So a guy walks into a bar, sizes up the crowd, and then calls out to no one in particular, “Praxiteles was the greatest sculptor who ever lived.” Several patrons turn away from the PBS programming on the bar’s big-screen TV to have a look at the intruder. One pushes his chair back, gets up and stares the Praxiteles fan square in the eye. “Unless you’re looking for trouble, friend,” the rough-looking customer says, “you’d better take that back. Everyone knows the world’s greatest sculptor was Michelangelo.” At that, a third patron jumps to his feet and yells, “No way! It was Auguste Rodin!” In an instant, someone else shouts, “Donatello”, and an antiquities-admiring patron comes to the defense of Phidias.
You can imagine the fracas that ensued, with tables being tipped over and chairs flying. The man who got the worst of it had insisted that history’s greatest sculptor was Constantin Brancusi, so all the other patrons turned on him, with good reason.
This whole ugly incident might have been avoided if someone had had the presence of mind to say something to the effect that picking the best of anything is subjective; that all of the names mentioned (except Brancusi) are worthy of consideration for that honor. And that no matter who one thinks was the greatest, there is a sculptor we certainly all agree belongs in the conversation as perhaps the second or third-best ever. That would be Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
In all likelihood he was the richest artist of the 17th century, because Bernini (1598-1680) received papal commissions for well over fifty years. He was also supremely talented, and evidence of that fact can be found all over Rome. In a church around the corner from the Grand Hotel is one of Bernini’s most famous works, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. The centerpiece of Piazza Navona is his enormous Fountain of the Four Rivers. A highlight of the interior of St. Peter’s is the baldacchino (canopy) over the papal altar, created by Bernini. Outside the church, the massive colonnades that frame St. Peter’s Square were designed by Bernini while he was wearing his architect hat.
There are other sculptural gems by Bernini elsewhere in Rome, but my personal favorite is found in the Borghese Gallery: it is the statue of Apollo and Daphne. You may be hazy (as I am) on the details of that Greek myth. She was a nymph, I believe, and Apollo was interested in hooking up with her, but the attraction wasn’t mutual. During his pursuit of Daphne, she prayed to — I’m not sure, one of the gods — who saved her just in the nick of time by turning her into a laurel tree.
It’s sort of a dumb story, but the statue Bernini crafted from it is incredible. In typical Baroque style, he captured that “peak of the action” moment: Apollo has caught up with Daphne, but she is starting to sprout branches and leaves and bark. You can’t help but admire — well, at least I can’t — the degree of technical skill that combined with inspiration to produce this magnificent art work.
You are welcome to proclaim your favorite sculptor as the best ever, but for those of us who are Bernini fans, we proudly say, “We’re Number Two! Or Three… I don’t know, somewhere in there. Five? Sure, whatever.”