Bernini's d'Aste Family Tombs in S.Maria in Via Lata, Rome: A Reconstruction

By Habel, Dorothy Metzger | The Art Bulletin, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Bernini's d'Aste Family Tombs in S.Maria in Via Lata, Rome: A Reconstruction


Habel, Dorothy Metzger, The Art Bulletin


In his landmark study Bernini and the Unity of the Visual Arts, which appeared in 1980, Irving Lavin discussed the tombs of Giovanni Battista d'Aste and his wife Clarice Margana, which are installed in the apse of S. Maria in Via Lata. He identified the tombs as significant early works demonstrating Gian Lorenzo Bernini's ambition to draw the viewer into the chapel program through a comprehensive design combining the architecture of the setting, the placement of the tombs, and the creation of effigies that make direct eye contact with the viewer and the objects of devotion (Figs. 1, 2, 3).1 In her review of Lavin's study, Jennifer Montagu proposed that the d'Aste tomb monuments are "un-Berninesque," suggesting further that "the patron, having extracted the basic design of the chapel from Bernini, turned to other artists for the tombs...."2 Ironically, newly discovered documentation that serves to clarify the later history of these tombs supports the accuracy of both of these assessments of the d'Aste Tombs.

The annals of the Sacra Congregazione della Visita Apostolica preserved from the reign of Pope Alexander VII Chigi (1655-67) document that parts of the d'Aste Tombs were reorganized after August 1660.3 The portrait busts, originally placed high in the tomb compositions, were lowered to their present positions. In turn, the coat of arms of each individual, which had been at the bottom of the tomb composition where the bust now appears, was relocated to the site that Bernini originally selected for the bust effigy. In short, the newly discovered documentation lends force to Lavin's recognition that ". . . the D'Aste portraits are the first bust effigies to join altar and spectator in a concerted psychological and thematic interplay."4 The new information may also explain Montagu's misgivings about the current assemblage of these tombs as Bernini's invention.

The documentation offers rich ground for study on a number of counts, for the records reveal something of the character of the reign of Pope Alexander VII, that is, the period from which they date, while also supporting further study of Bernini's work in tomb design beginning in the late 1630s. Close examination of the activities of the Sacra Congregazione della Visita Apostolica in connection with S. Maria in Via Lata offers further insight into the operation and effect of this arm of papal administration beginning in 1656 and the extent to which the Sacra Congregazione's recommendations may have affected other, more significant building campaigns at the time.

Because Bernini's design for the apse of S. Maria in Via Lata dates from the late 1630s and the busts (whose execution has been attributed to Giuliano Finelli and Andrea Bolgi) were installed by 1643, when the completion of the redecoration was celebrated, these tombs hold a critical position in the evolution of Bernini's conception of tomb programs.5 Lavin has explored the progress of Bernini's tomb programs in detail relative to, first, the Raimondi Chapel (1640-47) at S. Pietro in Montorio and then to the mature design of the Cornaro Chapel (1647-51) in S. Maria della Vittoria. The correction to the present compositions of the d'Aste Tombs, of which earlier scholars have been unaware, serves to strengthen the role that Lavin assigns to these tombs in the development of Bernini's aesthetic. While the intention here is not to debate the nature and extent of Bernini's role in the design of the d'Aste Tombs, the reconstruction of these monuments as originally executed establishes them as more innovative and exciting than previously thought, and in this regard their design may seem more acceptable as the work of Bernini to scholars like Montagu.6

In a larger context the new documentation and consequent reclamation of Bernini's original compositions for the d'Aste Tombs in S. Maria in Via Lata together offer the opportunity to consider the complex phenomenon of the alteration of original works of art during the artist's own lifetime. …

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