Charles Scribner III      

art historian, author, editor, and lecturer

































Rubens and Bernini: Artists Who Did Not Starve

To read RUBENS eBook online for free, via Scribd, click link:

To read the 1991 book BERNINI online, as eBook, free,

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To read BERNINI online eBook, for free, click link:


       I'm a Gemini.  I confess this now that Don Regan and Kitty Kelly have taught us how important astrology has been to our nation's recent history.  Me, I've never really believed in astrology, but I'm reminded of the horseshoe that the atomic physicist Niels Bohr hung over his door for good luck: when teased about it by fellow scientists, he admitted that he personally didn't believe in the superstition, but he had been assured that it worked whether you believed in it or not.  So perhaps, after all, my star sign accounts for my double life, or career: I describe myself as an art historian/publisher--and I'm never quite sure where to draw the slash.  Perhaps it also accounts for my dual focus on the artists Rubens and Bernini.  

For a scholarly comparative study of the two artists, click link:

Like the Gemini twins, the demigods Castor and Pollux, they form an all-star pair, together marking the zenith of the age we call the Baroque.  As the premier proponents of the Catholic revival in art, both attracted key patronage from church and state; both could convey their message more seductively than Calvin Klein--and without sacrificing style or quality; they were consummate impresarios who were happiest when orchestrating vast, multi-faceted programs.  Rubens once declared, "I confess that I am by natural instinct better fitted to execute very large works than small curiosities.  Everyone according to his gifts.  My talent is such that no undertaking, however vast in size or diversified in subject, has ever surpassed my courage."  Brave words; they might as easily have been Bernini's, who upon his arrival at the court of Louis XIV, insisted to the French king and courtiers, "Let no one speak to me of little things."

            To execute their vast commissions, both artists presided over huge studios of assistants and collaborators; each established a school of followers, each reigned supreme in his city.  Three centuries later, Antwerp remains the city of Rubens, and in Rome, Bernini's indelible stamp of genius appears as immutable as the ancient ruins.  These men of unlimited vision, confidence and talent were, at the same time, devout Catholics and devoted husbands and fathers (Rubens had eight children, Bernini eleven).  Both were energetic, life-loving, thoroughly balanced men who lived in total harmony with society and with themselves.  They confound our modern notion of the struggling artist who pays dearly for exerting his genius.  Perhaps, dare I suggest, these very qualities may detract from their popular appeal today?  Our age prefers to locate genius in a tormented Michelangelo, a rebellious Caravaggio, a reclusive Rembrandt:  Hollywood has yet to project Rubens's or Bernini's exemplary lives onto the screen. Yet together they reveal the epic, heroic qualities of men who tower over their time, and over the entire history of art. Today I can only offer only some hors d'oeuvres.  For the main courses--images far beyond the scope of words--I urge you to browse through--perhaps, dare I say even purchase?--the two books so lavishly illustrated by my publisher Abrams. (End of commercial.)


            Peter Paul Rubens is an artist's artist. Over the centuries, Van Dyck, Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Delacroix, Renoir--all paid him homage with their brushes.  Even Cézanne and Matisse. Yet it was said of him:  "Of all his talents, painting is the least."   He was also a diplomat, a scholar and antiquarian, an amateur architect, and shrewd businessman --a true Renaissance man. One visitor to his studio recalled seeing him at work on a painting "in the course of which he was read to from Tacitus while, at the same time, he dictated a letter.  As we did not disturb him by talking, he began to speak with us, carrying on his painting without stopping, still being read to and going on with the dictation."

            Rubens was born in 1577 to parents living in exile in Germany. After his father's death, returning to Antwerp, he received a solid, classical education before pursuing a life in art. In 1600 he set out for Italy.  His arrival in Rome coincided with the dawn of the Baroque--a new realism in painting combined with a classical revival of the Renaissance.  Employed by the duke of Mantua, he received his first diplomatic assignment-- a mission to Spain to present paintings to King Philip III along with a coach and six prize horses. (The horses had to be given wine baths!) Perhaps not coincidentally, it was astride a white stallion that Rubens painted the king's prime minister in his first major equestrian portrait. 

            Back in Rome, he took up his lifelong study of ancient art and philology: this budding antiquarian was to return to Antwerp with a sizable collection of Roman sculpture, reliefs, busts, and ancient coins. Just as his Roman reputation took off, he got word that his mother was gravely ill.  He dashed off for home--too late for her, but in time for the signing of a truce with the Dutch, which promised an economic revival for war-torn Flanders.  He still yearned for Italy. but to their everlasting credit, the regents Albert and Isabella made him an offer too good to refuse.  As their new court painter, Rubens was exempted from all taxes, guild restrictions, and court duties: he could remain in Antwerp and organize his own studio. Two weeks later he married the nineteen-year-old Isabella Brant. He bought property in town and built a magnificent Italianate villa with classical garden. There, in his spacious studio, he produced an enormous number of altarpieces as well as mythologies, hunting scenes, portraits, and allegories--with the help of his bustling studio. One visitor recalled seeing "a large hall which had no windows but was lighted through an opening in the ceiling.  In this hall were a number of young painters, all at work on different pictures, for which Rubens had made the drawings in chalks indicating the tones here and there which Rubens would afterwards finish himself.  The work would then pass for a Rubens." Among his assistants was the precocious Anthony van Dyck.

             When the English ambassador Sir Dudley Carlton offered Rubens a diamond necklace in exchange for a painting, he flatly refused, his price for a picture being as firm "as the laws of the Medes and Persians," according to Carlton's daunted agent.  Instead, Rubens sought to exchange a large group of his paintings for Carleton's "rare collection of antiquities."  He was an astute salesman:   "The reason I would deal more willingly in pictures is clear:  although they do not exceed their just price in the list, yet they cost me, so to speak, nothing. . . . I am not a prince, but one who lives by the work of his hands."   Virtually overnight, Rubens became a preeminent collector. His bravura in business was as sure as his brushwork.

            Rubens was soon engaged by the Spanish Infanta Isabella as her confidential agent in the clandestine maneuvers for peace between the two Netherlands, north and south.  His widespread fame as  "the painter of princes and prince of painters" permitted him easy access to kings and their ministers who often discussed matters of state while sitting for portraits. For the queen mother of France, Maria de' Medici, he painted his famous Medici cycle now in the Louvre, 24 epic canvases that elevated Maria's lackluster reign to the stage of grand opera, where mortals mingle with Olympian gods. In the words of the American artist Washington Allston: "Rubens was a liar, a splendid liar, I grant you; and I would rather lie like Rubens than tell the truth in the poor, tame manner in which some painters do."  Rubens complained that he was "the busiest and most harassed man in the world”; the commissions continued to pour in. 

            His domestic life was soon shattered by the death of his wife: " Truly I have lost an excellent companion, whom one could love -- indeed had to love, with good reason . . .   I think a journey would be advisable to take me away from the many things which necessarily renew my sorrow."  With a heavy heart, Rubens embarked on a diplomatic odyssey. The English king's court favorite, the duke of Buckingham, was angling to buy Rubens's entire collection of antiquities.  The ensuing negotiations offered a cover for diplomatic meetings to negotiate peace among England, Spain, and the Dutch. The Spanish king was aghast that such diplomacy had been entrusted to a mere painter. Yet Rubens persevered and set out for Madrid. While waiting for word from England, he painted copies of all the king's Titians, the glory of the Prado today.  Looking over his shoulder was the young Vel‡zquez.

            When Rubens was finally called to England, Philip IV gave him the title Secretary of the King's Privy Council of the Netherlands, and a diamond ring, in order to elevate the standing of his painter-envoy at the foreign court: Rubens was never to eradicate the stigma attached to one who "lived by the work of his hands."    Four years earlier he had declared "I regard the whole world as my country, and I believe that I should be very welcome everywhere."  He now set out to justify that claim. 

            Despite the English king's desire for peace, Rubens had to negotiate his way through a byzantine maze of factions and foreign intrigues at court.   He wrote: "I am very apprehensive as to the instability of the English temperament.  Rarely, in fact, do these people persist in a resolution, but change from hour to hour, and always from bad to worse. . ."  But he prevailed. He was awarded an honorary degree from Cambridge and on the eve of his departure, King Charles threw a royal banquet, gave him a jeweled sword and a diamond ring, and knighted him--Sir Peter Paul. In return he promised to glorify the Stuart dynasty on the ceiling of the Whitehall Banqueting House.

            Back in Antwerp, Rubens devoted himself to his "beloved profession" --and to his new bride, Helena.  He was a widower of fifty-three; she, a girl of sixteen.  He confided:  "I made up my mind to marry again, since I was not yet inclined to live the abstinent life of the celibate, thinking that, if we must give the first place to continence, we may enjoy licit pleasures with thankfulness.  I have taken a young wife of honest but middle-class family, although everyone tried to persuade me to make a court marriage.  But I feared Pride, that inherent vice of the nobility, particularly in that sex, and that is why I chose one who would not blush to see me take my brushes in hand."  Far from blushing, Helena inspired the most personal and poignant paintings of the rejuvenated master. The marriage was as fruitful as it was blissful; their fifth child was born eight months after Rubens's death!  (You do the math.)    

            Rubens retired from diplomacy:  "I made the decision to force myself to cut this golden knot of ambition, in order to recover my liberty. . . . I have never regretted this decision."  Philip IV, in turn, knighted him -- the only painter so honored by kings of both England and Spain.   For the new governor of the Netherlands, he designed a series of nine triumphal arches and stages erected along the processional route through the streets of Antwerp. These ephemeral monuments of wood, sculpture, cut-out figures, and paintings -- a Cecil B. DeMille production -- required an army of carpenters, sculptors, and painters all working under Rubens' direction. 

             He was now spending the summer months at his country estate, Het Steen.  There he painted the most expansive and glowing landscapes of his career-- poetic odes in oil to the natural order of creation, an Arcadian vision of man living in harmony with nature, canvases that alone would ensure his fame as a landscapist, if no other works survived.

            Despite attacks of gout (arthritis), which increasingly prevented him from picking up a brush, he designed for Philip IV's hunting lodge wall-to-wall mythologies, over sixty scenes inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses.   Yet in his definitive Self-Portrait , that late masterpiece today in Vienna, Rubens presents himself not as an artist but as a knight, with his jeweled sword from Charles I.  The self-confident and proud -- if now aged and weary -- Lord of Steen. Following an attack of gout, he died in May, 1640. His will stipulated that his vast collection of drawings be kept intact in case any of his sons (or a future son-in-law) should choose a career in art.  As fate would have it, none did. 

             His artistic legacy extended far beyond the Netherlands and transcended all temporal bounds; his art has proved as universal as the man himself.  Painter, diplomat, impresario, scholar, antiquarian, architect, humanist -- Peter Paul Rubens embodied the Baroque fulfillment of the Renaissance man.


            Now to complete our celestial Gemini, we must look south, to the Italian Gianlorenzo Bernini. He, too, was the impresario of his age; and Rome was his stage. Born 21 years after Rubens, in 1598, Gianlorenzo was a child prodigy. Like Mozart, he had a professional father for his teacher, who was to shine by reflected glory. When warned, "Watch out, the boy will surpass his master,"  papa Bernini replied: "Well, I don't mind, for in that case the loser wins." The pope predicted that the lad would become the "Michelangelo of our age."

            His first religious piece, St. Lawrence being roasted alive on a gridiron, was indeed a marble echo of Michelangelo's famous Pietà.  But also painstakingly true to life: young Bernini "placed his bare leg and thigh against a lighted brazier," then sketched his anguished reflection in a mirror.       

            Before he turned twenty-one, he carved the first of a series of magnificent life-size sculptures for the Villa Borghese.  There his David still stands a split second away from hurling the stone at an invisible Goliath looming behind the viewer. The statue penetrates our space and charges it with dramatic energy. It's a milestone in the history of sculpture--marking the physical and psychological incorporation of the viewer.

            On the day the new pope, Urban VIII, took office, he told the Bernini: "Your luck is great, cavaliere, to see Maffeo Barberini Pope; but ours is much greater to have Cavaliere Bernini alive in our pontificate."  Cavaliere --because the 24-year-old had already been knighted.  Urban was to bestow on him commissions that would epitomize his triumphal restoration of Rome.            

            Eager as he was to make Bernini his Michelangelo, Urban instructed him to study painting.   But his major commissions were decidedly three-dimensional. Above the papal altar and the tomb of St. Peter he erected a Baldacchino:  a ceremonial canopy translated into a landmark 95 feet tall, as high as the Palazzo Farnese, or an eight story modern building.  Is it architecture or sculpture? Two centuries later, an American tourist called it a "huge uncouth structure that resembles nothing so much as a colossal four-post bedstead without the curtains."  But the critical consensus at its completion (it took 9 years) was decidedly favorable, then as now.           

            In each of the surrounding piers, Bernini designed a colossal saint in a niche.  Almost three times life size, his Longinus is composed of five separate pieces of marble, a practice Michelangelo would have condemned as befitting a cobbler, not a sculptor. According to Michelangelo, a sculpture should be able to roll downhill without damage. Nothing could be further from Bernini's conception: Longinus's outstretched arms are thrust into the surrounding space while his spiritual conversion reverberates through convoluted drapery--Bernini's distinctive hallmark.

            For his early patron, Cardinal Borghese, he carved a true "speaking likeness.”  He sketched the cardinal while he moved about and conversed in order to capture the man behind the marble. (His invention of caricatures reveals--in a few sharp strokes--his genius in distilling the essence of identity.)  Borghese was doubly pleased.  Before he had finished carving, Bernini noticed a flaw in the marble; in two weeks he carved a copy, which he kept hidden behind a cloth, during the unveiling of the original.  Borghese tried bravely to conceal his disappointment over the flaw. After prolonging the agony, Bernini suddenly unveiled the second version.  Like his sculptural technique, his sense of drama was flawless.

            Following Bernini's fiery affair with the wife of an assistant, the pope advised his scorched sculptor to settle down and marry.  Bernini insisted that his statues would be his children.  But in the end, he complied--and with typical results.  His wife, Caterina, bore him eleven children over their thirty-seven years of marriage.  "Bernini was made for Rome, and Rome was made for him": so proclaimed the Urban pontiff.  In that city of fountains Bernini left his signature writ in water.  The first of these refreshing landmarks is the Barcaccia  (old boat) in the Piazza di Spagna.  It makes a virtue of necessity.  The low water pressure did not permit spouts higher than ground level. So he designed a ship in the middle of a basin, as if rising and falling with the sea; with water gushing from its cannons: "waters sweet that quench the fires of war," wrote the poet-pope.

            Outside the pope's palace in the Piazza Barberini, Bernini's Triton arises and blows his conch, as in Ovid's Metamorphoses , to signal the end of the great flood and the restoration of order: "Wet bearded Triton set lip to the great shell, as Neptune ordered, sounding retreat, and all the lands and waters heard and obeyed."  Amidst the cacophony of Roman motor traffic it still sounds a visual fanfare for that pope and poet and princely patron.

            At his death Urban left the papacy on the verge of bankruptcy: such was the price of Rome's artistic glorification over the past two decades.  It was said of the emperor Caesar Augustus that he found Rome brick and left it marble.  We might say of Urban that he found Rome stone and left it Baroque. As impresario of this extravagance, Bernini fell from grace with the new pope.  His rivals, among them the jealous Borromini, seized their chance. With no new papal commissions at hand, Bernini now turned to private patrons--and created his masterpiece, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, whose mystical experience he described in patently physical terms, an artistic consummation of the sensual and the spiritual that evoked mixed responses from the prudish Victorians.  Yet the Roman clergy applauded his achievement, in which, according to his son Domenico, Bernini "conquered art." 

            Meanwhile the hostile pope Innocent was finally brought around--by being tricked by a relative into admiring Bernini's model for the a fountain he had secretly designed "on spec" for the Piazza Navona. "This design cannot be by any other than Bernini," Innocent bellowed, "and this is a trick of Prince Ludovisi, so that in spite of those who do not wish it, we will be forced to make use of Bernini; because whoever would not have his designs executed must be sure not to see them." In defiance of gravity, Bernini raised a massive obelisk on a hollowed-out  travertine mountain from which spring the four great rivers of the world. There was some grousing about its apparent instability.  The irritated sculptor arrived at the piazza, studied his fountain with feigned concern, then ordered men to string ropes and secure the obelisk to the buildings at each side. Then he heaved a sigh of relief-- and departed smiling.  We still marvel at the fountain that for three centuries has transformed the Piazza Navona into the center of paradise, and an immovable feast, al fresco.

            The English diarist John Evelyn wrote that he had attended in Rome an opera for which "Bernini painted the scenes, cut the statues, invented the engines, composed the music, writ the comedy, and built the theatre."  At his church of Sant’ Andrea--Bernini's version of the Pantheon--the saint's overhead flight--his heavenly ascent-- charges the surrounding oval space with the miraculous intrusion of the transcendental.  To Bernini, architecture was primarily a setting for his sculpture, and it had to conform to the classical ideal of human proportions.

            Nowhere is this ideal clearer than in his famous colonnade at St. Peter's.  Crowned with 90 statues of apostles and saints, these freestanding columns, four deep, were conceived as the "embracing arms of Mother Church" --a concept that was as functual as symbolic.  The piazza had to accommodate huge crowds of people receiving papal blessings dispensed alternatively from two distant windows.  Bernini's giant oval fit both occasions--and still does.

            Inside the church, he designed a sculptural finale in the apse, the throne of St. Peter, where natural light materializes through stained glass into golden shafts and gilded stucco angels.  Bernini converted an awkward window into a brilliant source of radiance. His work at St. Peter's was punctuated by a summons to France by Louis XIV to design the Louvre.  The 66-year-old Bernini stayed six frustrating months.  His grand design, alas, would never be built.  France was not to be ruled from a Roman palazzo.  But he left behind his magnificent portrait bust of the king, prepared by dozens of life sketches--pursuing the king into council meetings, even onto the tennis court--which he then discarded before tackling the brittle block of marble. He insisted that he did not want to copy himself, but create an original.  When the king's doctor complained that its face didn't look like Louis, Bernini retorted: "My king will last longer than yours."

            Back in Rome, and now pushing 70, he guaranteed Pope Alexander's immortality, not in a fountain this time, but an obelisk raised on the back of an elephant--a witty monument to the pope's intellect.  Alexander's soul--in turn--was the subject of his papal tomb at St. Peter's.  From its symbolic door emerges a flying skeleton, Death, brandishing an hourglass, a gilded memento mori.

            For the next pope, Clement IX, he renovated and adorned the Ponte Sant' Angelo--then the main approach to St. Peter's--with ten colossal angels. Two of these he carved himself. When the pope ordered them moved indoors to be spared exposure to the elements he then secretly carved one of the outdoor replacements himself. Bernini loved the potential effects of water--in addition to his fountains and this bridge over the Tiber, he invented a simulated "waterfall" of rotating paper globes to cure the pope's insomnia. This by the impresario who had staged an "accidental" flood during the performance of one of his plays, so realistic that the audience almost panicked and bolted the theatre.

            The subject of death was confronted face-on in his late funeral monument to the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, who is shown on the threshold of eternity, clutching her breast; in this visionary Liebestod, her ecstatic death throes reverberate through the tumultuous folds of her dress while white cherub heads float, like snowflakes, down soft streams of natural light from concealed windows.  With the deepening of Bernini's spiritual vision over the years, a vision of physical ecstasy has been modulated into an interior transfiguration, from body into soul.  He approached his own death with no less artistry.  According to his son Domenico, he worked up a final sculpture--an over life-size bust of the Savior as the summation of his artistry. Only his "weakness of wrist" (he was over 80!) prevented it from embodying the "boldness of his idea."  Long lost, this symbolic farewell piece was rediscovered in the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia.  To the French king, Bernini had insisted, "Let no one speak to me of little things." Now, preparing to face God and account for his life he said he would have to "deal with a Lord who, infinite and superlative in his attributes, would not be concerned to count in pennies." 

            At the foot of his deathbed, Bernini set up an altar with his painting of the crucified Christ. The fever, followed by an attack of apoplexy, lasted fifteen days.  When paralysis struck his right arm, he declared "it is only right that even before death that arm rest a little which worked so much in life." He had prearranged with his confessor a language of expressions and gestures in case, as it turned out, he finally lost the power of speech.

            On November 28, 1680, just short of his 82nd birthday, Bernini died. When his friend Queen Christina of Sweden asked of Pope Innocent XI--the eighth pope Bernini had served--the value of the artist's estate, and was told 400,000 scudi (an enormous sum), she replied: "I would be ashamed if he had served me and left so little." 

            But Bernini had already left to Rome and to the world a priceless legacy: the treasures he called his "children."  No, Rubens and Bernini did not starve in their pursuit of art. But as a result they--and their enlightened patrons--have endowed us with visual feasts that may never lose their freshness, nor ever fail to satisfy.


                                                                        Charles Scribner III  

                                                                        [Dillon Library, Bedminster, NJ, 1991]