Fathering a Master: Involvement in the Paragone
by Kaylah Rodriguez

 

The paragone is a concept of art theory, which includes the discussion and comparison of various art forms, primarily that of painting and sculpture. The word literally translates from “paragone” in Italian to mean “comparison”[1] in English. The paragone was written about and discussed avidly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by leading figures in the realms of art, philosophy, and literature such as Leonardo, Vasari and Galileo.

Although there have been neither writings by Pietro nor soucres which document his ideas about art or art theory, Pietro’s work itself indicates a deliberate engagement with and understanding of issues in the paragone, primarily as it relates to the comparison of painting and sculpture. Pietro specialized in relief sculpture, a particular form in which elements of painting and sculpture intersect. In fact, the term “relief” (or “rilievo” in Italian) was first used in Cennini’s Il Libro dell’Arte in reference to a painter’s depiction of shadows and his portrayal of volume.[2] In his Treatise on Painting, Leonardo was the first to use the term “rilievo” in reference to relief sculpture as it is known today, and considered it to be a combination of both painting and sculpture. Relief sculpture in and of itself embodied many of the components of the paragone debates, and provided a unique opportunity for Pietro to utilize elements from both mediums in his work.

7. Pietro Bernini. “Assumption of the Virgin,” ca. 1607-10, S. Maria Maggiore, Rome (source—artstor.org)

Fig. 7. Pietro Bernini. “Assumption of the Virgin,” ca. 1607-10, S. Maria Maggiore, Rome (source—artstor.org)

In an article specifically on Pietro’s involvement in the paragone, Steven Ostrow states that “Pietro’s works display an inventive and novel approach to the problems of relief sculpture, and serve as eloquent testimony to his highly original theoretical reflection…” [3] Pietro’s largest work, the Assumption of the Virgin relief, completed between 1607 and 1610 (see fig. 7), provides a telling example of Pietro’s consciousness of contemporary works in painting and his intentional attempt to prove sculpture as superior. Two examples of paintings that Pietro was likely exposed to prior to completion of his Assumption relief are Girolamo Sciciolante’s Assumption of the Virgin from 1573 (see fig. 8) and Girolamo Imparato’s Assumption of the Virgin from 1603.(see fig. 9). Pietro’s Assumption is undeniably similar in composition to these paintings, however, Pietro has rendered the scene with a livelihood that painting could not accomplish. Through the multiplicity of planes, dramatic textures and the play of light and shadow that relief sculpture provides, Pietro has produced an Assumption which excels far beyond similar works of his contemporaries in terms of dynamism and movement.

8. Girolamo Siciolante. “Assumption of the Virgin, “ ca. 1573, Rome, S. Maria Maggiore (source-- Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, Vol. 67, Issue 3)

Fig. 8. Girolamo Siciolante. “Assumption of the Virgin, “ ca. 1573, Rome, S. Maria Maggiore (source– Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, Vol. 67, Issue 3)

 

9. Girolamo Imparato. “Assumption of the Virgin,” ca. 1603, Naples, S. Maria la Nova (source-- Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, Vol. 67, Issue 3)

Fig. 9. Girolamo Imparato. “Assumption of the Virgin,” ca. 1603, Naples, S. Maria la Nova (source– Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, Vol. 67, Issue 3)

The Trinity relief on the façade of the Sta. Trinita (see fig. 10), is an earlier work from 1595 and was completed as a collaboration of both Pietro Bernini and Giovanni Caccinni. This work serves as an example of Pietro’s interest and involvement in the paragone even in his early career. Like the Assumption of the Virgin relief, the Trinity is comparable to painted scenes of the same subject matter completed during the same time frame. A specific painted source of inspiration that Pietro was likely exposed to is Ludovico Cigoli’s Trinity painting from 1592 (see fig. 11).  In a similar fashion as his impressive rendering of the Assumption, Pietro addresses the competition of the paragone in this work as he attempts to exemplify the superior capabilities of sculpture and stone in depicting movement and drama. According to Ostrow, “the paragone…was for Pietro at once an inspiration, a challenge, and a conceptual factor in the creation of his reliefs.”[4]

 

11. Ludovico Cigoli .”Trinity,” ca. 1592, Florence, Museo di S. Croce (source-- Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, Vol. 67, Issue 3)

Fig. 11. Ludovico Cigoli .”Trinity,” ca. 1592, Florence, Museo di S. Croce (source– Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, Vol. 67, Issue 3)

 

10. Giovanni Caccini and Pietro Bernini. “Trinity,” ca. 1595, Florence, Sta. Trinita (source-- Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, Vol. 67, Issue 3)

Fig. 10. Giovanni Caccini and Pietro Bernini. “Trinity,” ca. 1595, Florence, Sta. Trinita (source– Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, Vol. 67, Issue 3)

If Pietro was, in fact, as engaged with the concept of the paragone as his works seem to indicate, it is likely that Gianlorenzo was raised with an understanding of these ideas. Pietro’s advocacy of the art of sculpture undoubtedly influenced the mindset of the young Gianlorenzo and provided a context conducive to the realization of Gianlorenzo’s incredible potential in the medium.

Gianlorenzo’s works do, in fact, indicate a knowledge of and active engagement with the comparative concepts of the paragone. Gianlorenzo’s Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (see fig. 12) is one of the earliest examples of his intentions in proving the superiority of sculpture.

12. Gianlorenzo Bernini. “Martyrdom of St. Lawrence,” ca. 1615-1618, Uffizi (source—artstor.org )

Fig. 12. Gianlorenzo Bernini. “Martyrdom of St. Lawrence,” ca. 1615-1618, Uffizi (source—artstor.org )

In an essay on art theory in Gianlorenzo’s early works, Rudolf Preimesberger refers to the Saint Lawrence as “narrative painting in sculpture” [5] and claims that in this work “the barriers that separate the arts are knowingly and intentionally transgressed.”[6] A major indicator of Gianlorenzo’s intentionality in this work is his ambitious depiction of the burning flames underneath the grill of St. Lawrence (see fig. 13).

13. Gianlorenzo Bernini. “Martyrdom of St. Lawrence,” (detail) ca. 1615-1618, Uffizi (source—artstor.org )

Fig. 13. Gianlorenzo Bernini. “Martyrdom of St. Lawrence,” (detail) ca. 1615-1618, Uffizi (source—artstor.org )

The portrayal of natural elements such as fire, water, light and air was considered by advocates of painting to be a major strength in painting and a significant weakness in sculpture. According to this argument, sculpture could only realistically portray things that were both visible and tangible, while painting had the capability to portray even the intangible. Even as a teenager, Gianlorenzo responds to this argument with deliberate boldness and renders the swirling and dancing flames of Saint Lawrence in a manner that had previously been thought to be impossible, echoing loudly the intentions of his father’s art in the paragone.

 

14. Gianlorenzo Bernini. “Apollo and Daphne,” ca. 1622-25, Rome, Villa Borghese (source—artstor.org)

Fig. 14. Gianlorenzo Bernini. “Apollo and Daphne,” ca. 1622-25, Rome, Villa Borghese (source—http://www.atlantedellarteitaliana.it/)

Gianlorenzo’s Apollo and Daphne (see fig. 14) serves as another example of his desire to demonstrate the superiority of sculpture and its illusionistic capability. In this instance, it is possible Gianlorenzo is perhaps making a statement about the triumph of sculpture over both painting and literature. In an article on the Apollo and Daphne, Andrea Bolland suggests that this work is, in fact, a sculpture about sculpture. Bolland claims that the subject matter of this work agrees with the very nature of sculpture in the sense that it “begins with frustrated vision and ends with frustrated touch.”[7] Sculpture, specifically as it relates to issues of the paragone, is about illusion. This interpretation suggests that even the literary source of the subject matter has been used in favor of Gianlorenzo’s celebration of sculpture and the superiority of its nature. The Apollo and Daphne represents through both subject matter and artistic rendering, the power of illusion and suggests that sculpture can “be”, while painting and literature can only “seem.” Bolland says of this work that “Bernini…makes a demonstration piece of the fact that sculpture can make the same claims to being convincing fiction as painting: the distance between the hard marble and the reality of flesh is as great as (if not greater than) that between the flat panel and the three-dimensional world.”[8]

 

[1] “paragone” translation

[2]Steven F. Ostrow,“Playing With the Paragone: The Reliefs of Pietro Bernini,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, Vol. 67, Issue 3, (2004): 331.

[3]Steven F. Ostrow,“Playing With the Paragone: The Reliefs of Pietro Bernini,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, Vol. 67, Issue 3, (2004): 338

 [4]Steven F. Ostrow,“Playing With the Paragone: The Reliefs of Pietro Bernini,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, Vol. 67, Issue 3, (2004): 338

[5]Rudolf Preimesberger,“Themes from Art Theory in the Early Works of Bernini,” in Gianlorenzo Bernini: New Aspects of His Art and Thought, edited by Irving Lavin, (University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985) 3.

[6] Rudolf Preimesberger, etc.

[7] Andrea Bolland,“Desiderio and Diletto: Vision, Touch, and the Poetics of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne,” Art Bulletin, Vol. 82, Issue 2 (June 2000): 312.

[8]Andrea Bolland,“Desiderio and Diletto: Vision, Touch, and the Poetics of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne,” Art Bulletin, Vol. 82, Issue 2 (June 2000): 322-23.