Bernini: behold the roots of heaven. They are made of stone…
In 1623 Cardinal Barberini became Pope Urban VIII and, according to a probably apocryphal anecdote, told Bernini: “it is your great good luck, Cavaliere, to see Maffeo Barberini pope. But we are even luckier in that the Cavaliere Bernini lives in the time of out pontificate.” Bernini was put in charge of the papacy’s entire artistic program, and until Urban’s death in 1644, he was almost wholly occupied by papal commissions. The pope insisted on monopolizing his output, with one or two exceptions-King Charles I of England and Cardinal Richelieu were given Bernini busts done from portraits in exchange for political favors.
A wealthy Englishman named Thomas Baker paid him the equivalent of a nobleman’s ransom for a bust. The pope scolded him for undertaking so plebeian a project, so Bernini had the bust finished by an assistant. But his friendship with the pope was hardly of the tempestuous sort that had existed between Michelangelo and Julius II. Bernini had free access to the papal apartments, and the two often spent the evening there together until the pontiff dozed off, the signal that Bernini could leave after adjusting the window blinds.
Responsible for multiple projects, Bernini became more a contractor thana sculptor. He had the power of a high curial official. Other artists complained that he had a stranglehold on the patronage, and some critics charged he was bankrupting the papacy. When he plundered the bronze portico and the roof of the Pantheon to make his baldachino, it was said that what the barbarians could not accomplish had been done by Barberini.
Barberini employed a growing number of sculptors and stonemasons to carry out his designs. To be an artist in Rome, it was said, was to work for Bernini. When he was not designing, he worked on his busts, chiseling the marble for hours without stopping. Short and thin, with the profile of one of the pope’s falcons, he had the energy of a long distance runner, the passion of one of his own marble saints, and the efficiency of a seventeenth century organization man.