This page deals with the representation of Death in sculptures in Rome during the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries. The request for sculptures was mainly linked to funerary monuments. A visit to Galleria Doria Pamphilj or Galleria Colonna in Rome which are still set up as a private property shows the lack of balance between the number of paintings and the number of sculptures in the decoration of a rich palace: while the paintings covered the walls up to the ceiling, the sculptures were limited to a few busts and antique statues, so sculptors had to rely on funerary monuments for their living. Because the rich were buried in the churches, they wanted a monument inside the church to mark their graves: the optimum was to have a family chapel, but this was reserved to a limited number of very rich families, so very often the monuments were just put along the walls or on the pillars of the churches.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed many funerary monuments of very different size and cost to cater for all the needs of his customers. Two minor monuments he designed (not executed) in the 1640's ended by influencing many other artists (or maybe their customers) especially in the last part of the XVIIth century and during the XVIIIth century. Both tombs show a representation of Death in the form of a winged skeleton holding a portrait of the dead or a celebratory inscription. Both monuments are not in chapels, but on the wall of the inner fašade.
The 1644 monument to Pope Urban VIII was located by Bernini in the northern side of the apse of S. Pietro. It follows to some extent the pattern of some of Michelangelo's funerary monuments in the design of the sarcophagus (e.g. that to Cecchino Bracci), but the choice of different materials (bronze and various kinds of marbles) shows the interest of Bernini for the pictorial effect of the monument (see a page on the use of coloured marbles and materials). Bernini was always very strict in ensuring his works were located in the exact position he had assumed for them and certainly the fact that in the morning the sun hits the lower part of this monument was carefully planned by him. For a few minutes the Angel of Death, shown in the act of tearing the name of the Pope, gets direct light from a very distant window in the dome. The effect is dramatic as the rest of the monument is in the dark. Once the direct light moves away from the monument the bronze statue almost retreats into the shadow (read more on this topic).
Monument to Pope Alexander VII (1678) in S. Pietro
This monument introduces several changes to the traditional papal monument: the Pope is portrayed while he is praying on his knees and bare-headed. Different materials are used to get a colorful effect: but the most striking thing is the arm of a skeleton holding a clepsydra (or hour-glass, a wasp-waisted reversible glass with two bulbs containing enough sand to take a definite time in passing from upper to lower bulb; it is shown also in the image used as background for this page). Initially the viewer does not notice the skeleton which is covered by a sort of drape. The papal monuments which followed however were more similar to the Monument to Pope Urban VIII than to this one. Only Antonio Canova more than a century later portrayed Pope Clement XIII in a similar position, but his representation of Death was a very different one.
Monument to Cardinal
Giuseppe Renato Imperiali in S. Agostino by Paolo Posi and Pietro Bracci (see the whole monument); (inset) detail of the Monument to Pope Clement X in S. Pietro by
In some monuments the depiction of small skulls reminded the viewer of the vanity of life. In some instances the skulls wore wigs and laurel wreaths to emphasize this concept.
Details of the decoration of the fašade of S. Maria dell'Orazione e Morte
The representation of Death reaches its peak in the church dell'Orazione e Morte. It belonged to a confraternity having the objective to provide proper burials to the poor, especially
in the countryside. The church was rebuilt in 1737 by Ferdinando Fuga and it is full of references to Death: skulls,
clepsydrae, bones, inscriptions were all aimed at reminding the passer-by of what was awaiting him.
The chapels built with bones and skulls next to Chiesa dei Cappuccini constitute another example of this "frank" relationship with death.
Marble inlay in the floor of Cappella Chigi in S. Maria del Popolo
The use of skeletons was in some way counterbalancing the possible criticism towards very sumptuous and expensive monuments. Bernini put some references to Death in two very rich chapels: Cappella Cornaro in Santa Maria della Vittoria and Cappella Chigi in S. Maria del Popolo. The skeleton in Cappella Chigi is holding the family coat of arms and the inscription includes a reference to the Holy Year 1650 (MDCL).
Many people defined very clearly their funerary monument during their lifetime: an example is the very complex monument designed for himself by Giovanni Battista Gisleni in S. Maria del Popolo. He was an architect, stage designer, theatre director, singer, and musician at the Polish-Lithuanian royal court. He dramatized to the extreme the representation of Death.
Monument to Camillo del Corno by Domenico Guidi (left) and monument to
Giulio del Corno by Ercole Ferrata (right) in Ges¨ e Maria
Domenico Guidi, a sculptor who did not belong to Bernini's inner circle, shows a skeleton which looks at the clepsydra as if it had an alarm bell and nearly overturns the portrait of the dead. Ercole Ferrata, in the same church, explores a different path: he shows Time in the act of ripping the name of the dead, similar to what Bernini had done in the Monument to Pope Urban VIII.
Representations of Death in funerary monuments continued to be very common until the second half of the XVIIIth century: sometimes they were a sort of light reminder in an otherwise sophisticated and elegant design, in other cases they were more pervasive as shown in the examples below.
Monuments in S. Francesco a Ripa (Pallavicini-Rospigliosi Chapel), designed by Nicola Michetti with sculptures by Giuseppe Mazzuoli
(left) S. Pietro in Vincoli: Monument to Mariano Pietro Vecchiarelli; (right-above) S. Maria del Popolo: Monument to Maria Eleonora Boncompagni Ludovisi (detail);
(right-below) S. Maria sopra Minerva: Monument to Giovanni Vigevano (detail)
(lreft/right) Angels from the Monument to the last Stuarts by Antonio Canova in S. Pietro; (centre) memorial to Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi by Pierre le Gros in a larger monument in S. Ignazio (see a page on the monuments where the dead is portrayed in a medallion)
Not everybody liked a gruesome representation of Death. The small memorial to Cardinal Ludovisi shows a putto with a torch upside-down in a much more symbolic representation of Death.
Antonio Canova in his Monument to Pope Clement XIII represented Death as a young man with a long torch upside-down. In his later Monument to the last Stuarts he sculpted two angels in a similar position and this approach to the representation of Death prevailed among neoclassicist artists who were also influenced by similar representations in ancient works of art (e.g. in sarcophagi at Arles and Burdur or in a floor mosaic at Low Ham).
Palazzo di Montecitorio: weathervane
The baroque passion for death symbols shows up also in the weathervane of Palazzo di Montecitorio, which today is the seat of the Italian Chamber of Deputies. I wish the Onorevoli (most honourable) Deputati who gather there, were aware of the meaning of this weathervane.
Other pages dealing with Baroque sculpture:
Statues in the act of praying
Monuments showing the dead in a medallion
Three chapels by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Bernini's Exiled Statue
Three busts by Alessandro Algardi
Baroque Monuments to the Popes
Baroque High Reliefs
Statues Close to Heaven
Embittered Andrew (the statues in the Octagon of S. Pietro)
The Last Baroque Tomb
Playing with Colours
A Directory of Baroque Sculpture