1667 - 69
Santa Maria della Vittoria    Entrance
Santa Maria della Vittoria facade Rome


Santa Maria della Vittoria large size

We now cross the intersection and see the Santa Maria della Vittoria to the right. This baroque church from 1605 was built by Maderno. The church is particularly renowned because of the chapel of the wealthy Cornaro family.

 Federico Cornaro in the Cornaro chapel
 Federico Cornaro Cornaro chapel

Bernini  internet:
1.   Source of inspiration for  Bernini: Autobiography Theresia of Avila (chapter XXIX at footnote 231)
2.   Source of inspiration for Bernini: Ignatius de Loyola ‘Spiritual Exercises’
3.   Youtube lecture by Franco Mormando Bernini His Life and his Rome  (123 minutes)
4.   Youtube lecture Bernini Gesture and Technique in Clay Anthony Sigel (37.05 minutes)
5.   Youtube lecture  Bernini Piazza Navona Tod Marder (33.53 minutes)
6.   Youtube Khan Academy: Bernini Cornaro chapel (7.32 minutes)
7.   Youtube  BBC Schama Cornaro chapel starts at 39.0 minutes)
8.   Youtube Bernini Sculpting In Clay Antony Sigel 10 minutes)
9.   Wikipedia Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

Bernini and the Cornaro Chapel:
1. Youtube lecture  Alexander Smarius Cornaro chapel (Dutch spoken part 6)
2. Youtube  Khan Academy: Bernini Cornaro chapel (7.32 minutes)
3. Youtube  BBC Schama Cornaro chapel starts at 39.0 minutes)

There is a nice website about this family on the internet. The Venetian cardinal Federico Cornaro commissioned Gianlorenzo Bernini to design a chapel. Before we enter the church itself, we first walk onwards to look at a rather special window on the side of the church. Gian Lorenzo designed this window to allow for sufficient light to enter the Cornaro chapel. We turn around and enter the church. On our left hand side we see the famous chapel. The map of the Cornaro chapel 1647-1650, Santa Maria della Vittoria and an engraving of the chapel.

The latest restoration uncovered a lens. This lens ensured that on October 15, the feast of St. Teresa,  the light was able to spread optimally across the statues. This is Bernini working as a playwright (for more about the lens, click here for Franco Mormando).

Cornaro chapel and the source of the light
Cornaro chapel and the source of the light

The Cornaro family had multiple cardinals. In Venice, Frederico was already in contact with the Teresian Order. The monastery next to the Santa Maria della Vittoria belonged to the Discalced Carmelites (Teresa). It therefore made sense to base the burial chapel around the theme: Saint Teresia of Avilia, who was canonised in 1622. The first thing you will see is Frederico looking your way as if inviting you to partake in the scene.

Guido Ubaldo Abbatini ‘Cornaro chapel’ 1652 and nowadays
Guido Ubaldo Abbatini Cornaro chapel 1652


Large  size
Cornaro chapel Bernini
Cornaro chapel The engel and Teresa     Large size
Cornaro chapel the engel and Teresa Bernini Santa Maria della Vittoria Rome
Cornaro chapel 1652 large size      Bernini study ca. 1650 Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica, Rome
Cornaro chapel Bernini

A deeply religious man, Bernini was inspired by the ground-breaking work of Ignatius de Loyola, ‘Spiritual Exercises’, but also especially by the autobiography (chapter XXIX at footnote 231) of the holy Teresa of Avila. In it, Teresa describes one of her visions as follows:

I saw an angel very near me, towards my left side, in bodily form, which is not usual with me; for though angels are often represented to me, it is only in my mental vision . This angel appeared rather small than large, and very beautiful. His face was so shining that he seemed to be one of those highest angels called seraphs, who look as if all on fire with divine love.

Cornaro-kapel Bernini

He had in his hands a long golden dart; at the end of the point methought there was a little fire. And I felt him thrust it several times through my heart in such a way that it passed through my very bowels. And when he drew it out, methought it pulled them out with it and left me  wholly on fire with a great love of God. This pain was so intense that I moaned several times. And yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it

Cited from Jan van Laarhoven, ‘De beeldtaal van de christelijke kunst. Geschiedenis van de iconografie’, SUN, Nijmegen 1992 2nd edition p. 263

Bernini ‘Teresa of Avila’ clay model and marble
Bernini clay model Teresa of Avila
Bernini ‘Teresa of Avila’
 Teresa head Cornaro chapel Bernini


The angel and Teresa
The angel and Teresa Cornaro chapel Bernini

Upon a closer look you can see that Bernini did a fine job reading the texts of St. Teresa. Pay special attention to the angel’s cloak, which is strongly reminiscent of real flames. The inner, whirling stream of emotions that Teresia is experiencing, like the angel impaling her several times with his lance, is clearly displayed by Bernini on the drapes. The gown covering Teresia looks similar to fire tongues or a waterfall. It has nothing to do with how folds normally occur. Instead, Bernini carved deep, irregular folds.

Apart from literature, Gian Lorenzo likely also used a painting by Giovanni Lanfranco, whose painted ecstacy of Marghereta of Cortona from 1621 shows a lot of similarities with the marble Teresa. Bernini also made a model as a preliminary study, which can now be seen in the Hermitage.

Model as study Hermitage large size
Bernini  study c. 1650 Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica, Rome
Bernini model Theresia Cornaro Hermitage

The manner in which Bernini sculpted the mystical experience of this saint was shocking to some visitors and contemporaries.

A contemporary of Bernini, for instance, complained about Teresa’s posture: ‘The most pure of Virgins is not only dragged into the third heaven (earthly pleasure), but also through mud, this not only casts a Venus to earth, but also into prostitution.’

Cited from : Charles Scribner III, ‘Bernini’, Harry N. Abrams, INC., Publishers, New York 1991 p. 92 and footnote 47

Santa Maria della Vittoria Cornaro chapel
Cornaro chapel Santa Maria della Vittoria Bernini

The Frenchman, De Brosses, commented in the 18th century: ‘if that is divine love (the ecstasy of Teresa), then I know just what it is.’ Whatever it may be, three years after her passing in 1585, Teresa’s coffin was opened and bystanders commented how her body was still fully intact and even her breasts appeared full of life. Bernini had very different thoughts about divine love. He was a deeply religious man and considered this chapel his greatest contribution. In earlier times, we would have been best off visiting this chapel in the late afternoon. The light then descends through the window along the gold rays onto the white marble. For some years now, the electrical lighting now ensures that visitors have a good view at any time of the day.

Characteristic to Bernini, as we will see more often this day, is that he sees architecture, painting and sculpting as one conjoined art form. He aligns it all. The central event – the transverberatio of Theresa (piercing the heart) – is placed inside a deep three-dimensional recess. The marble clouds onto which she lays, are hollow on the inside and mounted to the back wall with iron hooks. Far above her, Gian Lorenzo lined the vault with plaster and painted it over. The sky breaks open, as it were, and a divine light radiates downwards.

The  sky breaks open and sky vault
Cornaro Chapel Bernini


Cornaro chapel
Cornaro chapel Bernini

On the sides (right side) of the chapel, eight members of the Cornaro family are sculpted into the walls. They sit behind a church bench: some of them conversing, some of them reading, but do they see what takes place in front of them? The Cornaro family members are not from the same era as when this chapel was built. Federico Cornaro, who commissioned this chapel, was the only one left alive. He is the one depicted with pupils in his eyes (second figure to the right in the below image).

 Cornaro family right recess and a detail
Cornaro family right recess Cornaro chapel Bernini

picture: marta.martella

Cornaro family left recess
Cornaro family left recess Cornaro Chapel Bernini


Cornaro family clay model Cornaro family Bernini, Fogg Museum of Art
Preliminary study big format     Left recess
clay model Cornaro family Bernini Cornaro family left recess preliminary study Fogg Museum of Art Bernini

If we gaze over the low balustrade to the floor, separating visitors from this chapel, we see the dead resurrected from their graves and peering upwards.

Cornaro Chapel floor resurrection the dead resurrected from their graves large size
Cornaro Chapel floor resurrection the dead resurrected from their graves

pictures: Jose Geerdink

They are a reminder that we face the grave of the Cornaro family. Of course there is also a last supper displayed. By the sacrifice of Jesus, man was no longer damned forever. Thus, the dead could hope for eternal life in the afterlife.

Last Supper and the altar
Bernini Cornaro chapel Last Supper

If we have a close look at the entire chapel, it’s not surprising that Bernini made decors for theatre plays. In the chapel of Paulina (Vatican), Gian Lorenzo hid hundreds of lamps behind self-crafted clouds to create an illusion of heaven. In addition, Bernini even made lightning, thunder and a flood appear on stage. It is striking that Gian Lorenzo designed this chapel as if it were a painting. The whole chapel is meant to be looked at from one single point, as with a central perspective. Later this day, we will see that he worked from one perspective for his three-dimensional statues in the Villa Borghese as well.

Money was never an issue in constructing this rather small chapel. The marble types alone are a treat for anyone who knows about these: For instance, there’s breccia africano, plates of verde antico, giallo antico, panels of alabaster and frames of breccia semesanto. Unsurprisingly, people at times referred to this as a boudoir or in Molkenboer’s words: ‘a shimmering jubilation of marble and colour.’

Read more about the Cornaro chapel? Samantha Landre The Bel Composto in Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Cornaro Chapel (pdf)

The chapel cost 12.000 scudi in total. This exceeds the costs of the famous church, the San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane by Borromini, which we will visit this morning.

The next page.


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