When I thought of my future I always imagined myself in the act of the drawing something. I just didn’t know it would be architecture until my senior year of high school. With a previous education in fine art studies, particularly drawing, I thought of pursuing a career in fine arts or, in another subject I have always loved, animation. Growing up only about an hour away from what’s described as “the world’s most magical place on Earth” definitely helped in the continuing of my drawing obsession (even though Walt wasn’t very nice). However, I grew to learn to appreciate real-life figures and not just the ones I imagined in my mind and created on paper. A major influence for my appreciation was one of my father’s college books I found in our musty garage on the sculptor/architect Lorenzo Bernini. Glancing through the text and photos, I fell in love with the illusion his sculptures created. Bernini, to me, was the Pygmalion (without the creepiness of literally falling in love with his work, of that I know). The human form became something of absolute beauty to me, where no matter what medium you worked with, the concept of reality and simulation became intertwined and convoluted.
So, it was of no surprise, that I absolutely freaked out when our group of students walked into the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. I had no idea that the church houses the Cornaro Chapel by Bernini. On top of that, the chapel is home to what is considered one of Bernini’s masterpieces – the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. So yeah, I freaked the hell out. As a double major in Architecture and Art History, Santa Maria was my version of the Holy Grail in Rome. Not only was the church beautiful and abundant in detail, the corner dedicated to Bernini’s chapel was seriously awe-inspiring (is it weird that my heart rate spiked?). Plus, having a professional art historian who was probably as excited as I was about being there explain everything to us made the experience insanely better. I could go into the iconography and symbolism of the chapel and sculpture, but as Paolo would say, that would take at least three classes worth of time. Let’s just say Bernini was an expert in drama and theatrics, illusion and reality, and interconnecting his work through dynamic performance. At least I think so.
Here’s some brief explanations on the meanings of the chapel:
Within the church, the chapel becomes a stage, the focal point being Saint Theresa and her supposed apparition, who set her soul aflame in an overwhelming burst of religious zeal. The overall theme is the appearance of the Eucharist in the form of the Holy Ghost and the host (Saint Theresa). Through the divine light, her soul and God become intertwined for a moment, creating what’s considered a portal to the Heavens. As a site for the burial of the cardinal who commissioned the project, this portal presents the idea of his holiness and ability to ascend into Heaven at the end of his life. However, there’s much more than the sculptures to reflect. There are several other interactions taking place, such as the two side “boxes” with figures represented in deep debate. Their conversation reflects on the mystery of the Eucharist and what transpires during that time. The relief style of the sculptures form from Donatello’s technique known as “schiacciato,” where details slowly dilute further into the background. Ultimately, the reliefs outline a theatrical pretense of scenes within the overall composition of the chapel. The inclusion of different colored marble to frame the box seats reflect pigments of paint and the figures themselves represent the art of sculpture. Set in the spatial boundaries of the chapel, Bernini intertwines the arts of architecture, painting, and sculpture to form a unified whole. And this was when I started a frenzy of photo taking and deep breathing techniques.