A Cardinal's Delight: Santa Teresa in Ecstasis
Santa Teresa de Avila (Gianlorenzo Bernini, Cornaro Chapel, detail)
Some time ago as she exited from a car she had just parked in front of ROMA BAKERY along Miami’s "Coral Gables" section of Flagler Street, a young lady I know barely noticed that her loosely flowing skirt clambered a little too high on her sculptural thighs. A Cuban gentleman who was sipping the sweet, hot Caribbean version of expresso coffee at the bakery's sidewalk window along with two or three companions, nervously put down his demi-tasse on the counter and threw up his hands as in a dance. Everyone standing by him, including the Latin waitress serving the beverage distinctly heard him cry out loud to the seemingly clueless girl now adjusting her skirt:
“Ah, woman --- you just raised me from the dead!"
From his particular vantage point by the coffee window he had seen more than just the color of the woman's black eyes.
Meanwhile, in the Rome of the Seven Hills, which is anything but a bakery, urban legends have it that Pope Innocent X Pamphilj made a similar show-stopping announcement when the workers removed the panels and scaffolds that had hidden the splendid Four Rivers Fountain in the center of Piazza Navona while its sculptor-architect had been working on it. The year was 1651. Innocent X knew how to command attention, and with his deepest bow and most momentous tone of voice he thundered out to the 40something creator of The Four Rivers, then at the height of his artistic career, what to the crowd gathered there seemed nothing short of apocalyptic:
“Monsiur Gianlorenzo Bernini, you’ve added 10 more years to my life!”
Part One: A Cardinal's Delight
Were he alive now, the Neapolitan-born Bernini would smile when he read the preceding anecdote. But in 1651, he was too busy to time-travel to the Americas and, instead, we find him with a select group of friends and dignitaries gathered at the Cornaro Family's funeral chapel -- another major project of his -- in an avenue of the Eternal City made straight and modern by a Pontiff who had combined his knowledge of urban planning and,
Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, 19th-century print
Head of Ganges River God by Claude Poussin inBernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona
one could say, tourism to resuscitate that neighborhood. Presiding the Venetian Cornaro family's delegation in Rome, the now-retiring and wealthy Cardinal Federico would flaunt with a Bernini flourish his very unusual Venetian affiliation with the Popes (two prestigious Cornaros had been Doges, the highest civil authority of the Maritime Republic) one of them as far back as the 1300s. Sadly, in a brief two years after this religious “art opening,” as we might be tempted to call this gathering now, Federico’s bones would be interred beneath one of several marble intarsio Dancing Skeletons (Memento Mori) that one may see now covering the floor of the chapel.
With the Cardinal's money and blessing, Gianlorenzo designed for him a chapel dedicated to St. Teresa of Avila, Spain, who reformed the Carmelite Order. This particular order resided in the Baroque church, proud of their female founder, who had been canonized, one might add, with a flourish and some opposition, in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV. But Bernini's work here was not a sad and rigid meditation in marble and bronze on the brevity of human life or the Carmelite nun's extreme asceticism. Cardinal Federico would have hired another talent for that. Instead he asked the sculptor who had made from a single block of marble the bold Apollo Chasing Daphne and Rape of Persephone for Cardinal Scipione Borghese and his uncle, Pope Paul V, when he was a Michelangelesque 25-year-old in the 1620's, to make his project anything but dark and morose chapel.
Memento Mori marble intarsio (Gianlorenzo Bernini, Cornaro Chapel)
from H.V. Morton's Fountains of Rome
And since he had an entire left transept side to play with, Bernini: play he did ! Saint Teresa was the focal point, it was agreed, and her figure would rest on some sort of pedestal like that of the Borghese family's masterpieces. However, times had changed. Space and motion, after Galileo's trial in the 1630s, had made things in Rome spin in many ways. First, Bernini's revolution here was thematic. Since the middle of the 1500s, Catholic Christiandom had declared a sort of war against Lutheran theology under the banner of the so-called Counter-Reformation movement, using the mediums of the arts and architecture, to enhance the new modifications of ritual and the reinforcement of traditional catechism. Following the church mandates and encyclicals produced by the Council of Trent (1543), the new Christian would nod at many of Luther's criticisms, but not by way of a monolithic, necessarily conservative repentance for sins. There would be room for heralds of change in the middle-aged Michelangelo's "scandalous" nudity of his Last Judgment fresco of the 1530s. Timely, too, would be St. Ignatius de Loyola's Spiritual Exercises (1522-24), which encouraged practicants to combine with their meditations on the unchanging story of the Crucifixion, St. Peter's Betrayal, and the Entombment, their most vivid imaginings to see themselves physically with Jesus and Mary in the different moments of the Passion. Before long, this new carnal reading and experience of the holy was full of mythological references and erotic intensity. A look at Caravaggio's short painting career illustrates his role in this movement. So, luckily for Bernini and for the Cardinal in their design of a Counter-Reformation space, Santa Teresa de Avila in her life and in her autobiographical descriptions in the Moradas (The Interior Castle) of her arrival to the wine cellar of her Beloved, could be introduced into the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. And this was where Cardinal Cornaro drew from as inspiration for his funeral chapel.
Paul V Borghese, by Provençal (Borghese Gallery)
Scipione Borghese, by Gianlorenzo Bernini (Borghese Gallery)
Apollo Chasing Daphne, by Gianlorenzo Bernini (Borghese Gallery)
Following, then, the success of his earlier mythological masterpieces and hearing Cardinal Federico's excitement when he described to the sculptor passages from Teresa de Avila's autobiographical texts, The Way of Perfection, The Interior Castle, and her Diary of a Soul, Bernini must have proposed an even more personal and provoking figure for the Carmelite as centerpiece for the chapel. The wine cellar of her Castle would not have quite worked, client and artist probably agreed; instead they would bring to this church's "stage," her monastic cell, so they brainstormed settings wherein to represent in marble the saint's mystical Transverberation, these days popularly known as her Ecstasy.
At the risk of stereotyping, one may consider that being born in Spanish Naples in 1598 where his sculptor father, Pietro, was a well-respected sculptor and designer, Gianlorenzo might have steered the brainstorming in the direction of church designs he had seen in the streets where Caravaggio walked in the early 1600s, full of the picaresque spirit of Spain. Manually, too, Gianlorenzo may have picked up many tricks from the unsung stonemasons and intarsio masters in the Certosa of San Martino where his father Pietro left a handsome marble reliefe of this French saint dividing his coat with a beggar. And he may have charmed Cardinal Cornaro with no few Spanish colloquialisms and proverbs, the likes of "A Dios rogando y con el mazo dando," that is, God helps those who help themselves...with their sledgehammer.
Through time, visitors to Naples have been surprised to discover the continuous influence of Spain on the city's culture. From the early 1400s, a wide gammut of Aragonese, Castilian, and Bourbon royalists have played a major role in Bernini's birthplace. Certainly Bernini in 1651 would still have been proud to draw from this personal familiarity with the Spanish soul as he honed in on just how he could turn his block of Carrara or Luni marble into a ravishing work worthy of Teresa's type of piety. After all, the Saint in this altar of Rome had to do what all saints' images had been doing in Christian funeral sites since the time of Constantine the Great, guide the soul of those there buried to Heaven: but with her own spin!
The Rape of Persephone, by Gianlorenzo Bernini (Borghese Gallery)
from Viaggiatrice Curiosa
The Charity of St. Martin, by Pietro Bernini (Naples, Certosa)
from Viaggiatrice Curiosa
Although I cannot quote any celebratory phrase like that of the Pamphilj Pope to Gianlorenzo in Piazza Navona, which Cardinal Cornaro would have said for the record at the unveiling of his Santa Teresa Funeral Chapel, I suspect there was a pregnant silence when his group of bystanders and more or less devout Catholic widows beheld the figure of Teresa many months after the initial brainstorming, as interpreted by Bernini. Federico, as I see him, had to clear his throat and explain why explain the saint whom he had chosen to advocate for him when he died did not look or behave like a Madonna by Botticelli or Perugino. Why did she not fit the conventional idea people had in those days of "piety"?
Bernini's saint did not stand hieratically vertical, hands folded, eyes turned up to Heaven. Nor was the fabric of her nun's habit the tone that had come to be known as “Carmelite brown.” The Luni marble folds of the reclining Teresa were flowing and undulating like a tempestous ivory white sea! And she was being wafted up to the heavens that had opened, on clouds, while a semi-unclad young Angel looked at her with a huge grin.
In fact, in the otherwise dark church, the light of the sun that day of the unveiling might have providentially done what it had to do, that is, cascade in from the skylight opening just above the nun's mystic union scene. Against the dark inner surround in those days before electricity, Teresa’s reclining figure must have been truly spectacular. This was a theater stage pulsating in chiaroscuro that the Borgheses might have been envious of, for the display of their Persephone and their Daphne. For Cardinal Cornaro's opening of his chapel, this sort of timely pyrotechnics may have made his guests for a moment forget the devotional and feel more the scent and breath of the reclining female figure -- though made of marble -- in that side of the church room.
Santa Teresa de Avila (Gianlorenzo Bernini, Cornaro Chapel, detail)
Heaven Opening with Holy Spirit (Gianlorenzo Bernini and assistants, gesso Cornaro Chapel, detail)
Santa Teresa de Avila (Gianlorenzo Bernini, Cornaro Chapel)
While many of the more openminded guests at the opening would have felt at ease welcoming a typically erotic Bernini statue in the Carmelite church, perhaps a Padre or Madre of the order, if not Cardinal Federico himself, took the microphone, as it were, and set upset minds to rest explaining how this was all perfectly orthodox. His artist, he may have offered, had purposefully selected a passage from the Castilian nun’s autobiography where she describes what theologians would label the second phase of a soul’s “mystical union” with the Catholic godhead – the so-called transverberation. In such a rapture, the religious sister had experienced the piercing of her heart by an Angel. So far so good.
The unveiling of Bernini’s Santa Teresa, however, most likely ignited a quiet war of opinions in the baroque church. The day of the unveiling, as the sun's light poured in through the skylight on select parts of the Ephebe-like body of the Love angel, this might have done more than illuminate the arrow described by Santa Teresa in her passage of the mystical experience. But her habit looked so glamorous in this representation, and her body was so alive and undulant under that dress, that not a few of Cornaro's guests must have smiled at the implications. In fact, her facial expression, some might have whispered to each other while the Cardinal and the Carmelite father went on and on about the nun’s asceticism, was a bit too much like that of a woman dancing some southern Italian tarantella, or otherwise like the Virgen de la Soledad (Our Lady of Solitude or Sorrow) so commonly seen in such artistic agony in southern Andalucia or in Spanish Naples, where Gianlorenzo hailed from. But this was the stuff of the Counter Reformation, to wake up and sting the faithful back to life. Yes, it was a didactic or pedagogical movement inside the church of Rome to emphasize and return to the Scriptures and the writings of the early church fathers. But there was room -- and need -- of Michelangelos, Caravaggios, and eventually Berninis to use highly sensual vocabulary and mediums as a tease and a dress for their Christian commissions.
Other voices might have arisen in the discussion that day among the spectators of The Transverberation by Bernini, showing their literary erudition or their support of the Cardinal’s choice of artwork for his family chapel. The mystic nun from Avila who in her reformation of the Order had persuaded its superiors to request their sisters and priests to show their discalced feet as they went places, preaching and living the Gospel, was also a poet who realized, as she repeatedly states in her Autobiography, that her best confessors and spiritual guides had been "persons of letters," that is, well-read and eloquent in the arts. As a writer, indeed, she trusted that her prose and verse would be read by an audience who would see her close paraphrasing of the Song of Songs in the Scriptures, in her descriptions of her soul's mystical rapture by the young, partly unclad celestial figure with the flaming sword. Cardinal Cornaro, therefore, may have tapped in on the fact that the Song of Solomon is revered not inspite of but because of a similar eroticism. Teresa's paraphrasing of the Lover's penetration of His Beloved's heart in the Song of Solomon, was a Biblical precedent for Teresa, then, in her own narrative of the Angel's reaching as deep as her deepest entrails, causing her to lose all sense of self in her exaltation.
As recounted in a contemporary Spanish blog dedicated to Teresa de Avila's life and spirituality, De la rueca a la pluma (From the Spinning Wheel to the Pen), when Pope Gregory XV announced her honorable inclusion in a group of male saints made up of Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, Isodore, and the Italian Filippo Neri, "The populace in some circles protested: They have just canonized one saint, and four Spaniards!" In the same blog I came across a 17th-century Caravaggista canvas by Guy François de le-Puy-en-Velay, to celebrate the canonization of Teresa of Avila was seen as very questionable in 1622, when she was elevated as a saint and doctor of the Church.
Therefore although from a very linear perspective, Bernini’s flamboyant treatment of his subject's mystical experience might not seem too saintly or doctoral, most of Santa Teresa's writings and legacy are much more serious and didactic. She created the discalced order within the Carmelites to reform the daily life of the religious and to combat corruption of many sorts. And one of her most pivotal, and unforgettable statements is this: “God is to be found among the pots and pans" (Dios se encuentra entre los ucheros de la cocina.)
To the accusations that it was hard to find the Christian godly in the Berninesque contorsions and facial expression of Teresa, others might have added that this kind of spirit was as corrupting to morals of visitors to the church as the perversions hinted at -- not described graphically in her autobiography. How could her gesture as she lay on the marble cloud be anything but provocation? Surely, critics may have objected, how can a female saint writhing as she does under an Angel's arrow lead Cardinal Federico to heaven?
Part Three: Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda
Teresa Ahumada y Cepeda came from a large, poor family in Avila (she had nine brothers and two sisters), and her very pious father, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, transmitted a deep sense of this faith to her. But after several early attempts at following Jesus in an extreme way, by wishing to go to the land of infidels to be made a martyr, etc., teenage Teresa settled for a vocation perhaps closer to those pots and pans, and to her famous serenity prayer, often recited from memory by even persons not familiar with her life and writings: Nada te turbe/ Nada te espante…etc. (Let nothing trouble you/ Let nothing frighten you...). She pursued her vocation in various convents under two or three spiritual advisors who made her see the importance going back to her inner core and to realize the many subterfuges that she hid behind to disguise her unchristian vanity and other “worse sins,” as she describes them. Eventually, once she had worked through all those masks and forms of deception, as she terms them, she turned to the problem of her a religious person’s community: that is, she set out to reform her religious order of Carmelite Sisters, denouncing the corruption pervasive in all the convents she visited. There was then, as she boldly describes things, a whole lot of dancing going on.
Needless to say, her various male confessors, who had ironically encouraged her to speak her mind while she practiced her religion in the cloisters of the Carmelites, had to literally save her from the charges of heresy and rebellion – witchcraft – levelled at her by the courts of the Holy Inquisition toward the latter part of the 1500s. In the Spain of Teresa’s time, the Santa Hermandad watched closely what was being published or performed on theater stages. There were book burnings and arrests of players and audiences who transgressed the rules of Catholic officialdom and crossed lines that were not to be crossed, reciting lines or verses considered sinful, or attending performances of such content. But before things came to that pass for the Nun from Avila, she recalls in her Diary of a Soul how parish priests could prepare the Inquisition's stage for the arrest and excution of transgressors in autos da fe, by embarrassing their targets during Sunday Mass for all townspeople to see and hear. On repeated occasions Teresa herself was made an object of this derision when these preachers ridiculed her supposed sedition in wanting to create a reformed branch of the Carmelites in Avila, labeling her behavior as stemming from "typical female problems' (disparates de mujer).
Gianlorenzo Bernini, like Cardinal Cornaro, was very intrigued by the complexity of this newly-canonized Spanish woman of the Church. And this essay will explore below how he used one more element to, as it were, frame her figure both literally and symbolically, in a way that contemporary Rome had been made ready for a few years before the chapel's commission.
Part Three: Santa Teresa in Context
It is not enough to limit our acquaintance with Santa Teresa to Bernini's final representation in stone, motion, and space. From the Cardinal's perspective, the marble figure of this woman was much more than an art object. She had been a human being of flesh and blood like himself, as her journal accounts showed with the many near-death illnesses that she suffered.
The context, however, of Santa Maria della Vittoria merits a couple of paragraphs too, both historically for the City of Rome as well as symbolically for the Church as an Urban institution. The church of the Cornaro Chapel is located in a neighborhood quite dear to Pope Sixtus V Peretti, the same Pontiff who carried to completion the fabrication of Michelangelo’s signature Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, assigning this delicate task to architect Giacomo della Porta in the last years of the 1500s. In addition, in his short, 5-year reign, Pope Sixtus V commissioned architect Domenico Fontana to build the first Roman aqueduct in Rome in more than a thousand years. Fontana, based on his studies of the Pontiff's pagan namesake, 1st-century A.D. Sextus Julius Frontinus's De Aquis, determined that the water source for the Acqua Felice would be some 15 kilometers to the southwest of the Eternal City, not far from the so-called Campo Barbarico area where Vittige and his hordes destroyed practically the entire network of ancient Rome's water conducts in 537 A.D. Sixtus's engineering feat brought life to the neighborhood of Santa Maria della Vittoria only a couple of years before Carlo Maderno, Bernini's mentor, built the church for Carmelite Order there, to replace an older hermitage dedicated to St. Paul, throughout the Middle Ages. (It is ironic that this previous church had been dedicated to a figure of St. Paul's Rapture to the Seventh Heaven. A precursor to the Transverberation!)
The castellum or waterworks tower of Sixtus V Peretti’s Acqua Felice is easily identifiable right in front of Santa Maria della Vittoria when one first walks out of the temple, by its monumental presence and its design as a Triumphal Arch with three cascades of water. Significant 17th-century pieces of Roman sculpture as well as (no copies, once original) Egyptian sculptures of two lionesses behind the balustrades adorn the castellum on the front. High up on the attic area of the "triumphal arch" castellum, the Pope’s family crest of a rampant lion reaching for small pears are a proud acrostic for his family name.
Born to a very poor peasant family in the region of Le Marche, “Felice” Peretti made his poor father proud by not only choosing to become a Franciscan friar, but eventually accepting ever higher, more profitable positions in the church, which encouraged him to accept his appointment as Grand Inquisitor, and the project of bringing water again to the hills of Rome. Again, in his short but intense pontificate, realizing the capital significance of Rome as universal pilgrimage destination, Sixtus V (1585-90) concentrated too on making the city safe for visitors: “…while I live," he quipped, "every criminal must die.” Every morning during his reign people passing by the dungeons of the grand Castel Sant'Angelo, former Mausoleum of Hadrian, could behold the new array of heads decapitated the previous night inside the prisons. However, his legacy as developer and urban planner of the City of the Seven Basilicas, as he understood it, still earns Pope Peretti high accolades.
It is told that on weekends, Sixtus would don his high boots and other work attire and head out of Vatican Hill on horseback and on foot to oversee the hilly areas of the City that he was developing and bringing back to a healthy socio-economic status. Architect Domenico Fontana also figured out how to organize pilgrim traffic in the city for the traditional Jubilee celebration of 1600, widening thoroughfares connecting the Seven Catholic Basilicas and many other sites in between. (Much of this fascinating story is covered in detail in Edmund Bacon's Design of Cities. ) Thanks to the team effort of Sixtus and Fontana, many processional routes, especially between St. John Lateran and Santa Maria Maggiore, located as they were on or near major piazzas and fountains as well as smaller "holy relics" sites of early-Christian significance greatly benefitted from the new public works and gained even more scenic and philosophical importance by being shown now, clear of clutter and free from the neglect of years and taboos, as very much related to Capitol Hill, Trajan’s Column and even the Pantheon. At the end of Sixtus's pontifficate, the seven major Egyptian Obelisks which we see today and that had once stood tall in the pagan circuses to measure courses run by the chariots, now measured new distances even as they told pilgrims stories about Caesar and Cleopatra, the Julian Calendar, and other major conquests by the Roman Empire and Republic. The 3rd-century Aurelian Walls had a new/old body to circumscribe thanks to this Pope-Architect team. In addition, any lands falling outside those historic walls deemed important from the point of view of aqueducts, farmlands, and the many farming monasteries located there since the 500s A.D., also came under the vigilance and care of this Pope and his assistants.
In his delightfully informative Fountains of Rome (1966), travel historian W.H. Morton ranks Sixtus’s relocation of the Obelisks to the piazza “nodal points,” as he calls them, where we see them today, on the level of Pericles’ rebuilding of Athens after the Persian invasion and destruction of the city -- using similar visual guiding posts. Moreover, the Pope's urban-planning footprints are conversant and of similar caliber with those of Agrippa or Augustus Caesar in Ancient Rome in their day. Morton argues, too, that Pope Sixtus V’s legacy still serves as a paradigm of sagacity, historical sense, and forward-thinking, both in terms of narrative as well as of physics. What Pope Sixtus V did then was put Rome on a map that looked and flowed forwards, back, sideways, and ultimately in all directions, even as it asserted traditional Roman coherence and unity. One can understand why in Bernini's century, the 1600s, city leaders in Rome, both ecclesiastical as secular, as artistic, would value corners like that of Santa Maria della Vittoria, with such esteem.
Perhaps it follows, then, that when the rich Venetian Cardinal Federico Cornaro in 1642, aware of his imminent death, pondered the place and manner of placing a flag in the City by the Tiber, he probably met with Bernini, who personified almost both an entrepreneurial and artistic embodiment of that City by the Tiber, and asked him to make their Carmelite church project like nothing anyone had seen before. Wishing, moreover, in essence, to juxtapose his Cornaro funeral chapel on a part of the city grids that still showed the footprints of Pontiffs like Sixtus V whose vision encompassed issues of sanitation, personal health and economics, just as it did art and religion, Bernini and Cardinal Federico probably felt pressed to leave here a landmark that was both, inside and outside, moving with the times in these very challenging aspects.
Part Four: All the World is a Stage
Now, the imprint that Pope Sixtus's brief but intense term left in Rome at the close of his 1500s is nothing short of outstanding. But the 1600's turned a new corner, and, one may say, Bernini's grasp of these new times, challenging though they were, allowed him to shine repeatedly, to the point of upstaging some of his high ecclesiastical clients. To paraphrase the words that one of those great clients, Pope Urban VIII Barberini, had the humility to say to Gianlorenzo in the 1640s: "Bernini, you were made for Rome, and Rome was made for you!"
Somehow, though, what Bernini achieved in the Cornaro Chapel in 1651, following his creative intuition, knowledge of tradition, and his usually sound understanding of materials and urban principles, ends up being quite remarkable -- and rejuvenating for Rome's artistic and religious spheres. Whereas up to this time he had focused his thematic attention and his hands' work on a more conservative, self-contained sense of volume and space, these bounds snap when he meets the team, so to speak, of Cardinal Federico and Santa Teresa. The verb transcend, I think, best conveys what I think he does. Not content with the traditional, compact, self-contained altar design, Bernini transcends the old boundaries of a statue in a niche and he radiates out. Yes, he sculpts -- indeed inserts -- at both ends of the chapel, but perpendicularly, two theater boxes, each with four figures (one of these eight viewers is a female, as her dress and pearl necklace show).
As the visitor heads towards the main altar of Santa Maria della Vittoria, then, the figures in that Bernini balcony attract his eyes and attention towards the Ecstasy. Moreover, by their bodily position and language, silent though it may be, they usher the visitor's attention toward the Saint's area and suspend for a moment the idea that he had entered a church and was intending to approach the main altar, etc. Spatially, this means that Bernini had not only "radiated" out from St. Theresa out to where this charming opera box of her marble spectators are watching her, but there are vectors going from where they are to where she is. The two nodal points flow towards each other: not only like the processional routes of Pope Sixtus when he interconnected Rome in all parts of its sphere, but, symbolically turning the narrative of the Transverberation into the star moment of an actress on a stage.
Did anyone present at the opening that day remark to the Cornaros and their fashionable Roman artist the implications of such an innovation inside a revered place of prayer?
This sort of theatrical framing around tombs had not been seen before in any Roman church, mixing spectators with saints in agony or at rest, at least not sculpturally. However, Bernini brought this, broadly speaking, from the 1500s decorative device of the quadro riportato, which had already served, for instance as visual armature for the most thematically important frescoes of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. Using the quadro riportato device, Michelangelo mixes medias and juxtaposes his signature male nudes (Ignudi), "bronze" heroic shields, and architectural moldings and pedestals around the figure inside of God Separating the Waters. All in fresco.
One century before, too, Masaccio's fresco of the Holy Trinity (1427) in Florence's Santa Maria Novella Church, also juxtaposed the portrait figures of the Dominican donors of the fresco on either side of the central image of the Holy Trinity, but what was even more stunning in that fresco is that Masaccio turns the Virgin's head towards us if we happen to be standing in real time in front of the masterpiece, as the Madonna gestures with her hand for us to behold her Son's death by crucifixion. Another significant component of this Trinity is the skeleton lying in the tomb under the floor that the donors are kneeling on. Above this 1427 Memento Mori, an inscription appears with the Latin words, "What I am now, you will be; What you are now, I once was." Because these words are, in fact, at the eye level of an average human being looking at the fresco, they mark one of the most singular occurences of this type audience participation in Italian art, ever.
Michelangelo's and Masaccio's are but two precedents to this artistically visual and narrative tradition, mixing media and space. From here to what Bernini does in 1651 with his two balconies, there are only...two hundred years! However, meeting these two groups of theater-goers in the Cornaro Chapel, we wonder whether some of those folks' skeletons are waiting for Kingdom Come 'neath the marble floor with the dancing memento mori skeletons that we saw earlier in this essay.
But wait, we have left out one more element, perhaps another medium which Bernini included less literally than Masaccio had done with the above-mentioned inscription in his Holy Trinity.
This element is us. We. I. Watching, like the Cornaros, the show.
One can see the two BALCONIES on either side.
Bernini’s dressing of the sacral element of the female saint’s mystical experience in a more profane or prosaic outer design – this was his unique Counter-Reformation achievement here. Essentially, it was to make Santa Teresa’s Christian elevation read to the spectator not only like an event, stripped of religious significance, but -- why not? -- a narrative like the sculptor's Rape of Persephone, a mythological ravishing.
In the end, the spectators have an element of voyeurism to them. They are witnessing a private experience which had erotic elements in it.
But the plot thickens here, just as this essay reaches the end. The two balconies or theater boxes in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Teresa of Avila serve also as mirrors to us spectators that we are somehow witnessing and questioning in our own minds just what it is that happened to the Carmelite Nun, in the same way that Bernini’s seated viewers are witnessing and questioning her testimony. Who knows, we may end up questioning our own experience in the realms of both Eros and Piety, to the point of leaving Santa Maria della Vittoria Church curious to "read some St. Theresa," and reasses who or what we would like to see near our own limits of mortality, when we, like Cardinal Federico breathe our last. We may, in fact, relate.
(Parenthetically, at this point, I feel the urge to explore two areas that may cast additional light into this masterpiece in Santa Maria della Vittoria. In addition to reading some of the texts written by Santa Teresa, it seems worthwhile indeed to revisit the chiaroscuro story, works, and times of Caravaggio, both when in Rome, and during his several years of flight from the Inquisition, in Naples, Malta, and ultimately, Sicily. In Naples, might not he, like Bernini, have watched performances by Spanish actors of some of the short entremeses or interludes by Miguel de Cervantes, or Lope de Rueda, famous for juxtaposing play and watchers of the play, and watchers of watchers of the play? Beyond that, as an important maritime center and seat of a Viceroyal court, is it not possible that Naples' own performing arts scene buzzed with the reports of the multiplied frames of vision and juxtaposed narratives within narratives of William Shakespeare’s Midsummernight’s Dream, or HAMLET, even Taming of the Shrew, whose plots and levels of meaning radiate from such multilevel carpentry? I have for a long time thought that Don Quixote; El Retablo de las Maravillas/ The Marvellous Puppet Show, and Persiles and Sigismunda, were not just titles of Cervantine works name-dropped in the Spanish Quarter in Naples, but that these works were well-known there and that they projected their virulentinfluences into the artists of other cities of Italy then.)
Although Pope Innocent X’s humorous remark that Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain had given him 10 more years of life was his flamboyant way of praising the beauty and power of the fountain’s presence in Piazza Navona, if one considers this water display of the Ganges, the Danube, the Nile, and the Rio de la Plata inside the network of pipes and valves and hydraulic power of Rome’s water system-- not to forget the Papal Processional avenues, Obelisks, and Coats of Arms in those huge grids -- we begin to understand that a flow connects Piazza Navona to the site of Santa Maria della Vittoria and Sixtus’s Acqua Felice.
Morton in The Fountains of Rome tells us that when Pope Sixtus and his own crowd of dignitaries and common citizens saw the Moses by Prospero Antichi (a Mannerist imitator of Michelangelo, of course) unveiled, there were “bursts of laughter which greeted the work,” and that Antichi subsequently committed suicide in shame. Moreover, it is said that Pope Sixtus refused to allow the sculptor to correct the oversize proportions of Moses and his Tablets of the Law, and that the statue should remain as it was to remind people of the artist’s incompetence. I not only doubt this corollary of the public’s laughter at the unveiling of this fountain, I would argue that Pope “Felice” Peretti had a sense of humor and of urban magnificence capable of reading the gigantic Moses as somehow proportionate to his ego and the mark that it would leave as reminder of his own legacy.
Speaking of inclusion and large frames of interconnectedness, a student of Bernini’s Cornaro Chapel is begins to appreciate the artist's work there when that student considers all the ramifications that it has: spatial, ideological, theatrical, and even hydraulic. It may be helpful, too, to bring into play a feature of the sculpture which, for lack of a more precise term one may have to call the overpowering feminity of Gianlorenzo's recumbently ecstatic Santa. “Saint Teresa is the most holy of all women,” says a popular refrain, “but she is the most woman of all saints!”
The old Cuban coffee-drinker in Miami's Roma Bakery would probably have much to say about this last Teresiana element. That's here on earth. In Heaven, if he indeed got there by way of The Transverberation, Cardinal Federico Cornaro may be urging you through the essay "program notes" of this sinner, to come to Rome to experience these tales in order to start heading in a more celestial direction.
MOSES (Prospero Antichi, 1585; ROME's Acqua Felice Fountain)
The Castellum of Pope Sixtus V's
(Domenico Fontana, architect and hydraulic engineer, 1580s, ROME)
Santa Teresa de Avila's discalced foot (Gianlorenzo Bernini, Cornaro Chapel, detail)