Redefining Papal Tombs: Pope Urban VIII Barberini as Patron

Hannah Ridenour

Bernini, "Bust of Urban VIII," ca. 1637, Italy (source -

Fig. 9. Bernini, “Bust of Urban VIII,” ca. 1637, Italy (source –

Pope Urban VIII (r. 1623-1644) was born Maffeo Barberini in 1568. A prolific patron of personal, familial, and papal projects, Urban VIII is largely responsible for the Baroque design of St. Peter’s Basilica. Gianlorenzo Bernini was one of his favorite artists as well as a trusted friend. Urban’s commissions for the sculptor included private works such as portrait busts, public works such as fountains in Rome, and papal works such as the

Pietro da Cortona, "Glorification of the Reign of Urban VIII," c. 1639, Rome, Palazzo Barberini (source -

Fig. 10. Pietro da Cortona, “Glorification of the Reign of Urban VIII,” c. 1639, Rome, Palazzo Barberini (source –

Baldacchino and the failed bell towers of St. Peter’s. The Palazzo Barberini was built under his direction, and was filled with artwork such as Pietro da Cortona’s Glorification of the Reign of Urban VIII (fig. 10).  The tomb commissioned by Bernini is a blatant display of the pope’s influence and artistic and political interests. The monument, located in the apse of St. Peter’s just the right of the Chair of St. Peter, is in one of the most visible areas of the basilica.  The monument shares the same bronze tones with the Baldacchino, another commission of the pontiff for Gianlorenzo Bernini (fig. 11).

Bernini, "Tomb of Urban VIII Barberini," c. 1627-1647, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica (source -

Fig. 1. Bernini, “Tomb of Urban VIII Barberini,” c. 1627-1647, Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica (source –

St. Peter’s in 1621 was essentially an empty canvas on the interior.  The gilded, coffered vault was the only truly completed element.[1]  Urban VIII became pope two years later, and would be the pope who really created the appearance of St. Peter’s interior.  He already had plenty of administrative experience working on the new basilica; as a cardinal, Urban had served on the Congregation of the Fabbrica, the committee in charge of the construction, since 1608.[2]  In 1626, Urban VIII officially consecrated the new basilica to St. Peter, even though it was far from complete.[3]  When he died in 1644, every altar space in St. Peter’s had been designated, and all but one had been completed.[4]  He made all of this possible by commissioning works from twenty-two artists of various schools, turning St. Peter’s into a gallery of contemporary art.  This is in line with an increasingly secular interest in religious art.  Giulio Mancini, an amateur artist and the personal physician to Pope Urban VIII Barberini until his death in 1630, “left in manuscript form what is perhaps that first modern guide to Rome: modern in the sense that it was written to identify not relics for the pilgrim but paintings for the art lover.”[5]  A strictly cohesive style throughout the basilica was nearly impossible on a deadline, not to mention lacking in variation.[6]  Bernini was Michelangelo in Urban’s eyes, however, and there was no one better to design his tomb, an irrefutable way to immortalize his papacy, and control the memories surrounding it.[7]

Bernini, "Baldacchino," ca. 1624-1633, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica (source -

Fig. 11. Bernini, “Baldacchino,” ca. 1624-1633, Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica (source –

Despite, or perhaps in light of, his dedication to the ostentatious outfitting of the basilica, Urban VIII was not a popular pope.  In the eyes of the populous of Rome, “he was an extreme nepotist and ardent patron of the arts, which was fine until he drained the papal coffers and attempted to fill them again by imposing a tax on the Romans.”[8]  As pope, he earned 2.5 million scudi every year, at least half of which was expected to go to funding papal projects.[9]  His entire family was

Bernini, Close Up of "The Tomb of Pope Urban VIII  Barberini," ca. 1627-1647, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica (source -

Fig. 12. Bernini, Death and Bees from “The Tomb of Pope Urban VIII Barberini,” ca. 1627-1647, Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica (source –

mistrusted by Rome; the Barberini maintained a lavish lifestyle at the Palazzo Barberini, and frequently  plundered Roman ruins for their own use, resulting in the exclamatory phrase, “quod non fecerunt Barbari fecerunt Barberini (what the barbarians did not do, the Barberinis did).”[10]

Still, Bernini was loyal to the clients who paid well.  This loyalty is obvious in an anecdote included in Baldinucci’s biography of the artist, first published in 1682, two years after Bernini’s death.  Bernini included a number of bees on the tomb of Urban VIII in reference to the Barberini family, who had no qualms in placing the insects wherever they could (fig. 12).  Baldinucci claims that an unfriendly visitor to the tomb once claimed that the bees were in disorder to represent the relocation of the Barberini to France in protest to the current pope.  Bernini, who for some reason is at the tomb as well, replied that “dispersed bees congregate at the sound of a bell.”  Implying that the family will return when the Arco delle Campani signals the death of Innocent X, it is direct rebuke at the visitor.[11]  While likely a mix of fact and fiction, the story immortalizes both the general dislike for the Barberini and the loyalty Bernini held for certain customers.



[1] Louise Rice, The Altars and Altarpieces of New St. Peter’s: Outfitting the Basilica, 1621-1666 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 48.

[2] Ibid., 62.

[3] George C. Bauer, “Bernini’s ‘Pasce oves meas’ and the Entrance Wall of St. Peter’s” in Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte (63: 2000), 15. Urban even commissioned Bernini to make a relief sculpture for the entrance to St. Peter’s in honor of the consecration.

[4] Rice, 115.

[5] H.W. Janson, ed., Sources and Documents in the History of Art Series (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970), 33.

[6] Rice, 150.

[7]Filippo Baldinucci, The Life of Bernini, trans. Catherine Enggass (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966), 15.

[8] Wendy Reardon, The Deaths of the Popes: Comprehensive Accounts, Including Funerals, Burial Places and Epitaphs (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2004), 207.

[9] Richard E. Spear, “Scrambling for Scudi,” The Art Bulletin 85 (June 2003), 311.

[10] Jennifer Montagu, Roman Baroque Sculpture: The Industry of Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 56.

[11] Baldinucci, 22.