A meeting with Bernini

29 May

As you might have seen from the last few posts, over the last while I’ve been working on sources for the history of early modern travel. My main interest for the Ph.D is how English-speakers went about making themselves understood when outside of their native country, particularly at a time when English was practically unknown. As the Anglo-Italian language teacher and translator John Florio said, “It is a language that wyl do you good in England, but passe Douer, it is woorth nothing.” I’ve been collecting all sorts of interesting material about the study of foreign languages, and the experience of getting your message across in a strange tongue, but quite often I’ll come across something which doesn’t fit into the thesis but which I feel could do with being shared. This is one of those – the story of a remarkable meeting in seventeenth-century Rome.

I was at the British Library and reading the travel journal of Nicholas Stone (the younger), which recounts a voyage through France followed by a period of residence in Italy between 1638 and 1642. It’s always fun working with a source like this because no matter how dry it might seem in its detail, there’s often a detail, an aside that will jump out at you. A few years ago I worked on the diary of a young sixteenth-century English gentleman who casually mentioned meeting ‘two of the Queen’s dwarves” on a London street, and giving them a few pennies.

Nicholas Stone’s journal is, in some ways, much like others written by young men of his relatively well-off background in the period: he wrote about his fellow-travellers, about noteworthy incidents (falling off his horse in France, or meeting some charming Jesuits), and about the places he visited on the road. What’s interesting is the extent of his interest in the art and architecture he encountered, the reason for which becomes clear when he reaches Florence and spends much of his time sketching and drawing in the city’s galleries and private collections, practising life-drawing at his lodgings, or taking inspiration from some of the greats of the Italian Renaissance: in June 1638, he recorded how “I went and drew in the chapple of Michell agnolo in Saint Laurences”.

The reason for all of this was that Stone came from an artistic family: his father (also Nicholas) was a sculptor, mason, and architect who, among other things, was responsible for the funeral effigy of John Donne, for which the poet (with remarkable foresight) apparently posed during his lifetime.

Donne posed for his own funeral memorial. “Oh, try again – I think I closed my eyes.”

Stone the elder had three sons who survived into adulthood, all of whom became sculptors. This goes some way to explaining the younger Nicholas’s pronounced interest in the art of seventeenth-century Italy, as well as leading to an encounter with one of the most remarkable artists of that period – Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Some of Rome’s greatest art came from Bernini – two particular favourites are his Ecstasy of St. Teresa (a prime cause of awkwardness among prudish or overly pious tour guides) and the wonderfully over-the-top Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) on Piazza Navona.

Having arrived in Rome and made a number of attempts to meet Bernini – who was working at St. Peter’s – Stone was finally admitted to the master’s presence. On the 22nd of October, 1638, Stone was admitted (with another painter who seems to have acted as an interpreter) to meet ‘Cavalyer Bernino’ himself, in the hope of being taken on as a disciple. He found the ‘cavalier’ sick in bed at St. Peter’s but in a chatty humour, and wanting to talk about a bust he had made of Charles I a few years previously. How had it fared in transit? Was it damaged? What did people think of it?

The Van Dyck triple portrait of Charles I sent to Bernini as a model. The bust was destroyed in a fire at the end of the 17th century, and only some dubious moulds purporting to be based on it survive.

Bernini, warming to his theme, also regaled Stone with the story of another commission from an Englishman which was left incomplete after the pope ordered him not to send any more work to England. There is one bust said to be by Bernini and to represent a Mr. Baker, which is currently found in the V&A and might be this latter work, finished when the papal prohibition had lost its force.

Bernini’s bust of ‘Mr. Baker’. Image by the National Gallery of Canada.

On this first meeting, Bernini also recounted a debate with the pope over whether it was truly possible to represent a person in marble: Stone records him as saying “I told his hollinesse that itt was impossible that a picture in marble could have the resemblance of a living man”, and challenged the pope to whiten his face and beard and see whether people would recognise him.

Nicholas Stone obviously made a favourable impression, as when he saw the master again some days later, he was treated to a view of his works in progress in St. Peter’s, and told that once they were done “and that he [Bernini] was att his housse I should be welcome to spend my time with the other of his disciples”. Later, showing Bernini his drawings, Stone was favoured with compliments and an invite to “[see] his manner of workeng and then worke my selfe”. In the meantime, advised the cavalier, “I would advise you as you have begun to continue in drawing with chalke beyng very necessary”.

I’ve reproduced my transcription of Stone’s account of that first meeting below, since it seems like the kind of thing that’s of general interest as well as possibly being of scholarly use. Just to warn you, there are a few bits where I’m not certain of the transcription – I’ll check it against the manuscript next time I’m in the BL and edit if necessary.


Cavelier Bernine

Roma the 22 of october 1638

After foure times being att St Peeters one sunday morning the 22th of october I went to his house of with a young man a painter that spoke Italian & where I understood that he was not very well I sent him upp the letter after a little pausee he sent for me up to his bedd side who when I came to him he told me that I was comended to a man that could not doe much with such and the like [???] first, but after he told mee that after 2 or 3 dayes he hoped to [be] abrod againe and that I should come againe to St Peeters and I should have what I desyred, being in a very good umour he askt me whether I had seene the head of marble which was sent into england for the King and to tell him the truth of what was spoken of itt. I told him that whosoever I had heard admired itt nott only for the exquisitenesse of the worke but the likeness and nere resemblance itt had to the King countenaunce he sayd that divers had told him so much but he can nott believe itt, then he began to be very free in his discourse to aske if nothing was broke of itt in carryage and how itt was preserved now from danger. I told him that when as I saw itt that all was hole and safe the which sathe I wonder att but I tooke (sayth he) as much care for the packing as […] in making of itt also I told him that now itt was preserved with a coife of silke, he desyred to know in what manner I told him that itt was made like a bagg gatherd together on the top of the head and drawne together with a strink under the body with very great care, he answered he was afraid thatt would be the cause to breake itt for sayes he in my time of doing of itt I did cover itt per the like manner to keepe itt from the flyes but with a gre=a=t deale of danger, because in taking of the case if itt hangs att any of the little lockes of hayre or one the worke of the band itt would be presently defaced for itt greivd him to heare itt was broke, being he had taken so great paines and study on itt, after this he began to tell us here was an english gent. who wood him a long time to make his effiges in marble, and after a great deale of intreaty and the promise of a large some of money he did gett amind to undertake itt because itt should goe into England; that thay might see the difference of doing a picture after the life or a painting; so he began to [imbost?] his physyognymy and being finisht and ready to begin in marble itt fellout that his patrone the pope came to here of itt who sent Cardinall Barberine to forbid him; the gentleman was to come the next morning to sett; in the meane time he defaced the modell in divers places, when the gentleman came he began to excuse himselfe that thaire had binn a mischaunce to the modell and that he had no mind to goe forward with itt; so I (sayth he) I returnd him his earnest, and desired him to pardon me; then was the gent. very much moved that he should have such dealing being he had come so often and had satt divers times already; and for my part sayth the Cavelier I could not hope itt being commanded to the contrary; for the pope would have no other picture sent into england from his hand but is Majesty: then he askt the young man if he understood Italian well. then he began to tell that the pope sent for him since the doing of the former head and would have him doo another picture in marble after a painting for some other prince I told the pope (sayd he) that if thaire were ˆbestˆ picture [sic?] done by the hand of Raphyell yet he would nott undertake to doe itt for sayes he I told his hollinesse that itt was impossible that a picture in marble could have the resemblance of a living man; then he askt againe if he understood Italian well, he answered the Cavelier perfectly well, then sayth he I told his holinesse that if he went into the next rome and whyted all his face over and his eyes if possible […] and come forth againe nott being a whit leaner nor lesse beard only the chaunging of his coulour no man would know you; for doe not wee see that when a man is affrighted thare comes a [pallour] on the sudden present wee say he likes nott the same man, how can itt than possible be that a marble picture can resemble the nature when itt is all one coulour where to the contrary a man has on coulour in his face another in his haire a thrid in his lipps and his eyes yett different from all the rest, tharefore sayd the Cavelier Bernine I conclude that itt is the impossiblest thinge in the world to make a picture in stone naturally to resemble any person.


Here’s an old but useful article on Bernini’s work in England – it’s on JSTOR, so you’ll need a university login. There’s a later comment on it here.

Nicholas Stone the younger appears – along with his brother and travelling partner, Henry – in their father’s DNB entry.

And finally: I’m no art historian, so if you have any comments that shed more light on this, or if I’ve gotten anything wrong, please don’t hesitate to let me know, on Twitter or in the comments below.


One Response to “A meeting with Bernini”

  1. Dr Alun Withey May 30, 2012 at 8:53 am #

    Great blog posts, and I’m especially interested in travel in the early modern period. I’ve long wondered about the health implications of travel in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I came across some good evidence for the potential dangers of going somewhere that didn’t suit your humoral balance, for example.

    I often wonder if there was an early-modern equivalent of ‘don’t drink the water’ though! In other words, was ‘foreign’ food seen as harmful? In many ways I don’t think so, mainly because hygiene etc was poor everywhere. But I’ve long thought about looking into this more deeply and perhaps putting out an article on it.

    Anyway, just some thoughts, and thanks again for the post.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: