I’ve been inspired by a weekend trip to Rome (Che bella! I would have loved to study abroad there, not that Florence isn’t wonderful!) to finally post a paper on Bernini’s depiction of women in sculpture and how his work reflects Counter-Reformation ideas of sexual control. But first! I’d like to suggest picking up the book, Bernini’s Beloved: a Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini by Sarah McPhee. It’s a very enjoyable read, and not at all difficult to get through. Much of my paper (at least the information on the Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini) grew from McPhee’s research. Enjoy!
As a tool used to promote the Catholic Church’s political power, Counter-Reformation artwork often contained messages condoning the sexual control of women. This is particularly evident in the sculptural work of Gianlorenzo Bernini. By examining the context of Bernini’s Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini and comparing with his bust of Medusa, one can conclude many Roman Baroque artworks not only accepted but enforced male control of female sexuality.
Pope Paul V is tentatively quoted as saying, “Pictoribus, atque Poetis, omnia licent; we must put up with these great men because that excess of spirit which makes them great is the same that leads them to this strange behaviour”. While it is uncertain if the Pope truly spoke these words, it is certainly the attitude the papacy adopted a few decades later in regards to Bernini. A quick summary of events: Bernini—in the height of his career—fell in love or in lust with Costanza Piccolomini, the wife of one of his workers, carried out a passionate affair, then became enraged and slashed her face upon discovering her possible liaison with his own brother. These events, while clearly deplorable, can possibly be understood by today’s historians as the actions of an emotionally and mentally unstable individual. What cannot be explained is the response by the Catholic Church, namely, the forthcoming punishment for Costanza (who shall be referred to by her first name due to uncertainty regarding usage of her last) and the lack of punishment for Bernini.
Costanza was punished for going against contemporary morals—which in Baroque Rome and the Counter Reformation formed the basis of most laws. Seventeenth century Romans followed the concept of honestà, the idea that women were under the surveillance of the community. As a result, following Bernini’s attack, Costanza was incarcerated despite her husband’s (Matteo Bonucelli) seeming indifference toward her behavior. Costanza was likely reported for adultery or some form of impropriety by her neighbors, her surgeon following the attack, or any number of members of the community. She was confined within the Monasterio di Casa Pia, an institution for disgraced or at risk women. For adulterous women like Costanza, it was expected their husband would either excuse their infidelity within two years or abandon them to a nunnery. The Governatore of Rome, Giovanni Battista Spada, was responsible for the sentencing, a fact Costanza was not initially privy to. While she was eventually released to her husband following her personal plea to the Governatore, Costanza had already been subjected to four months of illness due to a lack of food and health care.
It is telling that Costanza’s punishment was the result of a male government official’s disapproval, and that she had been shielded from such punishment for years by the very same affair she was now facing punishment for. It is a testament to Bernini’s pull within the Catholic Church as well as to the selective enforcement of such laws. Costanza and Bernini’s adulterous affair was publically known and possibly encouraged by her husband Matteo for the advancement of his own career (lending wives to a superior was not unheard of). Costanza was only punished once her adultery was no longer beneficial to Bernini. Continue reading