Friday, April 1, 2016

Bernini's Constantine in the Vatican

Today's photos:

1-3. Bernini's statue of Constantine in the Vatican.

4. The church of San Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere.

5. The Ecstasy of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni.

6. A close-up of the Blessed Albertoni

As you stand in the atrium of St. Peter's Basilica facing the Holy Door, you will see on your right an equestrian statue of Constantine the Great behind a glass door. It was commissioned from Bernini by Innocent X Pamphilj in 1654, but finished only in 1668 because of the many other commitments the artist had at the time.

There are many statues and paintings of Constantine in all parts of the Christian world, but this one by Bernini is special because of some interesting details and curious facts. The emperor is depicted on horseback as he gazes towards the heavens with a look of amazement on his face. Even the position of his right arm gives the idea of surprise or wonder. In addition, the horse itself is rearing up, obviously upset by something.

The "something" which is amazing Constantine and upsetting his horse is the vision of a Cross with the words In hoc signo vinces (In this sign you will conquer). Bernini sets the scene of his statue at the precise moment when the emperor is about to go into battle against his co-emperor and rival Maxentius at the Milvian bridge in Rome in the year 312. Constantine won the ensuing battle, thus becoming the sole emperor. He attributed his victory to the Christian God, and one year later he issued the famous Edict of Milan which granted freedom of religion in the Roman world, de facto ending the persecution of the Christians.

The original plan for this statue was to place it in the interior of the basilica. Bernini made his design, personally chose a block of marble from Carrara and had it sent to him in 1656. After he had worked on the statue for several years, Pope Alexander VII Chigi (1655-1667) decided to place the statue, not inside the basilica, but in a niche at the foot of the Scala Regia (royal stairway) where it stands today.

This decision by the Pope created a problem for Bernini. The niche was so large that it would dwarf the statue being sculpted out of that block of marble he had chosen, throwing everything out of proportion. It was too late to choose a larger piece of marble, so the artist had to improvise.

A curiosity

So how did Bernini solve the problem? He created an enormous marble drape which rises up between the sculpture and the back wall of the niche. The sculpture group is completely contained by this artificial background. The drape itself is considered a masterpiece as the marble seems to be flowing in the wind. Try to imagine the statue without the drape; the lack of proportion between it and the niche will be obvious.

Assisting Bernini with the sculpture of Constantine was his brother Luigi who became the source of an outrageous scandal in the Vatican when he was caught sodomizing a young boy behind the statue. This shocking episode caused great embarrassment to the Vatican and to the Bernini family. Luigi was immediately exiled from Rome and Bernini was required to pay a substantial fine for his brother's actions.

A curiosity

In an attempt to clear the family name following the scandal, Bernini agreed to design for free the Altieri chapel in the church of San Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere. He then carved a statue for the chapel, also for free, which has become one of his masterpieces: the reclining statue of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni in ecstasy.

For more about Constantine see my book, Rome: Sights and Insights, Chapter 7: Constantine.


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