Truth Unveiled: Bernini’s Bell Towers and the Allegory of Truth: Innocent X and the Pamphili
–Chelsea Neal

Figure 12. Bernini, Bust of Innocent X, 1650. Marble. Source: ARTstor

Innocent X Pamphili, the man who ultimately gave the order to have Bernini’s towers torn down, was elected by the papal conclave on September 15, 1644. He came to power in the wake of a papacy that many in Rome considered disastrous and inherited not only the lingering effects of Urban’s war, but also a city burdened by heavy taxes and a papal debt of eight million scudi. It therefore comes as little surprise that the new Pope was quite keen to distance himself from his predecessor, and he quickly earned a reputation as a reformer by ordering investigations into the corruption of the previous regime and conducting inquiries on the misappropriation of papal funds.[1]

The former Pope’s mind-numbingly expensive artistic endeavors were viewed, not entirely incorrectly, as excessive acts of Urban’s own self-promotion, and this evidently caused Innocent to view his predecessor’s projects, not to mention his favorites, with a “frosty scrutiny”.[2] As Bernini’s son wrote years later: “Out of his disdain for the Barberini, Innocent’s antipathy grew as well for all those who were affectionate toward and dependent on that family…foremost among them was Bernini himself.”[3]

Figure 13. Israel Silvestre, East View from St. Peter’s Dome, 1641. Source: Bernini’s Rome

Innocent’s distaste for the Barberini favorite was only further fueled by attacks from Bernini’s critics, in particular those of his long-time rival Francesco Borromini. These men “knew well what to say and do to make the pope believe that Urban VIII and Bernini did great damage to that most noble façade…and that one of these towers, now almost completed, was by its great weight bringing about inevitable ruin.”[4]

It would be unfair, however, to suggest that Innocent tore down the towers based on this immediate dislike when in fact he was initially quite pragmatic in his approach to the matter of the bell towers. Almost as soon as he was securely in office the Pope took it upon himself to resolve the matter of the troublesome structures. He ordered an in-depth investigation into the issue and created a committee within the Fabbrica whose sole purpose was to analyze the stability of the towers and to come up with a valid solution to the problem of the cracks. Innocent’s committee met several times throughout the year of 1645, and by all accounts the proceedings seem to have been approached with a “methodical thoroughness” that revealed just how seriously Innocent X and his cardinals were in their approach to the issue.[5]

The committee received the opinions of a number of architects and, at least initially, it was determined that the towers could be saved, although alterations would be of course necessary.  The plan called for uppermost section of Bernini’s tower to be dismantled in order to lighten the load while certain portions of Maderno’s base were to be eliminated entirely in a manner that would not only reduce the weight of the towers, but would also result in “neatly solving aesthetic criticisms that had been leveled at Maderno’s façade for decades.”[7] The solution seems to recognize that there was general agreement regarding the fact that “the problem lay in Maderno’s defective foundations, not Bernini’s alleged imprudence.”[8]

Then within a few days of the selection, on the 23rd of February, 1646, the Pope abruptly decreed that Bernini’s tower was to be demolished down to the level of Maderno’s work where it would be replaced according to a new design that was being taken into consideration.[9] The towers went down, but nothing new went up. No satisfactory explanation for this was given, but the demolition, which took a total of ten months to complete, coupled with the fact that the Pope was threatening to hold Bernini financially responsible for the cost, could hardly be interpreted as anything other than complete failure and left Bernini in a state of abject humiliation.[10] What accounted for this sudden change of heart? What caused the Pope to abruptly toss out months of inquiry and order Bernini’s tower torn down? One explanation suggests that the artist’s own bravado, combined with Pamphili family politics, may have played a prominent role in the matter.

Figure 14. Alessandro Algardi, Bust of Donna Olimpia Maidalchini, 17th century. Marble. Source: ARTstor

Around the same time that the decision on the bell towers was taking place, Bernini penned a play for Donna Olimpia Maidalchini, the Pope’s powerful and politically savvy sister-in-law, mother to the Cardinal-nephew, Camillo Pamphili, and one of the most prominent patrons of art in Rome. The play, now lost, is said to have satirized Camillo Pamphili as a well-meaning young man who nonetheless never accomplished anything, while the Pope himself was portrayed as an old man who could never make up his mind. Bernini’s comedies were well known for their satirical sting, and although the ridiculed parties were never openly named they were “more or less transparently masked by symbol or parody.”[11]  In this case, however, the satire was apparently so blatantly obvious that one source remarked it was “a miracle that the Cavaliere [had] not been condemned to prison.”[12]

What infuriated the Cardinal-nephew most of all was that this play had been performed in his mother’s house with her open consent and full approval. In fact Cardinal Pamphili was so incensed that he openly “inveighed against [Bernini] and succeeded in convincing the other cardinals that Bernini’s tower should fall and that the architect should be held responsible for his mistake.”[13] Provoked by Bernini’s insults, his nephews outrage, and perhaps pushed even further by the remarks of an anonymous advisor, who Domenico Bernini describes as “ill-intentioned towards the Cavaliere and likewise provoked by Borromini,” the Pope ordered the towers torn down.[14]

It would seem, then, that the order to tear down Bernini’s towers was not given as a result of any genuine concerns about the stability of the structures. Even if it had been the decision still would have been particularly surprising, given that the Fabbrica, after months of deliberation and planning, had settled on a solution just days before. In this case it would appear the decision was made due a serious miscalculation on the part of the artist and, caught up in family politics “the playwright himself may have served as more accessible target for the wrath of a wounded son.”[15] The theory that this miscalculation played a role in the tower debacle is further supported by Bernini’s attempts to smooth things over with bribes. Bernini is reported to have given Donna Olimpia a gift of one-thousand doubloons while to the Papal Nephew he sent a much more valuable gift: the diamond ring that the artist had received from Charles I of England in exchange for his portrait bust, apparently worth six-thousand scudi.[16]  Unfortunately neither bribe did anything to change Innocent’s mind about the fate of the towers.


[1] McPhee, Bernini and the Bell Towers, 82.

[2] Schama, Power of Art, 110.

[3] Domenico Bernini, The Life of  Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 153.

[4] Baldinucci, The Life of Bernini, 32.

[5] McPhee, Bernini and the Bell Towers, 87.

[6] McPhee, Bernini and the Bell Towers, 164.

[7] McPhee, Bernini and the Bell Towers, 163.

[8] Mormando, Bernini: His Life and His Rome, 151.

[9] McPhee, Bernini and the Bell Towers, 165.

[10] McPhee, Bernini and the Bell Towers, 169.

[11] George Bauer, “Appendix B: A Note on Bernini and the Theater,” Diary of the Cavaliere Bernini’s Visit to France. Trans. Margery Corbett. . (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 340.

[12] McPhee, Bernini and the Bell Towers, 170.

[13] McPhee, Bernini and the Bell Towers, 169.

[14] Domenico Bernini, The Life of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 155.

[15] McPhee, Bernini and the Bell Towers, 170.

[16] Mormando, Bernini: His Life and His Rome, 153.