Looking for Bernini

For the past twelve years, I have been in a beautiful – though challenging – relationship with a brilliant Italian man. We have had our ups and downs, like in any relationship, but our ups have been peaks and our downs, abysses. To be fair, I have known from the beginning that our story was doomed, as it has been plagued by further complications, namely:

  1. He is quite the hot-tempered kind,
  2. I am not exactly his type,
  3. There are too many people involved in this relationship, and
  4. Even though he has many qualities, his biggest fault is difficult to overlook as, long story short, he has been dead for the past 338 years.

But I just cannot help it.

We first met when I was a vulnerable and easily impressed second-year student at university. I had been interested in art ever since I was old enough to look at a painting and I liked pretty much anything until my teenage years when I took to the Italian masters as an act of rebellion against my mum who liked the French impressionists (I was a tough kid, you see). My tastes, I am afraid, were nothing edgy in the sense that I worshipped Botticelli, Michelangelo and Raphael.

It all went downhill the day I was introduced to psychoanalysis by a substitute lecturer who filled in for our English language teacher. (Surprisingly enough, many years later, said substitute was to become my PhD supervisor and the lady for whom he filled in would take another leave, which would make it possible for me to apply for my current job.)

We had been reading A Passage to India and the Freudian symbolism of it had been lost on us entirely. When our teacher realised it, he decided that we needed to learn at least a bit about psychoanalysis and the most interesting year of our lives started. I think it is safe to say that by the month of June that year, everyone in the group had been through a life-changing experience. We learned about Freud and Jung, and the natural consequence of all this was that I started to read Lacan, which was an awful idea but for one short passage in which he talks about the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.

For Teresa, well, let’s say the word…and you just have to go to a certain church in Rome to see Bernini’s statue to understand immediately that she’s undoubtedly coming. (Lacan, Encore: 1972 – my translation)

As for the rest of Lacan’s Seminars, I have never read them. I did not got past that last sentence because I was sure that I had seen images of that statue before and it had never occurred to me to dig deeper. As we live in the age of information, it did not take me more than half a second to find a high-resolution picture of the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa and, consequently, to be slapped in the face by a powerful Neapolitan hand coming from the seventeenth century.

Calling the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa a “statue” is an understatement. It is a total work of art, in which sculpture, architecture and light interplay in order to create a complete experience of what ecstasy is. It is monumental and complex. It is, by all definitions, what art should be all about. It first leaves you speechless and then you feel the urge to talk a lot about it. It disturbs you beyond the levels at which any inanimate object could ever disturb you. It seizes you, body and soul. I was obsessed.

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With Bernini’s Bust of Cardinal de Richelieu in the Louvres, about a million years ago.

The first Bernini I saw in person was the Bust of Cardinal de Richelieu in The Louvres. I cried. While it is true that I am an oversensitive person, it is equally true that seeing your first Bernini puts you through an emotional earthquake that realigns your perception of human existence.

Now, if there is something you have to know about me, it is that Italians hate my guts. Generally speaking, it takes at least a little knowing me before starting to dislike me, but with them, it is a straightaway process. I say “Buongiorno” and they already assume that I am going to be a major pain in the ass, which is unfair because I am a very nice tourist. I do not ask for much, I comply with the laws, I am polite and I queue with pleasure. I browse the galleries in silence, only stopping where I am not at risk of clogging the hallways, and I do not take pictures where it is forbidden. I will eat everything they put on my plate, pay my check without arguing and even leave a tip. I wear decent clothes to visit churches even though I am not a believer, and never complain about anything. I try to speak the language, I am respectful and I do not get drunk in the afternoon like certain German tourists I know. Long story short, I am nothing but respectful and discreet when I am abroad.

Yet, every goddam time I would speak to someone in Florence, they would react as if I had kindly offered to dig up their favourite nonna in order to pick my teeth with her bones. I have no idea why. Maybe it is because my Italian is crap, or for any other reason that is beyond my understanding. Maybe it is just Florence, as everyone was kind in Parma and in the smaller towns (much less in Como, though). Maybe it is just me.

Anyway, keep this in mind when reading the account of the Uffizi.

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The pretty yet unnerving Uffizi.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a human being in possession of a booking in Florence must be in want of a visit at the Uffizi. It is not open to debate. You just go there, especially if you are an art lover, and even more if, like me, you have decided that one of the purposes of your life was to see Bernini’s art.

The only Bernini they possess (or so I though) at the Uffizi is the magnificent Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence that the artist completed when he was only 15. It is, basically, a Carrara marble single block that was carved into the perfect shape of a beautifully proportioned man in atrocious pain. Let me emphasize this: Bernini was fifteen when he carved a block of marble into so much pain that you can still feel it when you look at it right now. I mean, look at your average 15-year old reacting to being told to empty the dishwasher and you will see why I believe this sculpture is a small miracle.

After my disappointment at the Bargello Museum (they had lent the Bust of Costanza Bonarelli to Rome without notice), I wanted to face this visit with a different approach, which consisted in first checking that the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence was there before visiting the rest of the galleries.

I woke up with mixed feelings on that day, trying not to get my hopes up as I might face another Costanza situation. I had booked our tickets in advance and only needed to exchange our voucher at the biglietteria. Said voucher specified to be there fifteen minutes in advance and not to queue. Surprisingly enough, there was a queue at the ticket booth. So we queued. We received our tickets after a brief and disagreeable conversation with the salesperson. Tickets in hand, I could not help but notice the 200-people queue at the entrance of the museum. I asked a steward where I should go. He pointed the end of the queue without even so much as opening his mouth to talk to me. We went to the end of the queue and waited as it grew longer. The Asian guy before me would turn every two minutes to spit to the ground and I pretended not to notice.

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Queueing under the arches of the Uffizi.

After 30 minutes, the stewards started to scream that all people who were supposed to enter the museum at 10.30 had to leave the queue and proceed to the door. Chaos ensued. We ended up in another queue  which, comically, had been diverted from its usual course and passed through somebody’s office. That specific somebody did not seem to notice the forty tourists standing on his fake Renaissance carpet. We queued for another thirty minutes and ended up on the first floor. After browsing all the rooms that were accessible, we came to the conclusion that Saint Lawrence was nowhere to be seen. We did not even try to see Hall 15 (Leonardo da Vinci) because there were so many people in there taking pictures with their IPad that it was impossible for anyone to get in or out. I think we all have Dan Brown to thank for many an uncomfortable moment in museums.

We did see quite a few brilliant masterpieces, but my mind was set on Bernini and I started to be anxious. Therefore, we did what anyone would do in the same situation: we looked for the information desk. Spoiler alert: we never found it. The Uffizi have their own shops, a post office, toilets oddly set in a crypt, a cafeteria and an interesting rooftop terrace, but the information desk was nowhere to be seen. So we went back to the entrance and asked a steward. He just stared at us silently. I started to contemplate the idea of lying on the floor and counting to ten until I calmed down, but Jon said that we had better try our luck at the counter next to the metal detector — which we did.

I asked the lady there if she could tell me where San Lorenzo by Bernini was. She stared at me, probably trying to translate to good Italian what I had just said in bad Italian. After five long and awkward seconds, I repeated my question. I smiled, as if it could help the process. She looked at me angrily. I started to doubt the reliability of that Italian for Dummies book I had bought a few weeks before. I asked her if she spoke English. She said no and proceeded to look at me as if I had just pooped on her desk.

As I stood there with no obvious gesture towards leaving, she turned to her colleague to ask him what the fuck the woman wanted (though I do not speak Italian well, I do understand the word “cazzo”). The colleague said something in Italian, very fast and very low. She turned to me with the you-heard-the-man universal facial expression. I asked her to please tell me what he had just said. She stared at me again for a good ten seconds and concluded with a sniff in my direction.

I was not even perplexed anymore. After further negotiation with the colleague (which probably included giving him my first-born child or something like that), he showed me a catalogue of the museum in which I was supposed (or so I guessed, as the whole encounter was conducted in a mix of Italian, English and a language I was not able to identify but of which he assumed I was a native) to point out the work I wanted to see. None of the people at the counter seemed to have heard of Bernini in their entire life. I finally found the picture of Saint Lawrence and showed it to him.

He turned to the lady to ask her if she had ever heard of such a thing and she looked as if someone had just told her that dogs can talk. The man finally said “no” and pointed me to a small poster that said that a private collection did something that I did not understand since he did not give me the time to read it. He then told me that “something” usually happened “somewhere” on Wednesdays. Behind me, the queue started to push — as it had once more been diverted from its original course according to a baffling pattern.

We exited the museum. There was another poster announcing that indeed, the private collection Contini Bonacossi was accessible on reservation only on Wednesdays at 10.30, and that it was only open to fifteen people at once. We were leaving on the following day, which happened to be a Wednesday. We went back to the ticket booth, where a different lady told us that she had nothing to do with the collection as it was private (“fair enough,” I thought), but she handed me a slip of paper containing a telephone number. I braced myself as I dialled the number that may or may not be related in a way or another to my request to see the private collection.

That was when the miracle happened. A male voice answered the phone, told me that there was indeed a visit scheduled on the next day and that it was free. He sort of wrote my name to add it to the list (“It is a-complicated, I will just write two English a-persons”) and hung up. The next morning, we were back at the Uffizi and met our guide as well as the two other visitors. We went through the security check (whose path was different once again) and walked along a series of very intricate corridors which led to the lower floor of a new building that seemed to stretch underneath the Arno. Doors were unlocked (including one that looked like as if it had been manufactured by the Acme Corporation) and we ended up in what can only be described as a gigantic vault.

There, the most incredible collection of Renaissance art was on. It had been arranged as in such way that you had the impression to have just stepped into a rich merchant’s house. The guide provided us with lengthy explanations on each and every ceramic, painting, sculpture and centrepiece. Paintings by El Greco, Tintoretto or Velázquez diverted my attention from the magnificent busts from the Florentine school. I was surprised to see works as significant as the Pala della Madonna della Neve by Sassetta or the Madonna col Bambino e Otto Santi by Bramantino. The collection is immensely rich and ridiculously interesting.

As I had told the guide about my admiration for Bernini, he made sure that I was in for my bit of excitement as we entered the last few rooms. There, in the renovated cellars, after a room dedicated to Hispano-Moorish plates, lay Saint Lawrence in eternal rapture. When I saw it (or should I say him?), my heart skipped a beat.

The statue itself is not that big. It is about one meter long and sixty centimetres wide. It was carved in Carrara marble with such delicacy that you could feel Saint Lawrence’s veins pump his blood underneath his pale thin skin as he surrenders to his creator. It is, ultimately, a man being burned alive on a barbecue. It is a moment of excruciating pain and indomitable faith. It is pure, moving and frightening at the same time. And it is the work of a difficult fifteen year-old who lived some four hundred years ago.

Words tend to fail me when I have to get to the point on Bernini because there is a lot to say and not much that can be expressed with a vocabulary that is not too emotional, but I would like to draw your attention to the artist’s technical prowess. Take a closer look at the flames that lick Saint Lawrence’s hand. Saying that rendering the elusiveness of flames with marble is impressive is one way to say it. The other way to say it is that when you stand by the statue, I swear you can smell the flesh burn.

The guide let me look at the statue all I wanted, then he pointed me to its pedestal that is said to be Bernini’s as well. It shows the arms of the Strozzi family on its corners and it is heavily sculpted and ornamented with gold paint in the best Baroque fashion. Everyone else had moved on to the rest of the exhibition to admire a few more pieces of art, but I stayed there for what seemed hours. I was left alone with Bernini’s first masterpiece, and there are very few feelings in life that can compare with the impression to be so close to such a significant piece of art.

The visit finally came to an end. We left the vault and went back to the main galleries, where we paid a last visit to Caravaggio. We went to the Piazza della Repubblica for a nice Florentine lunch. I made peace with Florence and the Uffizi staff. Possibly with the rest of the world too. It is what art does to you.


Apologies for the potato quality of the pictures, but there’s only so much you can do twenty metres underground, with artificial light and without using a flash.

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The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (1617)

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View from the side — According to the tradition, Saint Lawrence was condemned to death by the Roman Emperor Valerian in 258 for refusing to abandon is Christian faith. He supposedly was burned on a gridiron (a type of grill).

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The contrast between, on the one hand, the pain that is apparent on the body and in the twists of the flames, and on the other hand the serene expression of the face, has been explained by some critics as a manifestation of the saint’s “rapture.” In my humble opinion, it also forecasts the bliss on Saint Teresa‘s face a few years later.

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The flames licking the martyr’s fingers.

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Front-right view — See the skin and muscles. While Bernini was only 15 when he completed the sculpture, he already mastered anatomy perfectly and was able to render the organic feeling of human flesh into marble.

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The pedestal, attributed to Bernini.

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The Strozzi family’s coat of arms.

All texts and pictures © Justine Houyaux

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All texts and pictures © Justine Houyaux.
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