There are many ways to tour Rome. If your interest is in the artists working in Rome over the last two millennia, then it makes a great theme for the journey. Choosing Bernini as a companion on the a journey is an example of this approach. You will not only get a better understanding of the huge variety of output of this one artist, you will see a great deal of interest in Rome that you may not encounter on the usual itinerary of tourists This tour may take in locations that you have already visited so like all the suggested itineraries on this site, pick your own starting point. Visiting every Bernini site in Rome would also take more than one day so if you choose this guide to see Rome, it is best done over a few days…or simply pick the ‘eyes’ out of it to fit in with your other Roman interests.
- PONTE SANT’ ANGELO
The bridge over the Tiber at this bend of the river has been ferrying Romans across the Tiber since 134 ad when the Emperor Hadrian built the original bridge to allow access to his newly built mausoleum. It gets a mention in Dante’s famous ‘Divine Comedy’ where he refers to the troubles of the pilgrims crossing this bridge at the time Jubilee in 1300
Along its bottom, naked sinners moved,
to our side of the middle, facing us;
beyond that, they moved with us, but more quickly—
as, in the year of Jubilee, the Romans,
confronted by great crowds, contrived a plan
that let the people pass across the bridge,
for to one side went all who had their eyes
upon the Castle, heading toward St. Peter’s,
and to the other, those who faced the Mount.
Both left and right, along the somber rock,
I saw horned demons with enormous whips,
who lashed those spirits cruelly from behind. (Dante, Comedy, Inferno, XVIII, 25-33)
Its reputation wasn’t improved at the time of the 1450 Jubilee when pilgrims ended up drowning in the Tiber after balustrades gave way. Saints and Angels were added to the bridge after 1535 but today’s angels were commissioned in 1639 by Pope Clement IX. Bernini’s job was to produce ten angels for the bridge. He personally only finished two of the angels, the rest completed by his ‘school’ of sculptors.
2. ST PETERS
The walk from the Castel Sant Angelo up to the basilica of St Peters is one of the great walks in Rome. While the Via della Conciliazione hides the amazing piazza in front of the Basilica, it definitely creates a sense of anticipation to see what’s ahead. Curiously the road is fairly recent, ordered by Mussolini back in 1936 when the maze of medieval buildings that had sprung up in front of St Peters over the centuries was cleared; as usual, the locals and the historians were not happy.
Piazza San Pietro
Our first view of the Piazza San Pietro is all that could be expected of such a famous enclosed area that has regularly been the scene of great events in history when new Popes have been announced. The design of the ‘circus’ and the colonnade that holds the piazza within its arms is the work of Bernini.
Understanding the site on which St Peters is built will assist with understanding the way it appears to visitors today. The original Ancient Roman level of the area had two features of importance that affect the new millennium St Peters. The first is the hippodrome of Nero and Caligula that was built in this area of ancient Rome (Note purple ‘circus’ in diagram on right.). The obelisk we see in the Piazza San Pietro today is the one Caligula brought to his hippodrome in 37 CE and set up on the ‘Spina’ of the chariot circuit. On the right side of the hippodrome there was a Roman cemetery where it was believed by early Christians that St Peter was buried (Note ‘Vatican Necropolis’). It was over these Roman remains that Constantine I built the first St Peters Basilica in the fourth century and the grand old building lasted until the fifteenth century when it started to fall into disrepair, particularly because of the neglect resulting from the 67 years that the Popes had moved to Avignon. The Popes after the return to Rome began plans to restore or rebuild and many of the great artists and architects of the 16th Century (including Michelangelo) were involved. The basic structure of the new St Peters, built over the top of the old church, was completed by the end of the 1500s. The architects of St Peters had to design the new St Peters basilica with these limitations in mind. Bernini had to design and build St Peters Square with the old hippodrome’s obelisk in mind.
On arrival through the front entry way of Piazza San Pietro, it is clear that centre-stage is the Egyptian Obelisk. However, it stood on the south side of the old St Peters for 1500 years, unmoved from what used to be the old hippodrome. With the building of the new St Peters, Pope Sixtus V decided it needed to be moved to the front of St Peters. Being 326 tonnes, it took thirteen months to move. This etching from the late 16th century from the British Museum shows the stages of the movement of the obelisk from the side of the Basilica to the front of the new building. It was this obelisk that Bernini had to design his piazza around when he got the job 70 years later.
Whilst trying to keep this account brief as possible, there are at least three more pieces of Bernini that demand to be inspected on a visit to St Peters and they are inside the Basilica, way down at the front. The Baldachinno is the large bronze structure that surmounts the high altar of St Peters. I will leave the traveller to look for more expert opinions on the artistic qualities of this baroque masterpiece but let me relate some background on a minor feature of the Baldachinno. The story goes that Bernini got permission from the Barabrini Pope, Urban VIII to source his bronze from the ceiling of the Pantheon. This may not be completely accurate but when inspecting the intricate beauty of the bronze columns, have a look at the marble base of each column where you will find sculpted images of the Barbarini coat of arms. Apart from the keys to the kingdom, there are three other main features of the coat of arms sculpted here. The first is the Papal Tiara. Next is the three bees, the symbol of the Barbarini family. Squeezed in between the shield and the keys there is a head of what appears to be a young woman (see image on the right) . There are two outward facing panels on each base of the pillars so there are eight coat of arms on the Baldachinno and each of them has a portrait of this young woman. The oddity is that each portrait is different and one theory is that they present the phases of a woman in labour! The story of the bronze Bernini used to create the Baldachinno is also the subject of a famous lampoon about the Pope’s family; “Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini” or ‘What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did’.
Whatever church you go into in Italy, it will always have its own collection of reliquaries. These are containers of holy relics associated with that particular church and are generally venerated on holy days by the faithful. The next sculptural masterpiece of Bernini’s to inspect in this part of the church surrounds the front window that depicts the dove of peace and is a reliquary. It contains the ‘throne of St Peter’ an ancient chair that was meant to have been used by Peter himself. It was a gift from the Holy Roman Emperor in 875, Charles the Bald. Charles was incorrect in thinking it was a chair that Peter had sat on, being dated from the sixth century. This chair is held within the reliquary and the huge piece is held up by four bronze statues of ‘Doctors of the Church.”
The third Bernini masterpiece to inspect inside St Peters is the tomb of Alexander VII. Its picture is on the right below and was Bernini’s last major commission before his death in 1680. He was in his late 70s when he started this work and was assisted by a number of other sculptors. The piece is particularly curious for its portrait of death holding an hourglass above a door in the Basilica that could not be moved for Bernini’s project. At the unveiling of the sculpture, Pope Innocent XI is said to have objected “to not only the nudity of Truth but also the bare breasts of Charity”; as a maxim for life, we could all cultivate being conscious of the drawbacks of truth and nudity!
3. San Francesco a Ripa
A Roman tourist doesn’t need to look for an excuse to visit Trastevere but if you need one, visiting the church of San Francesco a Ripa to gaze upon Bernini’s ‘Beata Ludovica in Ecstasy’ is a good one. If you are doing this Bernini tour in order and you have just escaped St Peters, catch a taxi down to the piazza in front of Santa Maria in Trastevere and have lunch or coffee while watching the buzz in this busy square. There is a Bernini connection in this piazza as he at some stage during his career remodelled the fountain that lies in the Piazza before the Santa Maria basilica. From here you can then wander down the street to San Francesco Piazza and its resident church. San Francesco a Ripa is one of the main sites in Rome that attracts fans of St Francis of Assisi who stayed in an old convent that was at the back of this church. Francis visited Rome a number of times in the early 1200s…in particular, he was in Rome in 1215 attending the Fourth Lateran Council.
But on this tour we are interested in Bernini’s sculpture of a holy woman, Beata Ludivico, who joined the third order of Saint Francis after her husband died. She was buried in this church in 1533. She was declared ‘Blessed’ many years later by Pope Clement X. A descendant organised for this sculpture to be developed and Bernini received the commission. It was one of his last sculptures and, to give you an idea of how busy he was right to the end of his career, this work was being done around the same time as the tomb of Alexander VII in St Peters.
4. Santa Francesca Romana (Beside the Roman Forum)
A visit to Santa Francesca Romana will give you more information about the rise of Christianity in Rome than it will about Bernini. This church has an amazing history that explains its curious position beside the Roman Forum. (Note in the image Santa Francesca Romana with its Romanesque Bell Tower and the Colosseum in the background). It has had many changes and restorations to the building’s structure, one of which Bernini contributed to in the form of the Church’s ‘Confessio’. If you are not visiting the Forum, enter at the side of the church from Via dei Fori Imperiali, not though Palatine Hill as you will pay the forum entry free. If you are visiting the Forum, come for Bernini and stay for the amazing remnants of Roman and Church History.
To divert from Bernini for a moment, here are the stages of how Santa Francesca Romana developed and why it demands the attention of tourists in the third millennium.
- The earliest Christian monument that has survived in the Forum today is Santa Maria Antiqua which was consecrated in the 6th
- It was badly damaged in 847 when an earthquake caused parts of the ageing Imperial Palaces to collapse on it and cover much of this Church.
- This forced the local Christians to erect a new church nearby called, unsurprisingly, Santa Maria Nova (New St Marys). This church was built around an ‘oratory’ that had originally been part of the Roman Temple of Venus and Roma.
- This church was enlarged in the 13th century.
- It was reconstructed in 1615 and renamed Santa Francesca Romana, the name it has retained until today. It was named after Saint Frances of Rome, a controversial saint whose body is conserved inside the church. Bernini worked in this church in the 1640s.
- Despite this church being built in the 9th century, it had a 6th century painting on the sacristy wall of the Virgin Mary and Child. It is believed that this painting was brought from its predecessor, Santa Maria Antiqua and is one of the oldest Christian paintings to survive the millennia.
- All good stories go in circles and so, after 1100 years under the collapsed rubble of the Forum, Santa Maria Antiqua (image below) was rediscovered again in 1900. It has taken a long time conserving the Old St Marys as it contained, preserved under the ground, buried treasures in the form of Byzantine paintings that would have been destroyed in the iconoclast period of the ninth century; the earthquake preserved them for us lucky travellers today.
5. Capitoline Museums
Hopefully by this stage of your longer stay in Rome, you are starting to get some understanding of the geographical layout of the city. Understanding that it is a ‘hills and river’ city is a good start. Most general descriptions of Rome talk about the seven hills which delineated the early tribes of the area before they joined together as Romans. Visiting the Capitoline Museums means that you will climbing one of these ancient hills so the Wikipedia Map on the right is very useful to get your bearings on the rest of Rome.
Our following Bernini excursion takes us to a site that is worth visiting for a multitude of reasons. If museums are not your thing, climb the Capitoline Hill any way and visit the beautiful, ancient church at the top, Santa Maria in Ara Coeli. It was built over the site of the Temple of Juno in Ancient Rome. After you have recovered from climbing the steps, go next door and admire Michelangelo’s justly famous courtyard, Piazza del Campidoglio, conceived in 1536. You will be able to admire in the Piazza a copy of the Marcus Aurelius bronze, horse statue, saved from destruction centuries ago because the authorities thought it depicted Constantine I, the first almost Christian Emperor. (The original is in the Museum.) Then of course there are the views of the city!
But we are here to see two of Bernini’sfinest sculptures and this means entering the Museum. In the courtyard before you really get going on your tour, you will be able get a photo beside the head, hand and foot of the Colossus of Constantine.
We enter the first of the three wings of the museum, the Palazzo dei Conservatori, to catch up with Bernini. The first Bernini piece is a sculpture of the Gorgon, completed sometime between 1638 and 1648. The Gorgon is a mythological creature from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, captured by Bernini during the process of her hair turning into writhing snakes. The second Bernini masterpiece to inspect is the statue of Urban VIII, Bernini’s patron who gave him so many commissions over the period of his papacy; this complex piece took him five years to complete in the 1630s.
Once you have admired the two Berninis, why not take the opportunity to check out the other amazing exhibits of the Capitoline Museums. There is so much to see but here are some favourites…
- The ancient statue of the She-wolf of Rome.
- The original Marcus Aurelius equestrian statue.
- The River God sculptures (Tiberinus).
- The Dying Gaul (Roman copy of lost Greek sculpture.)
- Lo Spinario (Boy taking out splinter from foot)
- Caravaggio’s John the Baptist.
- Capitoline Venus…a Roman copy of a Greek original. Like so many of the treasures of Rome, it was lost for centuries before being dug up in a Roman Garden in the 17th century and placed in the Capitoline Museums. It went on a brief trip to France after being confiscated by Napoleon but was returned in 1816.
- The view of the Forum from Palazzo Nuovo