He who would learn to love the Catholic Church should also learn to love Bernini, says BRIAN BRINDLEY
Bernini Genius of the Baroque by Charles Avery, Thames & Hudson £40.
WHAT IS THE MOST POTENT outward symbol of the Catholic Church and the Papacy? To be sure, it is the dome of St Peter's, floating effortlessly above the city of Rome and seen from its every corner most entertainingly through the keyhole of the Villa Malta on the Aventine. That dome is the masterly work of Michelangelo; but it is hard to appreciate it as architecture, expect for those who penetrate the Vatican Gardens, because of the inferior buildings clustered around it. For many of us, indeed, the Protestant dome of St Paul's or the democratic dome of the Capitol in Washington could be quite easily substituted without serious damage to our faith.
But there are other such symbols, equally Roman, equally papal, and even more distinctive: they are the great works at St Peter's of Gianlorenzo Bernini: the baldacchino over the high altar; and the piazza in front with its sweeping, allembracing arms. Every pilgrim, every tourist knows these as indeed does every protestant polemicist. We tend to regard them as natural parts of the Roman scene; we forget the genius behind them.
The baldacchino is a potent symbol of the Faith. Studying it in detail, we know that it must be immensely heavy and immensely strong, made all of bronze, yet at first glance it imitates those portable textile canopies we see carried about at Corpus Christi. Even its supporting columns are twisted like barley-sugar as if to deny their structural purpose. So the Catholic Faith itself is, taken as a whole, immensely strong and immoveable, yet made up of many flexible parts, and carried down to foundations of scripture and tradition, firm indeed, but often very slight and almost imperceptible. We know that this baldacchino has been reared over the grave of the fisherman from Galilee who became the Prince of the Apostles; stand back, and look through, to see his throne (in a bronze representation that looks more like the Tsar's sleigh) held up by the fingertips of the Fathers of the Church; and above all, hovering mysteriously in painted glass in the likeness of a dove, the Holy Spirit. It was Bernini (who performed, in the Piazza Navona, the "impossible" task of raising an Egyptian obelisk, the symbol of ponderous strength, on four sprightly rivergods and a flimsy grotto) who worked this standing miracle for us.
Come outside. The Piazza, which seems so inevitable to us, was the solution to a daunting problem caused by the piecemeal rebuilding of the basilica and the awkward juxtaposition of the Vatican Hill with its congeries of papal apartments. Bernini not only provided the largest possible symmetrical space, in which all could receive the pontifical blessing, but an abiding symbol of the open arms of Holy Mother Church welcoming in all pilgrims. It is sometimes forgotten that, in addition, the arms of the colonnades are spacious
enough to contain a full papal procession, sheltered from the beating Roman sun. Had Bernini's plans been completed, this would have gone all round, closing the gap at the eastern end.
Bernini is, in so many ways, the architect and designer of the Rome we love. It seems absurd, then, that for two centuries his work was out of fashion, either ignored or deplored. I well remember the sense of daring, almost of naughtiness, with which in 1953 I bought Wittkower's wonderful Phaidon book (reissued this year) which began his rehabilitation; in those days to admire the work of Bernini was akin to liking the music of Rossini or the poetry of Betjeman. Dr Avery's book supplements, and to some extent supersedes, Wittkower's: own them both if you can; if you cannot, this is the one to buy. Charles Avery's text is very much more comprehensive, David Finn's photographs are more numerous and, thanks to advances in printing techniques, much more immediately attractive. What a pleasure it is to find illustrations on the same page as the text which describes them!
The book includes a brief chapter on Bernini as a man in many ways the perfect Catholic of the Counter-Reformation period; a slight fault is the rather cursory treatment given to his purely architectural (as opposed to decorative or "scene-painting") work. A silly misprint on page 216, probably the result of
hyper-correction by an assistant, confuses Scala Regia with Sala Regia, making nonsense of the passage. This is not a mere coffee-table book (though it has that format); this replaces Wittkower as the standard work on Bernini, a position it is likely to occupy for 50 years.
IT (WENS DRAMATICALLY with wholepage close-ups of Daphne and Proserpine in the grip of their Olympian seducers; then a staid engraving of Bernini in old age; then Constantine, from the narthex of St Peter's; then the vision of St Teresa of Avila, her heart about to be pierced by the angel's dart in obvious contrast (and yet how tellingly alike!) to the pagan counterparts. The only way to appreciate that great work of religious art, with its total setting and cunning concealed lighting, is to visit the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. The sumptuous photographs in this book and the well-known 18th century oil painting cannot convey the excitement: puritans are shocked and cynics amused; but I go so far as to say that he who would love the Catholic Church as she is since the Counter-Reformation must learn to love Bernini's St Teresa. And he who would enjoy his visit to the city must learn to love all that Bernini did. This beautiful book with its scholarly and readable text will help him to do so. Those who already know and love his work, as I have done for 45 years, will be happy to sit back and revel in it.