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The curator of this small and absorbing show claims that only in Rome would an exhibition of Bernini’s paintings make any sense, and he may be right. The city is awash with Bernini’s sculpture and architecture. During his long and productive career, stretching from the early 1620s to his death in 1680, he marked the city indelibly with his curious and immensely attractive mixture of frivolity and triumphalism in the service of no fewer than eight popes. Bernini’s, however, often appears a slightly tongue-in-cheek promotion of the church triumphant. Nothing could better express power and grandeur than the magnificent colonnade framing St Peter’s square, yet some of his religious sculpture – such as his St Teresa in the baroque church of Santa Maria della Vittoria – leaves some doubt as to just what kind of rapture his subjects are experiencing.

According to his biographers, there were between 150 and 200 paintings by Bernini in Roman collections in the 1680s. This was undoubtedly an exaggerated figure: sound documentary proof exists only for some 60 works, and collected together here in the small exhibition at the Palazzo Barberini (a building largely designed by Bernini for one of his most enthusiastic patrons, Pope Urban VIII), are the 25 or so surviving works surely painted by his hand, along with a handful by pupils and followers.

By the time Bernini started painting, in 1623 aged 25, he was already a giant among Roman artists, having produced the extraordinary series of mythological sculptural groups commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, which are still in the Villa Borghese collection. His paintings, mostly portraits, show the same mastery and freedom of technique as his sculptures. He could obviously have been equally successful as a painter, but is known to have refused tempting commissions, such as the decorating of the Loggia della Benedizione in St Peter’s offered by Urban VIII just after he became pope in 1623. Painting remained for Bernini a private art, maybe a means of relaxation. It is clear that most of the extant paintings were not the result of commissions, and many – such as the 1629 “Portrait of a Young Boy”, with his shy but watchful gaze, and the almost grotesque 1635 “Portrait of a Gentleman” (obviously bibulous) – are portraits of completely unknown individuals.

The Barberini exhibition includes a proportionately large number of portraits, both drawings and paintings, including all four of the known self-portraits in oil. Looking at his portraits, it is clear that – unlike Rembrandt, say, or Bernini’s contemporary Annibale Carracci – Bernini had little interest in exploring his sitters’ psychological or emotional state. The artist to whom he is closest in spirit and style is the greatest painter of the age, Velázquez. Like him, Bernini produced extraordinarily vivid and lively portraits, all painted against vague, dusky backgrounds: slightly melancholic, but without the faintest hint of sentimentality.

His self-portraits, both in oil and pen and ink, are no exception. Their most obvious features are their spontaneity and naturalness. Surprisingly, all four show a somewhat gloomy character, seemingly struggling with his own private demons. For a man known to enjoy a good party, and to move with the greatest ease in court circles, this is remarkable.

The first and the last, chronologically speaking, both in the Galleria Borghese collection, are the best. In the earliest, the only one in which Bernini’s head is turned towards his left, the artist wears an almost ferocious expression. Given its date, 1623, this lends credence to the story by which Bernini is said to have asked Maffeo Barberini, just before he became pope, to hold a mirror so that he could copy his own glare for his sculpture of David.

The second self-portrait, known as the “Autoritratto Malinconico”, is in private hands and is thus the least well-known of the four. This is thought to date from the exact period in which Bernini met Velázquez in Rome, around 1630/31, and is close in style to the latter’s “Portrait of a Young Man” in the city’s Capitoline Museum. The third, in which Bernini wears a more conciliatory expression, is known as the “Autoritratto Parlante”; given that it is larger than the other three, it may have been intended for public rather than private use. The painting came on the market in 1674, while Bernini was still alive, and was offered to Leopoldo de’ Medici, who snapped it up for the Uffizi.

In the last self-portrait in oil – a familiar image, as it appeared on one of the last lira banknotes – Bernini is slightly greying at the temples, his hair wilder and his cheeks hollower, but the gaze is as fierce and arresting as ever. The same is true of the last self-portrait here, a remarkable charcoal drawing showing the artist in extreme old age, from the collection at Windsor Castle.

These striking portraits testify to the strength of Bernini’s religious beliefs. He considered his genius a divine gift and himself merely an instrument. His works were all-important; as for his own appearance or social rank, he cared little. Bernini’s paintings may be little known compared with his more monumental works, but they shine a fascinating light on the man who made them.

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