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Self-portrait of a young Bernini

Self-portrait of a young Bernini

Gian Lorenzo Bernini had a raucous love life. Judging by his self-portraits in the Galleria Borghese, he was a dark eyed, intensely handsome guy, with a wide forehead and a full shock of dark hair. (And if his body is anything like his reportedly self-modeled David, then…enough said.)

As an artist he was intense, with a quick temper, and that fervor spilled over into his personal life when, in the mid-1630s, he took up with Costanza Bonarelli, the young, buxom wife of his collaborator Matteo Bonarelli. Bernini captured her earthy looks in a bust that can be seen in Florence’s Bargello Museum.

Costanza Bonarelli bust by Bernini

Costanza Bonarelli bust by Bernini

Before long, the love triangle became a square: Bernini’s younger brother Luigi started sleeping with Costanza as well. When Bernini discovered his half-dressed lover kissing his brother, “Bernini went berserk,” Franco Mormando writes in Bernini, His Life and His Rome. The artist chased his brother through Rome with his sword drawn, intent on fratricide. Even more shocking, he sent one of his servants to slash Costanza’s face with a razor. According to Mormando “in Baroque Rome it was a common, conventional public ritual of revenge…carried out by men upon their faithless lovers.”

In the end, however, Costanza’s marriage survived, Luigi fled Rome for about a year and Bernini was let off the hook by Pope Urban VIII but told in no uncertain terms to find a wife, which he did: the beautiful, respectable, 22-year-old Caterina Tezio. They were married for 34 years and had 11 children. —Lisa Chambers

(This story originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Dream of Italy.)

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