Generator of Civic Drama

The Artist and the Eternal City: Bernini, Pope Alexander VII, and the Making of Rome

by Loyd Grossman
2021 Pegasus Books, 285 pages, $28.95 Hardcover
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Bernini’s elephant with an ancient Egyptian obelisk in the piazza of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome. Photo: Skála

A weird, monumental stone elephant has the power to lead a curious mind to make the statement, “No artist before or since Bernini has ever so clearly defined the image of a great city.”

In this book, author, broadcaster, and cultural campaigner Loyd Grossman brings his interest in history, art, and heritage to the city that arguably possesses all of these things in greater abundance than any other: Rome. The Eternal City provided the author with a serendipitous moment of being captivated by an elephant carrying an Egyptian obelisk in the middle of an Italian square. That took him on a path of ultimately discovering how a culture, patron, and artist made Rome so great. “That was the momenta dreamlike convergence of Egyptian, Baroque, Gothic, pagan, and Christianthat Rome had me: what I later decided was my ‘Goethe moment’.” The author treats those intrigued by culture, Catholicism, art, and architecture, to travel with him as a capable tour guide, using a very accessible, amusing and provocative writing style that is well-balanced with information and an implicitly baroque narrative manner.

Starting with the elephant monument in Piazza della Minerva, Grossman proceeds to follow connections revealing the pieces, places, players, and dynamics in what becomes an unfolding drama of investment in the city of Rome. The Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini is the most prominent player whose life from 1598-1680 provides the chronological arch of the story. A prodigy in sculpting, Bernini garnered attention early on as a boy due to his innovative sculptural style. Noticed by the most prominent figures in Rome at the papal court, his ascendancy was swift leading ultimately to being paired with Pope Alexander VII, who matched his intensity and ability to achieve visionary accomplishments.

To better understand the fellowship that developed between Pope and artist, Grossman offers a description of the overarching political, religious, and cultural issues that motivated them. Intriguing geopolitical power struggles at the time revolved around the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Church’s efforts to stem that tide through the power of aesthetics. “Among the bundle of policies emerging from Trent was a restatement of the value of the arts in promoting Christian belief… Painting and architecture, sculpture and music would all become weapons in the battle for souls.” 

The greatest weapon of all was the new, elusive, and expressive genre known as the Baroque. While admitting that the “Baroque is easier to recognise than to define,” the author does a masterful job of conveying what exactly the Baroque can be. In addition to being a political weapon, the Baroque can be a generator of civic drama. “…When we enter the world of Baroque Rome, we find that the whole city has been turned into a vast theater, a backdrop for not only great religious processions and state rituals but for everyday life as well.” This artistic movement tapped into a particular characteristic of Italian culture known as fare bella figura, “to make a good impression,” an ethic of civic theater that the Baroque provided in spades.  

Interwoven into this larger framework are fascinating explorations into the richness of Roman architectural symbolism. The Egyptian obelisk features as a notable focal point both literally and figuratively. These monolithic pointed objects represent a Roman preoccupation with exceeding the accomplishments of the ancient Egyptians. Roman emperors and Popes alike appropriated obelisks as symbols of conquest. “In fact, the grip Egyptian civilization has exerted on the Roman imagination dates as far back as the days of the ancient republic...The intensity and importance of this fascination were far more than just the consequence of Cleopatra’s come-hither looks at Caesar and Mark Antony.” 

There are also a host of more scintillating human subplots and characters: Such as a visit to Rome by a bizarre Queen of Sweden; the enlisting of an enigmatic knowledge-fetishizing priest named Athanasius Kircher; and a devotion to death on the part of both Alexander the VII and Bernini. “Both men were... interested in death, Bernini with his attendance of the Confraternity of the Good Death, and Alexander who kept a coffin in his private rooms.” 

Beyond being an enjoyable read, this book has an implicit point to make about the value of providential gifts, relationships, and investments in a vision that can contribute to cities being “eternal.” “If Rome was not built in a day, neither could it be built by one man, even one as driven and talented as Bernini. Before there was a fully developed commercial market for art, great artists required great patrons, and Bernini had the greatest patrons of all: the popes.”