Back To CourseAncient Rome Study Guide
6 chapters | 55 lessons
Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
During the Italian Renaissance, art was defined by rational logic, detachment, and the embodiment of perfection. In the 17th century a few new artists came along who broke the mold. Or should I say, they ''Baroque'' the mode? The Baroque period, which started in the 17th century, was defined by a new aesthetic. Rather than calm and ideal logic, this movement strove for dramatic tension captured through exaggerated motion and a strong emotional appeal.
It was an entirely different way of seeing art, and one sculptor credited with nearly single-handedly starting the movement is Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Bernini was an Italian artist whose works defined the attitudes and goals of the Baroque. His approach was so novel that even the most ubiquitous subjects seemed new when he tackled them. It's not much of an overstatement to say that Bernini Baroque the Renaissance.
Bernini's Baroque style was completely unique, letting him approach old subjects in new ways. One of the best places to see this is in his 1624 masterpiece, David. The subject, David, is a Biblical figure who is most recognized for his role in slaying the giant Goliath. In this depiction, David has not yet won the battle, but is instead caught in a critical moment, the instant before he hurls his sling and defeats his foe. This life-size statue is carved from marble and displays the face of Bernini himself. His assistant had to hold up a mirror for days so Bernini could create this self-portrait. What really defines Bernini's David are those Baroque elements we mentioned above. Notice the exaggerated motion, the tension, the drama?
Let's go through these one-by-one. In traditional marble sculpture, we expect the subjects to look like they're made of marble. This David, however, does not appear to be posing for the sculptor. Nor is he only moving a little. This is typical of Baroque art: The motion is extreme to the point where the subject looks like he is about to break. We can feel the physical tension in David's body. However, there is emotional tension as well. David's face is as twisted and taut as the rest of his frame, as he concentrates his full effort on the task at hand. Italians of the 17th century would of course know how the story ends (that David beats Goliath), but this David doesn't know about his victory yet. We feel sympathy for this underdog about to give his all to fight a powerful opponent.
If we think of traditional Renaissance statues, perhaps the other Davids of Italian history, we think of posed figures contained to their pedestals. These statues have their place, and we the viewers have ours. This is not the feeling here. Part of the tension comes from the fact that Bernini's David has no regard for the personal space of the viewer. In fact, there is a very real feeling that a viewer standing in the wrong place is liable to get smacked by David's sling if they're not careful. David extends into our space, or is it really his space? After all, he's the one going to battle. We're just watching.
Bernini's David is a complex sculpture that highlights the blossoming Baroque movement of the early 17th century. However, more was happening in the world than just changing aesthetics. Great art reflects the world around it, especially in Italy. David served as a symbol of the Catholic Church, the Republic of Florence, and the Italian people at various points throughout the Renaissance. As the classic underdog, fighting to divine victory against great odds, this figure made for a powerful symbol. Bernini's David also represented something larger than itself.
In 1517, a German priest named Martin Luther published a list of complaints against the Catholic Church and kicked off the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation split the Church in two, and the Catholic half didn't take this lightly. Between 1545 and 1560, the Catholic Church devised a program of spiritual and physical warfare against the Protestants called the Counter-Reformation. The Counter-Reformation lasted until roughly 1648 when the existence of Protestants was finally accepted.
In 1624 this peace was still decades away. Many scholars have theorized that Bernini's David serves to represent the Catholic Church in a mighty struggle, this time against the Reformation. In this context, David is not casually eyeing his opponent, nor lazily casting a stone. He is preparing to let loose a mighty attack that will destroy his foe in the name of God. It should be noted that the Inquisition grew during the Counter-Reformation, aggressively targeting Protestant reformers. The message in Bernini's David would have been clear to every Protestant: The Church was focusing its full power on this attack. Repent and get out of the way.
In the Baroque era, art changed from the cool logic of the Renaissance to a dramatic, emotional aesthetic characterized by exaggerated motion and palpable tension. One of the most important sculptors of this period was Gian Lorenzo Bernini. His 1624 marble statue David is a masterpiece of Baroque sculpture, treating a traditional subject in a new, exciting, and dramatic way. This subject, a traditional symbol of struggle, may represent the Catholic Church's fight against Protestants during the Counter-Reformation. Bernini's statue represented a clear message to those who thought the Church was falling apart: It's not broke; it's Baroque.
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Back To CourseAncient Rome Study Guide
6 chapters | 55 lessons
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