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January 2016

Some Bernini Myths

Photograph of the Pantheon in the 19th century, with two towers created by Maderno and Borromini in the 17th century.

Photograph of the Pantheon in the 19th century, with two towers created by Maderno and Borromini in the 17th century.

I have been thinking about a few myths surrounding the Baroque artist Bernini this evening. One prevalent myth is that Bernini created the two towers (nicknamed “ass’s ears”) that once decorated the top of the Pantheon. The towers were created in the seventeenth-century and were removed in 1892. Contrary to popular myth, a new publication on the Pantheon points out that Bernini wasn’t involved in the creation of these towers. Instead, the papal architect Maderno and his assistant Borromini were responsible for the towers. In some ways, it is ironic that these “ass’s ears” towers are attributed to Bernini instead of his rival Borromini! My guess is that Bernini may have been incorrectly identified with these Pantheon towers because of the two towers that he attempted to build at St. Peter’s Basilica, although that project was soon abandoned: not long after the first tower was built, it was demolished because it was unstable.

Bernini, Baldacchino, Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, 1624-33.

Bernini, Baldacchino, Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, 1624-33.

Another myth associated with Bernini and also the Pantheon has to do with the bronze that Bernini used for his Baldacchino at Saint Peter’s Basilica. We know that Urban VIII (a member of the Barberini family) removed bronze trusses from underneath the portico of the Pantheon in 1625. It has often been said that the bronze went to help create the Bernini’s baldacchino, which was created from 1624-1633. I remember learning about this in school, particularly in tandem with the saying, “quod non fecerunt Barbari fecerunt Barberini” (What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did”). However, recent studies argue that the bronze from the Pantheon either did not go to St. Peter’s at all or was an extremely minuscule amount.1 Instead, the bronze from the Pantheon was used to create some of the cannons at Castel Sant’Angelo.

Bernini, detail of personification of Rio de la Plata from "Four Rivers Fountain," 1651, Piazza Navona, Rome. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Bernini, detail of personification of Rio de la Plata from “Four Rivers Fountain,” 1651, Piazza Navona, Rome. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Another popular myth surrounding Bernini revolves around his Four Rivers Fountain (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) and Bernini’s rivalry with the architect Borromini. It has often been reported and joked that the figure of Rio de la Plata in the fountain has its arm raised, as if snubbing or shielding its gaze from Borromini’s church of Sant’Agnese, which is stands opposite the fountain. However, the building of this church was not until 1652, the year after this fountain was completed, so such a statement was not intended (but perhaps such meaning could have been perceived by either artist after-the-fact!).

Bernini's "Four Rivers Fountain" and Borromini's Sant'Agnese, Piazza Navona, Rome

Bernini’s “Four Rivers Fountain” and Borromini’s Sant’Agnese, Piazza Navona, Rome

Just this afternoon I came across information about the book Bernini and the Bell Towers: Architecture and Politics at the Vatican. The premise for this book is that Bernini’s failed attempt to build the towers at Saint Peters was not merely his own failure. I look forward to reading this book and deciding whether or not Bernini’s infamous failure with these towers has been misrepresented over the centuries.

Do you know of any other myths surrounding Bernini?

1 A few sources report that the bronze for the baldacchino came from Venice. For one citation, see here: https://books.google.com/books?id=CScdAQAAIAAJ&dq=bernini%20baldacchino%20venice%20bronze&pg=PA156#v=onepage&q&f=false

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Parrots in Art

Albrecht Dürer, detail of parrot from "Adam and Eve," 1504. Engraving

Albrecht Dürer, detail of parrot from “Adam and Eve,” 1504. Engraving

Last week, while driving to work, I was thinking about Dürer’s engraving Adam and Eve, which includes a parrot in the upper left quadrant of the print. In this particular context, the parrot functions as a symbol for the Virgin Mary. The symbolic association might seem like a stretch today, but the belief was that the parrot was similar to Mary. Both the parrot and the Virgin were associated with typically-improbable situations: if a parrot can be taught to speak, then a virgin can become pregnant and give birth! Additionally, there are connections between parrots and Mary’s purity and virginity, which are explained in more detail elsewhere. Here are a couple of my favorite representations of the Virgin with parrots:

Martin Schongauer, "Madonna and Child with the Parrot," 1470-75. Engraving, 159 x 101 mm

Martin Schongauer, “Madonna and Child with the Parrot,” 1470-75.
Engraving, 159 x 101 mm

Jan Van Eyck, detail of parrot from "Madonna with the Canon van der Paele," 1436. Oil on wood, 122 x 157 cm

Jan Van Eyck, detail of parrot from “Madonna with the Canon van der Paele,” 1436. Oil on wood, 122 x 157 cm

I think that the association with the Virgin and parrots is one reason why there are so many paintings of women and parrots in comparatively recent centuries. Parrots typically don’t appear with men in art (perhaps because pirates didn’t commission their own portraits? Ha ha!). However, I do know of one example of a man depicted with parrots:

Max Slevogt, "Man with Parrots," 1901. Oil on canvas, 82 x 66 cm.

Max Slevogt, “Man with Parrots,” 1901. Oil on canvas, 82 x 66 cm.

Typically, though, in art parrots are usually depicted with women, or appear in a still-life painting, or in some type of naturalist or scientific drawing. Why is this? The scientific examples are easily explained, since parrots are non-European and therefore served as an example worthy of study. In addition, parrots could be studied by artists in relation to their anatomy and color. Such was the case with Van Gogh, who studied the anatomy of a stuffed parrot when he created The Green Parrot:

Vincent Van Gogh, "The-Green Parrot," 1886.

Vincent Van Gogh, “The-Green Parrot,” 1886.

Here is one example of a parrot in a still-life painting, although there are several others by this same artist Georg Flegel (see Still Life with Pygmy Parrot and Dessert Still Life):

Georg Flegel (1566-1638), Still-life with Parrot, n.d.

Georg Flegel (1566-1638), Still-life with Parrot, n.d.

I think that the inclusion of parrots with still-life paintings is interesting, because it connect parrots to the material world, wealth, and trade. As an exotic creature from non-European lands, parrots were highly prized during the colonial period. And it wasn’t just the live birds that were valued: in the colonial era the plucked feathers of parrots were valued too. In Mexico, the indigenous practice of feather painting was combined with European pictorial conventions (see below). This type of feather painting was highly prized by the Europeans, which adds to how parrots were connected with material value.

Jaun Bautista Cuiris, "Portrait of Christ Made of Humming Bird and Parrot Feathers," 1550-80.

Jaun Bautista Cuiris, “Portrait of Christ Made of Humming Bird and Parrot Feathers,” 1550-80.

Beyond these examples, there are lots of representations of women with parrots. In this context, I think there is more symbolic and visual meaning at play than a mere historical connection to traditional representations of the Virgin. For example, as late as the 17th century, a connection between women and caged birds was made in moralizing paintings suggesting seduction (such as Couple with Parrot (1668) by Pieter de Hooch.) Also, the brightly-colored and and textural plumage of parrots are very decorative, and this is a key thing to remember in relation to representations of women. As a result, parrots complement decorative elements within a work of art, and give an added sense to materiality to such paintings which are dedicated to showing pretty objects. The inclusion of the parrot hints that the other objects in the painting (whether a female figure or fancy tableware in a still life, for example), are especially meant-to-be-looked-at by the viewer.

The depiction of a parrot with a woman hints that the woman is also decorative, like the parrot, and perhaps is even exotic. I think that there might even be a correlation with the softness of the bird’s plumage and the implied softness of the female skin, especially with nude/semi-nude paintings like Delacroix’s Woman with a Parrot and Tiepolo’s Woman with a Parrot. Even the more muted of paintings that completely cover the female body still hint at an element of decoration and texture, especially with the silky intimate dressing gown that is worn by Manet’s model in this painting:1

Édouard Manet, "Young Lady in 1866," 1866.

Édouard Manet, “Young Lady in 1866,” 1866

It seems to me that the usage of parrots in art took a vast turn from their symbolic connection to Mary (stressing the miraculous nature of the virgin birth!) to the tangible, decorative, and perhaps even frivolous associations with parrots in later art. What do you think? Do you know of any other genres or scenarios in which parrots appear in art?

1 Recent scholars have interpreted Manet’s painting as an allegory for the five senses. In this context, the parrot (as a confidant) may represent hearing. For more information see: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/89.21.3/

 

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.