Sexual Control of Women in Bernini’s Rome

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”.[1] 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.[2]

Bernini, Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini, 1636-37

Bernini, Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini, 1636-37

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.[3]

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.

While Bernini’s attack on Costanza was not explicitly enforced by the Catholic Church one can understand that their distribution of punishment was an implicit agreement. It was their way of saying adulterous women deserved to be punished extensively while adulterous men did not. Bernini’s attack was horrifying in its execution as well as heavily symbolic. Upon seeing his brother leave Costanza’s household, Bernini ordered a servant to bring gifts to Costanza and, upon gaining entry, slash her face with a knife. Bernini then attacked his brother, breaking down the doors of his home and chasing him to Santa Maria Maggiore, at which point he ran throughout the rectory, sword in hand. Luigi survived, but was beaten by Bernini, who broke two of his ribs with an iron rod. Bernini’s response to betrayal by Costanza and his brother Luigi are wildly different. By slashing Costanza’s face Bernini is mimicking the common seventeenth-century Roman practice of slashing the faces of prostitutes. The intent was not death or great injury as with Bernini’s brother, but for disfigurement and disgrace. Bernini wanted to mark her face with a scar, forever naming her as a woman of loose morals.[4]

Honor was a particularly important aspect of character for Romans during this time period. Something that caused dishonor to a person deserved an equal act of dishonor. As a result, acts such as facial slashing (known as sfregium) and house-scorning (the practice of defacing another’s home, particularly the facade) were rampant. In the case of house-scorning the vandalism often involved excrement and slurs, as well as depictions of phalluses. It was a common response to what the perpetrator considered sexual dishonor, and often enacted upon women who were thought to have sexually disgraced men in some way.[5] According to Elizabeth Cohen, “Although graver, disfiguring the face—the mirror of honor—was analogous to blemishing the dwelling”.[6]  This is the type of disgrace Bernini wished to impart upon Costanza; sexually shaming, public, and long lasting.[7]

At the time, banishment and service as a galley slave was the typical punishment for facial slashing in Rome. Bernini’s punishment was markedly lighter. The servant who carried out the slashing was permanently exiled, Bernini’s brother exiled to Bologna for a year, and yet Bernini was absolved. According to Domenico Bernini in an account of his father’s life, the Pope sent the artist a message which contained “a eulogy of his virtue worthy of being transmitted to posterity, because in it he was absolved for no other motive than that he was excellent in art; nor was he called here by any other titles than those of ‘rare man, sublime genius, and born by Divine inspiration and for the glory of Rome, to bring light to that century’”.[8] The Pope is absolving Bernini for his genius, a title that has continually excused the immoral acts of important men since its popularization in the Renaissance.

In fact, Bernini faced no real punishment until his own mother petitioned Cardinal Francesco Barberini for action. This was in no way a plea to right the wrongs inflicted upon Costanza, but to punish Bernini’s attack upon his brother. The letter is full of rhetoric referencing Bernini’s disrespect for God and the government. She recounts how Bernini “searched the entire rectory with contempt for God and for the [church], almost as if he were the Master of the World” and referenced Santa Maria Maggiore’s priests’ “fear of his great power, which today appears to have reached the point of no longer fearing Justice”.[9] Bernini’s mother’s pleas appeal to a sense of disrespect to the Church and the government because his actions against his brother and his mistress were already forgiven. In a system which values genius above the law, her only course of action was to appeal to their sense of honor. Bernini is finally fined 3000 scudi, slightly less than the price he would then charge for a full size sculpture (4000-5000 scudi), but this fine is later excused.[10]

Bernini was forgiven for his supposed genius, but also because of his close relationship with his patron. Patronage in Baroque Rome was fairly complicated, factoring in an artist’s talent, his nationality, the patron’s status, and a number of other external influences such as the current Pope and the other patrons and artists in Rome at the time. Because of this, artists and patrons’ fates were often intertwined. The level to which they relied upon one another varied, with some artists living with and enjoying friendships with their patrons to others fulfilling the bare requirements of patronage. Because Bernini was one of the foremost sculptors in Rome at the time and enjoyed a relationship with the current Pope, Pope Urban VIII, he was protected from his own actions. It would reflect poorly upon Bernini’s patrons for his actions to be punished heavily, rather they would prefer to sweep his disgrace under the rug and avoid the embarrassment they would suffer.[11]

Bernini, Pope Urban VIII, 1635-40.

Bernini, Pope Urban VIII, 1635-40. One of Bernini’s many papal portraits.

Sculptures by Bernini depict women’s sexuality (and often male control of women’s sexuality) as a recurring theme. We see one portrayal of women’s sexuality in Bernini’s Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini (see above). Many critics and historians recognize this piece as the culmination of Bernini’s speaking likenesses. With her tousled locks and sensually parted lips she is decisively different from the sculpted women of Bernini’s contemporaries. This is partially due to the context of the work; Bernini created this portrait for his own pleasure. This gave him freedom regarding the guidelines for female busts of the era. It is also arguable that the incredible sensuality found in the soft flesh, the loose hair with a single curl escaping from it’s neat bun, and her ever so slightly exposed breasts emerged due to Bernini’s strong emotions for Costanza. According to Sarah McPhee in Bernini’s Beloved, parted lips were a break in decorum for Baroque sculpture busts. However, Bernini was referencing an older tradition in which goddesses were often depicted open mouthed. McPhee speculates, “he parted Costanza’s lips to place her in the realm of the goddess”.[12]

A closer look at Costanza's portrait.

A closer look at Costanza’s portrait.



While Bernini’s Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini is a loving, gentle depiction of female sexuality, other works are less forgiving. One damning comparison lies between the portrait of Costanza and Bernini’s later bust of Medusa. Medusa is a controversial piece. As it was quickly absorbed into a private collection, it remained outside of the public knowledge until donation to the Palazzo dei Conservatori in 1731. Upon which questions of authorship and date of creation abounded. While prominent Bernini scholar Rudolf Wittkower dated the piece to approximately 1636, many historians countered that the technique was too weak to be from the 1630s, and that the piece was from around 1616 to 1618 at latest. Wittkower argued that the substandard technique was potentially due to an illness Bernini suffered in 1636, or that the work was more ornamental than usual because it was a copy of a two dimensional antique.[13] Currently the piece is accepted as a Bernini and is dated by the Capitoline Museum as being from 1644-1648.[14]

Comparing the two pieces one finds very different depictions of female sexuality. One is sensual and soft, the other frightened, threatening, and harsh. It is frequently suggested that Bernini based both of these works on Costanza, an argument that would be strengthened if the date of creation is confirmed as from 1636 onward. In the first piece, created during the height of their affair, Costanza is a sensual goddess. In the latter, Costanza is a horrifying monster. According to Avigdor Poseq in “A Note on Bernini’s Medusa Head”, “Here the Medusa head is described as a symbol of fear that freezes man’s mind, makes him lose heart and petrifies him into immobility”.[15] Post-slashing, Bernini views Costanza as a woman who corrupted his heart and his mind. Her sexuality is a weapon and she used it to hurt him. This attitude comes through in the sculpture in which the features, while definitely similar to the original portrait, are harsher. Her lips are still parted but her eyes are darker. Her gaze is distressed and accusing at the same time, and according to the legend of Medusa, signifies petrification and death.

Bernini’s works, while following the decorum of religious Baroque architecture, tend to portray women as highly sexual beings. However, their sexuality is controlled, monitored by their peers and by their God. His well known works, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa and Beata Ludovica Albertoni both notably depict women with heads thrown back in pleasure.

Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647-52.

Bernini, Central figures of Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647-52.

Bernini, Beata Ludovica Albertoni, 1671-74.

Bernini, Beata Ludovica Albertoni, 1671-74.

One should remain aware that these pieces are presented in churches where we, the audience, may look at them. These women are meant to be observed during their private, ecstatic moments being overwhelmed by God, thought by many to be orgasmic.

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is particularly intriguing. The work is meant to depict Saint Teresa, a Spanish mystic, Carmelite nun and reformer of the movement, with an angel piercing her heart with a golden spear. In her autobiography, she describes the episode as such:

“I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.”

Bernini is capturing the overwhelming sense of happiness and pleasure Saint Teresa feels, and in doing so has created a highly charged sexual scene. Note that the figure of Teresa is young and beautiful, a figure that his current patron Cardinal Federico Cornaro would certainly find enjoyable. The most interesting aspect of the scene, however, is not the central group of figures including the angel and Saint Teresa, but the theatre style boxes along the walls containing sculpted portraits of male members of the Cornaro family. The men watch the scene as it occurs, the young Saint’s head thrown back in joy, and discuss the events amongst themselves.

Wider view, photo taken by Nina Aldin Thune.

Wider view, photo taken by Nina Aldin Thune.

Closer view of the Cornaro men discussing the ecstasy.

Closer view of the Cornaro men discussing the ecstasy.

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is an excellent example of Counter-Reformation male control of female sexuality. Women were depicted sexually while men controlled their behavior. Beata Ludovica Albertoni reinforces this idea. She was a Franciscan tertiary and a distant relative of the patron, Cardinal Paluzzo Paluzzi Altieri degli Albertoni, and this piece depicts her upon her deathbed, still experiencing ecstasy through God.

It should be noted that male religious figures were not generally depicted in such a sexually suggestive manner. The closest representation I can find is of Saint Francis who was also frequently depicted in ecstasy. Here is a Baroque work by Caravaggio:

Caravaggio, Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, 1595.

Caravaggio, Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, 1595.

You can clearly see the differences between the depiction of Saint Francis and of Saint Teresa. Francis’s head is laid back peacefully, his mouth is closed, and he appears to be asleep. Teresa’s head is thrown back, her body leaning backwards, mouth parted sensually, and eyes only lightly shut. The mood of the pieces are entirely different. By viewing these works it becomes clear that Counter-Reformation artwork (which was highly politicized and intended to send strong messages of moral conduct) promoted the sexual control of women.

[1] Haskell, Francis. “Seventeenth-Century Patronage.” In Patrons and painters: a study in the relations between Italian art and society in the age of the Baroque. Rev. and enl. ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980. 16.

[2] McPhee, Sarah. Bernini’s beloved: a portrait of Costanza Piccolomini. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2012.

[3] McPhee. “Two Letters.” In Bernini’s Beloved. 49-62.

[4] McPhee. “Master of the World.” In Bernini’s Beloved. 35-48.

[5] McPhee, “Master of the World”. In Bernini’s Beloved. 44-48.

[6] Cohen, Elizabeth S.. “Honor and Gender in the Streets of Early Modern Rome.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 22, no. 4 (1992): 607. (accessed October 5, 2012).

[7] Cohen, “Honor and Gender,” 597-625.

[8] Bauer, George C.. “The Life of the Cavalier Gian Lorenzo Bernini.” In Bernini in perspective. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976. 29.

[9] McPhee, “Master of the World”. In Bernini’s Beloved. 58-59.

[10] McPhee, “The Bust”. In Bernini’s Beloved, 11.

[11] Haskell. “Seventeenth-Century Patronage.” In Patrons and Painters. 6-16.

[12] McPhee, “Master of the World”. In Bernini’s Beloved. 42.

[13] Poseq, Avigdor. “A Note on Bernini’s Medusa Head.” Konsthistorisk Tidskrift/Journal of Art History 62, no. 1 (1993): 16-20.

[14] “Bust of Medusa.” Musei Capitolini. (accessed October 20, 2012).

[15] Poseq. “A Note on Bernini’s Medusa Head”. 17.

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2 thoughts on “Sexual Control of Women in Bernini’s Rome

  1. Thanks for this fascinating article, Melissa! (The blog post doesn’t have a title, btw – was that intentional?)

    The sculpture of the men observing Teresa’s ecstasy is really kind of creepy. I’d be interested in any artistic depictions of Teresa’s friend St. John of the Cross, who was also a Carmelite reformer and mystic. As I recall, his writings about his mystic experiences also have a rather erotic tinge to them.

    The inequitable workings of the justice system of the time is beyond creepy, and not as alien as I wish they were. Somewhere recently I read a blog post pointing out that, even though women are stereotypically over-emotional, it is men whose misbehaviors and crimes are routinely minimized on the grounds that they were overcome with uncontrollable emotion: from men who have a violent response to finding their wives or girlfriends in bed with another man, to men who are overcome with “gay panic” when a man makes a pass at them, it’s not so different from how Bernini’s crimes were perceived.

  2. Thanks for reading! And haha, no, not intentional at all, I’m just forgetful. Thanks for letting me know!

    I agree about St. Teresa’s sculpture being incredibly creepy. In my first art history class we never even looked at the context of the piece, it really has made a difference in how I personally interpret it. In a preliminary search of St. John of the Cross I’d say he’s depicted less sexually than St. Teresa. That’s an interesting thought though, I’ll have to look into it further!

    That always makes me angry, that men who kill a woman in violent anger are excused while women who kill, say, their abusers via poison are punished. It’s a definite failing of our system. I have no words for the gay panic other than people are TERRIBLE.

    Those are both really good comparisons! If only things had changed more since the 1600s. Oh well, in another four hundred years maybe?

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