Bernini, "Memorial to Giovanni Battista d’Aste," ca. 1643, Rome, Santa Maria in Via Lata (source - "Bernini's d'Aste Family Tombs in St. Maria in Via Lata, Rome: A Reconstruction)

Fig. 27. Bernini, “Memorial to Giovanni Battista d’Aste,” ca. 1643, Rome, Santa Maria in Via Lata (source – “Bernini’s d’Aste Family Tombs in St. Maria in Via Lata, Rome: A Reconstruction)

Redefining Papal Tombs: Other Funerary Monuments by Bernini

Hannah Ridenour

For the most part, however, Bernini’s design was dictated by the wants of his powerful patron.  Were he to follow his own instinct on the design, as he appears to have done for the Tomb of Alexander VII, there may not have been a consistently mature Bernini appearance to the composition yet.  This is not to say that Bernini’s only opportunities to work on monument portraits were with papal tomb designs. 

Bernini, "Memorial to Clarice Margana," ca. 1643, Rome, Santa Maria in Via Lata (source - "Bernini's d'Aste Family Tombs in St. Maria in Via Lata, Rome: A Reconstruction)

Fig. 28. Bernini, “Memorial to Clarice Margana,” ca. 1643, Rome, Santa Maria in Via Lata (source – “Bernini’s d’Aste Family Tombs in St. Maria in Via Lata, Rome: A Reconstruction)

He received a number of smaller commissions for funerary plaque and bust designs.  One of the earliest was for the tombs of Giovanni Battista d’Aste and his wife in Santa Maria in Via Lata in Rome (figs. 27 and 28).  Completed by 1643, largely at the hands of assistants Andrea Bolgi and Giuliano Finelli, and reorganized in the early 1660s, the figures Bernini designed emerge out of portals, with only the top half of their bodies visible.[1]  On each, plaques are inscribed with the merits and achievements of the deceased, and the D’Aste family crest is held up a cherub resting on a skull.  The skeletal reference has carried into other Bernini designs, but the overall appearance of the wall fixtures is generally disappointing, especially in relation to drapery.

Bernini, "Memorial to Maria Raggi," ca. 1647-1653, Rome, Santa Maria sopra Minerva (source - artstor.org)

Fig. 29. Bernini, “Memorial to Maria Raggi,” ca. 1647-1653, Rome, Santa Maria sopra Minerva (source – artstor.org)

In contrast to this is the memorial to Maria Raggi, dating to between 1647 and 1653 (fig. 29).[2]  Installed on a pier in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the funerary art for the widowed wife of a nobleman who later became a nun depicts her bronze bust held aloft by two cherubs.  Behind her effigy is the Cross of Christ

Bernini, "Memorial to Alessandro Valtrini," ca. 1639, Rome, S. Lorenzo in Damasco (source - "Bernini's Memorials to Ippolito Merenda and Alessandro Valtrini")

Fig. 30. Bernini, “Memorial to Alessandro Valtrini,” ca. 1639, Rome, S. Lorenzo in Damasco (source – “Bernini’s Memorials to Ippolito Merenda and Alessandro Valtrini”)

which she saw in a vision.  The inscription has been placed upon a swirling drapery of black marble, similar to the page from the Book of the Dead on the Tomb of Urban VIII.[3]  Maria Raggi had no say in the memorial, as she died in 1600, and the monument was in many ways a propaganda attempt for her beatification.[4]  The patrons much less control the entire composition, as was the case in the D’Aste Chapel, and as such Bernini released his signature design elements onto the pier.

To properly appreciate Bernini’s rapid progression in funerary monument design, it is necessary to look at two other memorials executed before he received the commission for the monument to Maria Raggi.  Similar in

Bernini, "Memorial to Ippolito Merenda," ca. 1641, Rome, S. Giacomo alla Lungara (source - "Bernini's Memorials to Ippolito Merenda and Alessandro Valtrini")

Fig. 31. Bernini, “Memorial to Ippolito Merenda,” ca. 1641, Rome, S. Giacomo alla Lungara (source – “Bernini’s Memorials to Ippolito Merenda and Alessandro Valtrini”)

composition to each other, in their differences they represent a break from a subdued Baroque intensity to a mature Bernini style.  Bernini’s workshop completed both, the first of which was, the Memorial to Alessandro Valtrini, in 1639 in the church of S. Lorenzo in Damasco (fig. 30).  A winged skeletal form of Death like those on Bernini’s papal tombs presents, against a backdrop of falling drapery, an oval disc with Valtini’s portrait.  Its purpose as a memorial is obvious, but there is a stagnant quality to the piece in terms of its emotional potential.  The compositional companion to this project is the Memorial to Ippolito Merenda, installed only two years later in 1641 in S. Giacomo alla Lungara (fig. 31).[5]  Death here looks alive as it flies over the door lintel displaying the inscribed fabric.  In a bizarre feature, the winged skeleton uses its teeth to support the center of the epitaph.  In just two years, Gianlorenzo Bernini had

Bernini, "Tomb of Gianlorenzo Bernini," c. 1680, Rome, Santa Maria Maggiore (source - gohistoric.com)

Fig. 32. Bernini, “Tomb of Gianlorenzo Bernini,” c. 1680, Rome, Santa Maria Maggiore (source – gohistoric.com)

devised a way to bring life to funerary art.  The lessons he learned then carried into his designs for papal tombs.

It is only fitting that Bernini would trust no one but himself to design his own tomb (fig. 32).  Though not born in the Eternal City, Bernini and his family would eventually be buried in one of its greatest churches, Santa Maria Maggiore.  Records suggest that he intended to be buried in a grand monument closer to those he executed for his patrons.  In the end, however, the knighted artist was laid to rest under a marble slab bearing little more than his name.[9]  This reality is a final reminder that he was not pope, he was not nobility, he was simply an extremely talented and therefore wealthy artist.  In seventeenth-century Rome, a lower-middle class family could survive on less than one hundred scudi a year.[10]  Bernini died with 400,000 scudi to his name, but by Baroque Rome standards, he was undeserving by birth of ostentation, even though he is certainly deserving of remembrance.[11]



[1] Dorothy Metzger Habel, 293.

[2] Judith Bernstock, “Bernini’s Memorial to Maria Raggi” in The Art Bulletin 62 (June 1980), 249.

[3]  Judith Bernstock, “Bernini’s Memorial to Maria Raggi” in The Art Bulletin 62 (June 1980), 243.

[4]  Judith Bernstock, “Bernini’s Memorial to Maria Raggi” in The Art Bulletin 62 (June 1980), 246.

[5] Judith E. Bernstock, “Bernini’s Memorials to Ippolito Merenda and Alessandro Valtrini,” in The Art Bulletin 63 (June 1981), 210.

[6] Irving Lavin, “Bernini’s Death” in The Art Bulletin 54 (June 1972), 162.

[7] Scrambling for Scudi, 312.

[8] Scrambling for Scudi, 313.

[9] Irving Lavin, “Bernini’s Death” in The Art Bulletin 54 (June 1972), 162.

[10] Scrambling for Scudi, 312.

[11] Scrambling for Scudi, 313.