Bernini-Bonarelli love affair

The bust as portrait in Baroque art

by Agnese Bertazzoli, Liceo Minghetti - Bologna (Italy)

Particular of the bust of Costanza Bonarelli, created by Gianlorenzo Bernini between 1636 and 1638- marble portrait sculpture (Bargello Museum, Florence).

The bust of Costanza compared to the bust of Brutus

This bust was created in Rome, but it was placed in the Uffizi Galleri in 1645, near the Michelangelo's Brutus(1538). The two busts represented the contrast between the woman's femmininity and the man's virility, the power of seduction and the power of physical energy. It is not known how Costanza's bust arrived in Florence, maybe it was offered by Bernini to the Cardinal Gian Carlo de' Medici when he visited the artist in Rome in 1645.

The story

Costanza Bonarelli was the wife of Matteo Bonarelli, sculptor and one of the Bernini's pupils . She came from the Piccolomini noble family and is famous to have become Bernini's lover. In 1636 the artist realized -without commission!- her bust and a painted portrait (now lost), but he soon found out that Costanza had a love affair also with his brother Luigi. Bernini ordered to deface the woman and he himself tried to kill his brother. Pope Urban VIII resolved the situation absolving Bernini.     

        [“Il Papa assicurato del fatto, diede ordine, che all’esilio fosse condennato il servo e al Cavaliere mandò per un suo Cameriere l’assoluzione del delitto scritta in Pergamena, in cui appariva un Elogio della sua Virtù degno da tramandarsi alla memoria dei Posteri: Poiché in essa veniva assoluto non con altro motivo, che, perché era Eccellente nell’arte, né con altri Titoli era quivi nominato, che con quelli di
Huomo raro, Ingegno sublime, e nato per Disposizione Divina, e per gloria di Roma a portar luce a quel Secolo"-Domenico Bernini in his father's biography]

The influence of the anecdote over the art historical studies

Diane Bodart is the first to give comprehensive theoretical weight to the anecdotes about portraits that form the backbone for such a theory and to work against the isolation of Bernini’s stories from a well-developed idea-milieu. To some extent the literature on Bernini’s portraits has been tied not just to Wittkower’s narrative (Bernini: The sculptor of the Roman Baroque), but to the straitjacket of the Bernini biographies, which have had a singular hold on the stories art historians have been able to construct around Bernini’s work. Where the portraits are concerned it is not hard to understand why the biographies are so influential, since the anecdotes around Bernini’s portraits are sophisticated contributions to a theory of portraiture and have high anecdotal value. But, as Sarah McPhee’s work on Costanza Bonarelli has shown, the biographical image is so strong that it has often prevented scholars from considering alternative narratives and alternative questions. McPhee, who is preparing a book on Costanza Bonarelli, has argued that Bernini represented Costanza in his bust as a multi-faceted woman: at once an object of desire, in her open chemise, at once a woman of the nobility, with her elegantly braided hair.

-"Bernini double-take" by Evonne Levy, Sculpture Journal 2011

The terms "copy" and "original" referred to Bernini's works (and to the bust of Costanza)

Bernini, and later his biographers, transferred the language of original and copy to the relationship between portrait and the portrayed without the justification of the imaginative act. Surprisingly, in several cases, Bernini’s portraits and one representation of the Saviour are referred to as copies. Why,
if copies were problematic, did this value-laden language reappear to the detriment of the work of
art? The short answer is that the subjects of the portraits are of a very exalted sort and the terms used to describe their representations are more a reflection on them than on Bernini’s works.

First the French king: the entry for 19 September in Chantelou’s diary notes that the queen ‘arrived and remarked at once how like the portrait was. The Cavaliere Bernini first bowed very low to her, and then said that Her Majesty had the King so imprinted in her heart and mind that she saw it everywhere, or so it seemed to her.’  The words ‘copy’ and ‘original’ are not used in this passage, although the word ‘imprint’ conveys something of a copied image.  This phrase, however, will reappear in the Bernini biographies with the words ‘copy’ and ‘original’ added. For now, what is of interest is that Bernini attributes the queen’s judgment of the bust of her husband to her imagination and memory, cerebral and emotional processes analogous to that which Bernini used to describe his own artistic process of making the bust. The imprint left on her heart and mind meant that the queen loved the king and understood him. So, rather than thanking her for saying that the bust resembles the king her husband, Bernini attributes the resemblance and the queen’s perception of it to love and understanding, the
bases for the right kind of representational practices. Domenico Bernini would recount this same episode slightly differently in his biography of his father: he said that after the queen praised the portrait, Bernini replied that ‘Your Majesty praises the copy so much because you are enamoured with the original.’  The description of the king as an ‘original’ who is impressed upon the heart of the
queen, his first subject, who loves him so much that she praises his ‘copy’, alerts us to a theological source. The phrase should be linked to the claim of the fourth-century Church father Chrysostom who declares in his commentary on St Paul that he understands the writings of Paul – who all Christians should imitate – so well because he loves him so much.  This idea that love breeds the knowledge that is the best basis for a great portrayal makes love an alternative to the principle of rhetoric, whereby
a speaker needs to identify with his subject in order to convey his argument effectively. Thus the
queen can praise or appraise the copy because she loves the original.

A third version of the same phrase invoked by Filippo Baldinucci in his biography of Bernini, on this occasion in reference to Bernini’s bronze figure of Christ, clinches the theological underpinning of the phrase. Baldinucci says that when Cardinal Sforza Pallavicino could not find words to praise the bronze
Crucifix Bernini had given to him, Bernini purportedly said: ‘I will say to your eminence what I said in France to Her Majesty the Queen when she praised me so highly for my portrait of the King, her husband. “Your majesty praises the copy so much because she is in love with the original.”  Calling
attention to his own repeated statement here (‘I will say to you what I said to Her Majesty’), Bernini’s purported comment, like its theological source, brings together the idea of the person as original and the image as copy with the image of Christ. In so doing Bernini, or his biographer, alludes to a deep and
long Christian tradition of mimetic thinking: the idea that Christians should impress Christ and his saints on their hearts and minds and form and reform themselves; they should remake themselves in his image; they should copy him.

But again, since the words commonly used to describe Christ and his imitators were not ‘original’ and ‘copy’, we see here the language of connoisseurship seeping into this fundamental way of thinking about the self. A sermon from Bernini’s time invokes the language of connoisseurship to describe this process of making oneself in the image of Christ or his saints, and it is quite similar to Bernini’s comments. The Jesuit General Gian Paolo Oliva, who helped to persuade Bernini to go to Paris, used the word ‘original’ to describe St Paul as the model for Jesuits who have decided to change themselves.

Copious copies: the phrase is copied again in Domenico Bernini’s life of his father. This third appearance of the phrase – praise for the copy out of love of the original – is used to describe Bernini’s portrait of his lover in the 1630s, Costanza Bonarelli. Bernini portrayed her twice: in a bust  and in a painting that is now lost. Domenico writes that ‘a painting of Costanza [. . .] and the bust and head in Florence, [are] both of such good taste and lively in style that even in the copies you can see
how in love the Cavaliere was with the Original’ *.

But in the particular genre of the portrait of the beloved, which can never be true enough to nature, it is only through love that the truest resemblance can be achieved. It is suggested here that in referring to
Bernini’s portrait of Costanza as a ‘copy’, Domenico is trying to convey something about his father’s relationship to his lover, rather than about the verisimilitude of the bust per se. Just as the word ‘original’ was invoked to describe Louis XIV in order to express the excess of the original, the same might be said of the woman Bernini was madly in love with. Domenico’s use of the word ‘copy’ for
Bernini’s bust and lost painted portrait of Costanza allows the biographer to express Bernini’s submissive love for Costanza and the types of representation that can arise from it.

Taken together, these variants on the concept of praising the copy because you are in love with the original, as applied to these three works (the busts of Costanza and Louis XIV, and the crucified Christ), show us a Bernini apparently in favour of the copy. The works of which Bernini will produce a so-called copy are thus specific and of the highest rank. There is, in other words, a scale of models before which Bernini kneels and copies: the beloved, who one can never portray accurately enough; Louis XIV, the bearer of absolute power; and Christ, who all men should imitate. In these various applications of the word ‘copy’ and ‘original’ the practice of making likenesses out of love is excused if not endorsed. Bernini was anxious about the referentiality of portraiture.

         *[ ‘Quello tanto decantato di una Costanza si vede collocato in Casa Bernini, & il Busto, e Testa in Marmo della medesima nella Galleria del Gran Duca, l’uno, e l’altro di cosi buon gusto, e di cosi viva maniera, che nelle Copie istesse diede a divedere il Cavaliere, quanto fosse innammorato dell’Originale’ -Domenico Bernini in his father's Biography]

          [For the idea that the best representations of a person are those created by those who love them Domenico had two sources: Chrysostom, which he (as a historian of the Church) surely knew, and Lucian’s Imagines, parts of which concern portraiture. In the following passage Lucian is making an accurate verbal image of Pericles’ lover – not his wife – Aspasia. We shall require many models there, most of them ancient, and one, like herself, Ionic, painted and wrought by Aeschines, the friend of Socrates, and by Socrates himself, of all craftsmen the truest copyists because they painted with love.]

-"Repeat performances: Bernini, the portrait and its copy" by Evonne Levy

Description and comparison

Costanza's bust (with ionic capital), Velazquez' Sibyl and Costanza's bust (particular of the head)

Important is the exceptional treatment of the joint of the head to a sinuous neck-like base in the form of an exquisitely curved ionic capital, with a uniquely highly finished back to the bust. As such the
bust reads as a capital: Costanza’s head, on top of an inverted capital, the ionic base, the curls of hair resting on her neck and brow echoing the curl of the ionic capital. In devising the unique base Bernini may have been likening Costanza to the intelligent lover (not-wife) of Pericles, Aspasia, for which Lucian used as a model an ‘ionic’ figure ‘wrought by Aeschines, the friend of Socrates, and by Socrates himself’.                                                                                                                                                                       This bust has been connected for its vitality and emotional involvement to Rubens' and Velazquez's paintings. Art historian Alvar González Palacios compared Costanza to Velazquez's Sibyl (Meadows Museum, Dallas). Velázquez painted it in 1650, after he visited Italy in 1649. It is possible that the artist had seen Costanza's bust in the Uffizi Gallery. Both the works show the woman's sensuality with a fluid and immediate artistic style and catch private and fleeting moments. Bernini, as Velázquez, shared with the public confidential and domestic episodes.

-"Bernini double take" by Evonne Levy, Sculpture Journal 2011                                                              -"Storia di una passione amorosa: Gian Lorenzo Bernini e Costanza Bonarelli" by Francesca Gentili

Other studies on Costanza Bonarelli's bust

The art researcher Suzy Fink created ‘The Projection Project’. She distributed a questionnaire asking students to record their impressions of the character or personality of the person represented in the busts with a few words. The answers were as revealing about the projections onto the busts as they were about the people doing the projecting, although it was impossible to analyse those surveyed.                For busts to which there was a strong narrative already attached to the person portrayed, like Costanza Bonarelli, the descriptions were predictably tied to that narrative: ‘passionate’, ‘fertile’, ‘womanly’, ‘attainable’, ‘seductive’, ‘lustful’, ‘scandalous’, ‘scared’ and ‘startled’. Having read Sarah McPhee’s work on Costanza’s career as an art dealer and noble lineage, some were inspired to see her as ‘confident’, 'intelligent’, ‘intellectual’, ‘strong’ and ‘classy’.

-"Bernini double take" by Evonne Levy, Sculpture Journal 2011

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