Artibus et Historiae no. 14 (VII)

1986, ISSN 0391-9064

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PHILIPP P. FEHL - Hermeticism and Art: Emblem and Allegory in the Work of Bernini

This essay considers liveliness and playfulness in the work of Bernini as aspects of his purpose to celebrate and to lend credibility to conceits and constructions of the highest social significance. It reviews telling examples of Bernini's oeuvre in an ascending hierarchical order, from his representation of emblems to his allegories on papal tombs. The approach here developed respects the conventions of decorum and classical rhetoric but also distinguishes between the decorum appropriate to social circumstances and that appropriate to works of fiction. Bernini's daring style, often considered a hallmark of baroque, here is represented as a consequence of the artist's profound respect for the integrity of the subjects he represents and of his wit. His extravagance is the means by which he pays his tribute to propriety and truth.

In order to clarify the distinctions which here matter an introductory section reviews the conventions of emblematic and allegorical art which Bernini inherited and, in ways entirely his own, perfected in sense but contradicted in manner. Attention is also drawn to the blurred borders which join as well as separate hermetic, emblematic, and allegorical imagery. Bernini made a point of distinguishing clearly between these genres of imaginatively imitating nature. His success is demonstrated in several examples of a paradoxical nature and the moral dimensions of his discernment are explored.

In the view here proposed a number of familiar works of art by Bernini and others shine in a, perhaps, brighter light and convey new information about themselves. Among these are Domenico Fontana's Moses Fountain, the "monster gate" of the Palazzo Zuccari in Rome, the Porta del Popolo, the Cattedra in St. Peter's, and the tomb of Urban VIII. Newly introduced to art history are emblematic devices combined with weathervanes and clocks on the bell towers of S. Anastasio dei Greci, St. Peter's, and the Palazzo di Montecitorio in Rome.

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