Little was known about the subject of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Bust of Costanza Bonarelli until author and art historian Sarah McPhee started digging in the Roman archives. Through groundbreaking research, McPhee reveals the identity of Costanza, and details her life as a young dowried woman, Bernini’s muse and lover, and wife and widow of Matteo Bonarelli, sculptor, collector, and Bernini’s studio assistant. McPhee is professor of art and architecture history at Emory University and author of Bernini’s Beloved: A Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini.
Last spring Jim Cuno travelled to India to meet with partners on a number of Getty-funded initiatives. He also spoke at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the world’s largest free literary event that draws over 250,000 attendees to hear author talks and musical performances. This episode is one of three “Postcards from India” Jim made during his trip.
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JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
SARAH MCPHEE: For about eight years, I pursued her through the Roman archives and put together a scaffolding of her life. I turned up some 2,000 new documents on Costanza, because no one had ever bothered to look.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with art historian and author Sarah McPhee.
Recently, I traveled to Jaipur, India, to attend and participate in the Jaipur Literature Festival, billed as the largest free literature festival in the world. This year more than 250,000 people from ages 15 to 85 attended the festival, all with a voracious appetite for literature and ideas. Among the highlights at this year’s Festival were authors David Grossman, Margaret Attwood, and Colm Tóibín.
I came to participate on a panel discussion about the importance and promise of encyclopedic museums, those with representative examples of the world’s artistic legacy in their collections, and to interview authors Sarah McPhee and Hannah Rothschild and about their recent books. Throughout the Festival I spoke with young students, for whom it was part seminar and tutorial and park rock concert. Some of had come from as far away as Kolkata, traveling by train and bus for days, all came for a good time.
WOMAN: Please join me to the stage Stephen Fry. [applause]
MAN: You get to meet famous people, and then get to know their lives. There’s going to be some good jazz bands in the evening, so I look forward to that.
WOMAN TWO: I came for a photographer, basically, Steve McCurry. I follow Nat Geo docs, so that’s where I came across his work. And my brother’s a photographer, so I’m always looking at Steve McCurry pictures. So I’ve developed an interest.
CUNO: I met Sarah McPhee in the main hall of the Diggi Palace. Sarah is professor of art and architecture history at Emory University. Her recent book, Bernini’s Beloved: A Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini, is her second book on the life and work of the 17th-century sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, one of the most celebrated artists of his day.
Sarah, it’s great to be with you. Thanks for putting up with this.
MCPHEE: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.
CUNO: First, let’s talk about the experience of the interview in Durbar Hall in front of hundreds of people attending the Jaipur Literature Festival. How exciting was it for you?
MCPHEE: Tremendous. This is just an extraordinary festival. The energy, the informality, the serious of interest is just palpable—remarkable.
CUNO: There were a number of questions afterwards, and some of the questions we’ll answer in our own conversation. But they were impressive in coming from young people, and young people who were of—probably not likely to have known much about Bernini, but were curious about the story that you were able to tell them about him and his life.
MCPHEE: Well, Costanza engages really interesting questions, especially for young women. What in fact happened to her? And these women who pursued me out of the hall to ask these questions some more were really engaged with the idea that perhaps it was Susanna and the Elders, and not the standard line about her, you know, lapsed morals.
CUNO: Well, then we may as well get right to the book then, because it is about Costanza. And could you tell us about how the book starts? Because it starts with a ripping narrative about an affair between Bernini and Costanza.
MCPHEE: Well, basically, I wanted to give the reader what was known about the portrait of Costanza when I began to work on her life, because there is this dramatic episode pursued in the archives that was known to scholars who had written about her. And essentially, what it tells us is that Costanza was the lovely young wife of a sculptor who worked for Bernini at St. Peter’s and elsewhere in Rome, and that Bernini began an affair with her, and that—and that Bernini’s younger brother also began an affair with her. And the books begins with Bernini waiting in a carriage outside her house, seeing his brother, who had suspected this, emerge from her bedchamber and sending a servant to slash her face in retribution for the betrayal.
CUNO: So we have three figures at this point in the story. We have Costanza, we have Bernini himself, and we have his brother Luigi, each one which is a strong personality, shall we say, with a checkered reputation. Could you talk to use about those three individuals? And I’ll remind you of them in the order, but let’s start with Costanza, then we’ll go to Luigi. But briefly, because we wanna get that relationship. There’s that moment outside her house, where she is seen with Luigi, Luigi leaving her house. Bernini is upset, he hires someone to slash her face and mark her as damaged goods, as it were. But they’re each quite strong personalities. Tell us about Costanza.
MCPHEE: Well, as a strong personality—her personality really emerges over time. But at that particular point in her life, she was a young maiden. She was twenty-two years old, and she was living in Rome, and the wife of a sculptor working for Bernini. Bernini is the most famous artist, arguably, in Europe at this point, where he vies with Rubens and Rembrandt. And Luigi is his right-hand man, his younger brother by fourteen years, who assists on all of his major projects, including the building of bell towers on the façade of St. Peter’s.
CUNO: Tell us what happens when she comes to the door and Luigi leaves from her—from her apartment.
MCPHEE: Okay, she comes to the door. Luigi has exited some time earlier. Bernini sends a servant. The servant knocks at the door, presents two flasks of Greek wine. And as Costanza takes them in her hands, he pulls out a razor and slashes her face.
CUNO: And then Luigi runs away—Luigi’s not even there. Well, he leaves before the attack, doesn’t he?
MCPHEE: This was seen by Bernini, who is in a carriage. He told Luigi he was leaving town for the day.
CUNO: But he was suspicious about Luigi, I assume.
MCPHEE: Suspicious. So he went and he set up a watch. And then he sees what he feared, and then he’s so enraged he loses all control and orders a—commissions a crime.
CUNO: And then—then he attacks Luigi, Bernini does.
MCPHEE: He does. He—the documents tell us that he chases Luigi into St. Peter’s, and tries to kill him with an iron rod, and succeeds in breaking two ribs. And then he further pursues him back up the hill towards Santa Maria Maggiore. And he believes that Luigi has taken refuge in the basilica, and so he kicks at the doors and gains entry and goes through all the aisles and all the sacristy, can’t find him. But he is so enraged that, as his mother said, “He has no respect, neither for the pope nor for God.”
CUNO: This wasn’t the only altercation that Luigi had, not with his brother Bernini, but with someone else, later.
MCPHEE: Right. Well, Luigi was an interesting character. He’s always—he got into trouble. He was a brilliant engineer. And therefore, Bernini relied on them and they were life-long partners in working conditions, and he was essential to his brother. But Luigi got into all kinds of sexual misadventures. This one with Costanza that led to his brother trying to kill him; but then decades later, he attacks a young boy underneath Bernini’s sculpture of Constantine having his great moment of revelation, and damages this young boy and is exiled to Naples.
CUNO: So let’s talk about Costanza. And I wanna think that there’s sort of three episodes in her life. There’s one of her early life, her birth and the family from within which she was born. And then the connections with Bernini, by way of her husband Matteo. Then ultimately, after the death of Matteo, her life for the eight years that she lived after his life, and how she lived out her life. And in the midst of all of this, of course, is the attack, the slash on her face. So tell us about her—the circumstances in which she was born and raised.
MCPHEE: Well, I should begin by saying that the reason I was curious about her at all is because she’s the subject of this extraordinary portrait bust by Gian Lorenzo Bernini that today is in the Bargello Museum in Florence. And the portrait bust had been written about by art historians in the past, but because we knew so little about her biography—and all we knew was about this great affair. It had elicited writings by art historians of very high stature that were pretty uniformly about a woman from the streets, with—whose hair fell in easy loops and possibility rather dirty strands. So I was curious about her, and I found some evidence in archives that suggested I could figure out who she was. And that’s where the trail began. And then really on and off for about eight years, I pursued her through the Roman archives and put together a scaffolding of her life. And rather, I turned up some 2,000 new documents on Costanza, because no one had ever bothered to look. So that’s where the—it started. You asked about her early life. And one of the things that was most shocking was that she was called by art historians always Costanza Bonarelli, after her husband Matteo. But in fact, in Bernini’s biography written by Baldinucci, he lists the works and he calls her Costanza Piccolomini.
CUNO: And that’s a contemporary biography. I mean, seventeenth century contemporary.
MCPHEE: 1682, so the—two years after Bernini’s death, it’s published. So I found documents in Sweden that suggested she had died incredibly rich, and then a document in the biography that tells us her name was Piccolomoni. Well, Piccolomini is the name of two popes during the fifteenth century, and it’s a noble family from Siena. And in fact, her—I took that knowledge of the name and the wealth and went directly to the Roman archives and found her will. And that’s where it all started, and then I teased out the other things.
CUNO: Just to continue that for a second, in your book, you write very beautifully about the sculpture itself. Maybe you could tell us about it, because there’s a key in the sculpture, and you’re looking at the sculpture and taking the reader to that key that confirms that she was not a woman from the street or likely to have been a woman from the street.
MCPHEE: The previous writings about Costanza had all reproduced the image of this magnificent sculpture, this speaking likeness made in about 1636, ’37 from the front. And Costanza has a riveting gaze. Her hair is disheveled and her blouse is slightly open. And they reproduced that image and that image alone. What hadn’t been looked at was the back of the sculpture or the sides of the sculpture, from which she appears in multiple different—different ways. In fact, Bernini’s friend Lelio Guidiccioni once describes Bernini working on a portrait of the pope, Urban VIII. And he says that he showed fifty different ways of look at the pope, from different facets. And in fact, if you walk around the bust of Costanza, you see all of these aspects. Now, you’re alluding to the rear view, where she has a very elaborate double coiled bun at the back of her head, and then a Venus curl that descends the back of her neck. From that perspective, she looks like a noblewoman. She could not have done the hair herself. But that view had never been reproduced.
CUNO: So we know the circumstances in which Costanza was born, and we know that at one point she was dowried to two confraternities. Can you tell us about what role the dowry plays in her life?
MCPHEE: Okay. So what I was able to reconstruct of the early life is less than what I—what—able to reconstruct as life goes forward. But we do know that Costanza was born in the town of Viterbo, that she was born in rather—despite her noble name, she’s born in relatively straitened circumstances. She comes down to Rome, somehow she gets an education, because she’s literate. And she meets and marries Matteo. But before she meets him, she receives a dowry to prevent her from falling into a life of sin. She’s young, she’s beautiful, and she’s poor. And this was a very threatened population. Confraternities were groups of good-doing men in Rome attached to religious institutions. And one of the things they did was raise monies for dowries for poor or modest young women, to prevent them from choosing prostitution to make their way.
CUNO: And how did that happen? Because there was—when did she get the dowry? There was a trigger there.
MCPHEE: She receives one dowry in 1628 and another one in 1630 from two different religious institutions. And dowries are, of course, not fortunes, but they’re a substantial amount of money, and they have to be guaranteed. And they come in two parts. Her dowry was first promised, but then she had to marry Matteo in order to collect. And so that’s what they do. They marry, and then the dowry is held by him, though it is her property, throughout their married life, and he can invest it as he sees fit. But if they—if he dies, as he does, she reclaims her principle.
CUNO: How common was such an arrangement? In other words, what could—was it only available to her because of the conditions of her childhood and the family into which she was born, or could anyone get such a dowry?
MCPHEE: Well, the point was to dower as many young girls who were in danger of a life of sin as they could. And—but there were outlines, there were statutes. And you dowered first, young girls who were born of two parents in born in Rome. So the Romans came first, and then, of course, one parent, and then of foreign parents, but who had lived in Rome for ten years, and so forth. She was— Names were collected and put forward, and then the members of the confraternity visited the families and investigated the reputations of these young women, in order to establish whether they were worth of the dowry.
CUNO: Was Matteo, her eventual husband, was he also investigated? Was he worthy of marrying her? Did it work both ways?
MCPHEE: It did, in the sense that he had to guarantee the dowry by—and if he couldn’t, out of his own wealth, and he was not a wealthy man when he married her, he had to be guaranteed by a patron. So he finds a Portuguese patron who backs the dowry, speaks for him. But I do not believe that he is investigated in anywhere near the same way she was.
CUNO: Okay. Matteo, her husband, was a bachelor, age thirty-eight, when he married her, age 18. How common was it to have an eighteen-year-old marry a bachelor of thirty-eight? And do we assume, in any respect, that it was a romantic marriage or a marriage of convenience? What’s the nature of the marriage and the life of the marriage even after the slashing?
MCPHEE: Well, we don’t know exactly the nature of the marriage before the slashing. It’s not at all uncommon for a man of thirty-eight to marry—or thirty-four—to marry a much younger woman. It happened constantly. We know quite a lot about the relationship as it progressed over the course of their lives, in the sense that after the slashing, after the affair, Costanza is placed in a house for badly-married women, a casa di mal marritate. And she’s placed there in—for four months. And we know that after she writes, in her own hand, a letter petitioning the governor of Rome to release her into her husband’s care, she is released and he takes her back. It is entirely his choice whether to take her back, and he does right away. And then they continue to work in harmony until his death in 1654. And she inherits absolutely everything from him. There is no other heir. So all of that suggests that they patched it up.
CUNO: Yeah. So he was an assistant to—we call him an assistant to Bernini—but he had an independent sculptural career, as well. Tell us about his career.
MCPHEE: Okay. This is really interesting. Matteo today is hardly known for his work. But in his own day, he had a really active, thriving studio in their house on Vicolo Scanderbeg, at the foot of the Quirinal Hill. He had a foundry in the courtyard, where he cast, among other things, twelve bronze lions for Philip IV. And Velázquez visited his house to commission those lions, as did André Félibien, to see his gallery of paintings. Matteo was an incredibly successful sculptor in seventeenth century Rome. He worked extensively for the Panfili papal family, repairing sculptures and making new sculptures. And he’s—his reputation has simply been eclipsed by time. But it’s quite interesting.
CUNO: We know that he was friendly with Poussin, acquired paintings by Poussin; we know that he was friendly with Velázquez; and of course, he worked for Bernini, so that’s not—that’s not nothing.
CUNO: Tell us about his collection that he builds over the course of his life.
MCPHEE: When Costanza dies—we don’t know exactly what they had when Matteo dies, because he—no will is—no inventory is made. Because she’s the universal heir, everything simply passes to her. But we do know what they had when she dies, eight years later. And they had a collection of 111 paintings and seventy predominantly ancient sculptures. And this collection, because of a series of really terrible events, passes into the hands of the reigning papal family at Costanza’s death, and forms the nucleus of one of the most celebrated Baroque collections of the seventeenth century. But it had paintings by Poussin, really large canvases that Mazarin had tried to buy at one point, The Plague of Ashdod, which is in the Louvre. It had Poussin’s Parnassus, it had a whole range of Bamboccianti and other lesser Italian works, and then some works by Sweerts and Schönfeld and so forth. It was a celebrated collection and it was on the map for visitors to Rome.
CUNO: So the attack on Costanza, which would make her—would identify her as a fallen woman of some kind, within the context even of prostitution, you would’ve thought that would’ve set a course of some trouble for her in her life. Her husband takes her back, she lives her life—they live their life out together, within stone’s throw of Bernini, for example. Tell us about the context in which they lived and work and the relations they had with Bernini and others.
MCPHEE: Sure. It seems odd that Costanza should have her face slashed and go on to wealth and prominence. When she dies and is buried in Santa Maria Maggiore, the same church where Bernini is buried, by the way, she’s buried just inside the Porta Santa. So she’s just inside the holy door, over which the pope would tread over her remains every twenty-five years, during Jubilee. So how is this? Why is this that she’s able? In long conversations with historians and thinking through how someone survives a slashing, it’s probably largely her name, Piccolomini, which exonerates her and allows her more flexibility than a woman from the streets would have had. She’s able to rise through it. And in fact, when she dies, she’s very close to Alexander VII, whose family tree is filled with Piccolomini.
CUNO: And when she dies, she’s got an eight-year-old child, I believe. A child by whom?
MCPHEE: Right. We just don’t know. But I believe— The child is born a full year after Matteo’s death, and Matteo spends the last year of his life largely in bed. He dies, the parish priest says, of a long and really terrifically horrible illness. I believe that the father of Costanza’s child is one of the two executors that she leaves the daughter—in whose care she leaves the daughter, on her own death. And that would be the abbot Domenico Salvetti, who was the papal writer of encrypted letters for the pope, and a very close man in Alexander VII’s papacy. He also happened to be a good friend of Bernini’s, and he owned some of the most famous Bernini drawings that we all look at today in collections.
CUNO: So the relationship between Bernini and Costanza continues after her death, in the life of her child.
MCPHEE: We have to infer that from the web of ties that they have. And you asked about where they live with respect to one another. Rome’s a city of 100,000 souls, at this point, and the foot distance between Costanza’s house and Bernini’s palace is about three minutes today. So you can—
CUNO: Couldn’t escape each other.
MCPHEE: No, they would’ve criss-crossed paths constantly.
CUNO: Now, that’s the life of the sitter of the sculpture. The sculpture’s life itself is interesting. It is, as you described it, a very intimate portrait of this woman, a woman whose affair with Bernini was well known in the circle in which they moved. The sculpture then passes on to a ducal collection, and then to another ducal collection. It seem impossible that one would have that sculpture in one’s house and not know that it represents a level of an intimacy between the maker of the sculpture and the sitter of the sculpture. How well known was it—was that relationship known? And when, therefore, this duke in Modena, I believe it was—?
MCPHEE: Yes, it first went to Modena, and then it travels to Florence, where it currently is, in the grand duke’s collection there.
CUNO: And then it sits in the collection of these two dukes, amidst all these other paintings that might be allegorical paintings and these other sculptures that might be allegorical sculptures or distinguished portraits of a duke or a pope or something. But there is this intimate thing, this kind of register of affection of sexual engagement. Do we have any recorded remarks about the sculpture on those terms then?
MCPHEE: Well, the thing that’s interesting is that in the letters, in the correspondence of Francesco Mantovani back to the d’Este, and—this is an agent in Rome reporting—he reports that Bernini has produced his best portrait bust. And he names her, he says, “Of Costanza.” So clearly, she was known. It isn’t Costanza Bonarelli, it isn’t Costanza Piccolomini, it’s Costanza. She was so well known that the portrait bust, as it traveled, was known. And then Nicodemus Tessin, the student whose diary I was reading when I found out she had died incredibly rich and this sent me off on the trail, Nicodemus knows the whole story too, when he sees her portrait in Florence in the 1670s. So this was very much alive in the minds of his contemporaries, the relationship and so on.
CUNO: This was a book that was eight years in the making, the result of an extraordinary amount of archival work. It’s clearly a book of importance for our knowledge of the career and life of Bernini, and now of his sitter, Costanza. Did you always from the—or did you from the very beginning think that it would be an important book for the social history of the Baroque, for the role—the history of women in the Baroque? What was your ambition from the beginning, and how did it change over the course of the writing of the book?
MCPHEE: Such a great question. When I started, I had found a few shards that suggested I could give something—I could make the speaking likeness speak a bit, make her come back to life. And it was an astonishing project to work on, because nobody had bothered to ask who she was. So—
CUNO: Even though she’d been the—as a sculpture, had been written about for such a long time.
MCPHEE: Exactly. And so we have this speaking likeness which defines the sculptor’s career, and then we have a mute subject, who has nothing to say about whether she has dirty hair or not. So finding—beginning to ask who she was and finding out that she had died rich—if you died rich and you had a name like Piccolomini, you’re bound to leave a trail in the Roman archives. And they’re incredibly redundant and very full, so as you follow those trails, you keep discovering things. But as you discover something, say the letter that she writes from the house for mal marritate—is it her hand? Yes. How do we know? Because it’s the same hand on the will that’s carefully crossing things out and annotating. How common was it to be literate? The questions were—came naturally. As I found the documents, I had to understand the documents. So it me into economic history, this history of collecting, the history of women in Rome, the confraternities—all aspects. I had to follow her through her life and into the institutions that formed her life. Of course, it’s just legal records, so it’s limited. But it’s remarkably rich for what you can infer from those.
CUNO: Well, it’s a fantastic book. Congratulations.
MCPHEE: Thank you so much.
CUNO: And I know you wanna get back out into the literature festival. You’ve got things to hear and people to meet.
MCPHEE: Absolutely. I recommend it to everyone. It’s a magical place.
WOMAN: [background] There will be signings after the session in the book-signing area. Please, please do not crush the authors on your way to the signing. We’re really trying to look after their wellbeing.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud or visit getty.edu/podcasts for more resources. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
SARAH MCPHEE: For about eight years, I pursued her through the Roman archives and put together a s...