Redefining Papal Tombs: The Tomb of Pope Urban VIII Barberini

Hannah Ridenour

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

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

Baldinucci, in the first biography published about Bernini, says that construction on the tomb of Pope Urban VIII Barberini began in 1642 (fig. 1).[1]  While preliminary design sketches are not known to have survived, the appearance of the tomb of Pope Paul III was likely of great significance to Urban (fig. 7).  He had that funerary monument moved to a location across from his own, probably to suggest a similarity of

Guglielmo della Porta, "Tomb of Pope Paul III," ca. 1540, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica (source - artstor.org)

Fig. 7. Guglielmo della Porta, “Tomb of Pope Paul III,” ca. 1540, Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica (source – artstor.org)

nature and achievement between the two of them.[2]  Paul III had opened the Council of Trent, which led to the Catholic Reformation.  To Catholics of the Baroque period, he was the founder of the modern Church.

Both tombs feature an enthroned pope in bronze, with two marble virtues

Bernini, "Charity from the Tomb of Pope Urban VIII," ca. 1627-1647, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica

Fig. 13. Bernini, “Charity from the Tomb of Pope Urban VIII,” ca. 1627-1647, Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica (source – artstor.org)

accompanying the pontiff as they find support on his sarcophagus.  Here the similarities end.  The virtues with Pope Paul III are Justice (left) and Prudence (right).  Della Porta used the then-standard virtues on the funerary monument as allegories of the pope’s favorable qualities.  Bernini, however, removes Prudence and instead chooses Charity to mirror Justice (fig. 13).  The inclusion of Charity instead of Prudence is to enforce that Urban was the Vicar of Christ.  Jesus is considered the ideal example of a just and merciful, or charitable, figure, while a ruler was remembered as just and prudent.[3]  This intentional composition choice is in direct opposition to Urban’s renewal of humanist, Pre-Counter Reformation thought and ostentation.[4]

In an otherwise secular display of power, Bernini is called upon to suggest the spiritual side

Bernini, "Justice from the Tomb of Pope Urban VIII," ca. 1627-1647, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica (source - artstor.org)

Fig. 15. Bernini, “Justice from the Tomb of Pope Urban VIII,” ca. 1627-1647, Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica (source – artstor.org)

of Urban’s papacy.  For this, Bernini appears to have turned to literature.  The 1603 publication of Iconologia is a resource Bernini would certainly have consulted for the standard portrayal of personifications and allegories.  However, Charity is not included in that edition.  If using the text as a source, Bernini likely created Charity as a hybrid of Adoption and Alms.  Adoption is

Bernini, "Terracotta Bozetto of Charity for the Tomb of Urban VIII," ca. 1627-1647, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica (source - artstor.org)

Fig. 14. Bernini, “Terracotta Bozetti of Charity for the Tomb of Urban VIII,” ca. 1627-1647, Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica (source – artstor.org)

usually personified as an old woman caring for a poorly dressed boy. [5]  Alms is also a woman giving some of her wealth to two children.  The veil worn by Alms allows her to give but not to be recognized.[6]  Bernini’s personification of Charity is a youthful woman, appearing to be the mother of the infant and the small boy.  It is through her nurturing appearance that she is identified with Adoption and Alms.

In the Iconologia, Justice is described as a blindfolded woman clothed in white and holding scales and a sword.  Around her are a snake, a dog, a book, and a skull.[7]  While Bernini does not adhere to this description exactly, he uses enough attributes to make Justice recognizable, specifically through the use of that sword that, in her grief over the loss of the just pope, she can barely seem to hold (fig. 15).  To add to the tragedy of the composition, Bernini has not simply blindfolded her, but has rendered her completely blind.  In true Baroque spirit, Justice and Charity are not just personifications, but also are “actors in a history”, a new level of theatrics, animation, and emotion achieved by Bernini.[8]

By the time Bernini began work on Urban’s funerary monument, he had depicted the face of the pontiff for portrait busts several times.  Terra-cotta models were an important step in sculpting Bernini’s final marble representations, and they surely were also used before casting Urban’s

Bernini, "Anterior of the Tomb of Pope Urban VIII," ca. 1627-1647, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica (source - Jennifer Montagu, Roman Baroque Sculpture: The Industry of Art, 55.)

Fig. 16. Bernini, “Anterior View of the Tomb of Pope Urban VIII,” ca. 1627-1647, Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica (source – Jennifer Montagu, Roman Baroque Sculpture: The Industry of Art, 55.)

face in bronze for his tomb.  Among the surviving bozetti for this project is the model for Charity (fig. 14).[9]

While the façade of the tomb speaks purely of grandeur, the reality of its construction proves it to be much more inventive.  The back of Urban’s monument reveals that the height of the composition was molded from a build-up of soft bricks that even fill the majority of Urban’s body (fig. 16).[10]  It is unknown whether the bronze that makes up the image of the pontiff is repurposed metal from an ancient Roman ruin such as the roof of the Pantheon.  Urban VIII did use that bronze to form the Baldacchino and several series of papal medals.[11]

Urban appears to have been a man concerned about his immortality, and not just

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

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

through remembrance.  The state, and fate, of his immortal soul was clearly a matter of importance. Being so near to the main altar of the basilica, masses for Pope Urban VIII could be said from under the Baldacchino in the presence of Urban’s likeness (fig. 11).[12]  In the Catholic Church, the idea of constantly being able to attend mass is powerful.  The skeletal representation of Death ensures immortality for the pope, however (fig. 12).[13]  A skeleton’s inclusion in tomb design was not entirely new, but Bernini, in typical Bernini fashion, elevated its status as a player in the composition’s narrative.  It sits atop Urban’s sarcophagus, inscribing the pope’s name in the Book of the Dead.  Death has taken away Urban’s life on earth, but has immortalized him in writing, a humanist idea of immortality still surviving in the 1640s from the Renaissance.

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

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

Anyone who studies Gianlorenzo Bernini ought to be surprised at the inclusion of bronze in any of his more figurative works. The Baldacchino, small funerary plaques, and some portrait busts by Bernini are in the metal, but the complete human form was, to Bernini, only befitting the smooth and discoverable medium of marble. The use of bronze for the body of Urban VIII enthroned above his sarcophagus was an effort to parallel Paul III’s effigy. And it is the darkness of Death that requires not pale stone but the black of infinity and of the unknown. The sensation caused by catching death in the act of immortalizing the pope would not be the same if Bernini had sculpted it from marble.  The marble elements of the composition refer to living qualities, while the bronze refer to entities now gone.[14]  He achieved a “balance between a commemorative and a ceremonial monument.”[15]



[1] Baldinucci, 22.

[2] Rice, 87.

[3] Erwin Panofsky, Tomb Sculpture: Four Lectures on Its Changing Aspects from Ancient Egypt to Bernini (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1992), 94.

[4] Scotti, 248.

[5] Cesare Ripa, Baroque and Rococo Pictorial Imagery: The 1758-60 Hertel edition of Ripa’s ‘Iconologia’ with 200 engraved illustrations (New York: Dover Publications, 1971), 38.

[6] Ripa, 138.

[7] Ripa, 120.

[8] Philipp P. Fehl, “Hermeticism and Art: Emblem and Allegory in the Work of Bernini,” Artibus et Historiae 7 (1986), 180-181.

[9] Andrea Bacchi, Catherine Hess, et al., Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture (Los Angeles, California: Getty Publications, 2008), 80.

[10] Montagu, Roman Baroque Sculpture: The Industry of Art, 55.

[11] Jennifer Montagu, Gold, Silver, and Bronze: Metal Sculpture of the Roman Baroque (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996), 227.

[12] Rice., 87.

[13] Panofsky, 94.

[14] Rudolf Whittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600-1750, Vol. 2, High Baroque (Yale University Press, 1999), 15.

[15] Whittkower, 17