Artists used to make a difference in the politics of a country.

“The Artist and the Eternal City,” a new book by historian Lloyd Grossman, tells the story of how "divinely-inspired" 17-century sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini together with Pope Alexander II gave new life to the fading city that was Rome at the time.

Patron power

Rome was the place to be during the Renaissance where art world greats like Michelangelo and Raphael came to work. But that was then. As the centuries passed, Paris became the big draw when the French monarchy invited artists to adorn their palaces.

Rome got its mojo back when Pope Alexander II’s patronage for Bernini put Rome back on the proverbial map.

Bernini is probably best known for his marble carving called The Ecstasy of St. Theresa (the Carmelite nun who speared her heart to do in her non-spiritual feelings. The sculpture looks as stagy as the saint’s action sounds, down to bolts of light painted gold shining down on her.

Theatrical type

Grossman’s description of Bernini’s personality suggests he was a stagy kind of guy. As he put it, the artist had an “extravagant” way that bordered on the “embarrassing, like a guest who talks too loud or someone who keeps bursting into tears.” The sculptor was also given to wearing swirling fabrics said to match his overstated emotions.

While Art News calls Grossman “a passionate Bernini fan,” it’s still unexpected that he would enthuse over an odd, obscure statue of an elephant with an 18-foot obelisk on its back, installed near the Pantheon. Unaccountably, Art News calls this oddity “stately and quite impressive.”

Bernini didn’t even make the sculpture. One of his assistants – the sculptor Ercole Ferrata – did.

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But the idea to “exalt Alexander’s erudition,” writes Grossman was all Bernini.

Granted, I’m not a devotee of Bernini, but if I had to pick a work of interest, it’d be Bust of Louis XIV. Art historians Bruce Cole and Adelheid Gealt have written that the sculptor didn’t try for a likeness. Instead, he aimed to capture his aura with piles of curls and drapery.

Louis’s courtiers frowned on the poetic license that ‘Bernini took. Not just them.

No resemblance

According to historians Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves, the French painter Claude Lefebvre didn’t see a likeness to the king, either. Bernini argued that the shape of the head matched the king’s head shape. But to hear historian Edward Lucie-Smith tell the story, even though the monarch sat 14 times for an hour each time, the sculptor seldom even looked at his sketches, having worked almost entirely from his imagination.

As Lucie-Smith explained it, Bernini had definite views on art, believing in his way of working, saying if he had done otherwise, he would only have made a copy instead of an original.

Goldwater and Treves noted other thoughts on art recorded in a memoir of Louis XIV’s assistant Sieur de Chantelou. For example, taking pride in his portrait work, the sculptor said that Michelangelo didn’t make portraits because he applied himself chiefly to anatomy.”

More about Michelangelo

But while dismissing Michelangelo’s sculpture, you know like Pieta, Bernini okayed his painting – sort of. “At first glance, it looks so rude and unpleasant that it makes you turn your eyes away from it.” This, from the guy who gave us an elephant with an obelisk on his back.