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from issue no. 09 - 2004

The Savior of the poor of Rome

The most respected Bernini specialist speaks of the last masterpiece of the artist. «The Salvator mundi was the emblem of a great work of charity for the homeless of Rome». An interview with Irving Lavin

by Pina Baglioni

Relief of the Savior, Palazzo Montecitorio, Rome

Relief of the Savior, Palazzo Montecitorio, Rome

«You Italians have the most beautiful philosophy in the world. Which says: “Who does anything, gets it wrong”. I have no difficulty in admitting I was wrong in 1972 when I claimed that the bust of the Salvator mundi found in Virginia was by Bernini. That being said, what is truly important is that the original bust has been found. Even more important is the meaning which, according to me, that masterpiece had.»
Irving Lavin, teacher of Art History at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, a chair inherited from the legendary Erwin Panofsky, is among the major experts on the Italian Renaissance and Baroque. He has studied Gian Lorenzo Bernini for a lifetime: in Italy he has published Bernini e l’unità delle arti visive (Edizioni dell’Elefante, Roma 1980), Passato e presente nella storia dell’ arte (Einaudi, Torino 1994).
And in 1998 Bernini e il Salvatore. La «buona morte» nella Roma del Seicento (Donzelli, Roma), a collection of essays, including those on the discoveries in Norfolk and Sées. In that 1998 book Lavin also launched new hypotheses, supported today, according to the US academic, by new documents from the archives.
In the last period of his life, Bernini prepared himself to follow a type of ars moriendi. A short cut for gaining Paradise which, along with specific devotional and charitable practices, is reflected also in the last works, created no longer for a worldly purpose, but for a salvific-missionary one. The marble bust of the Salvator mundi represents, Lavin claims, the actual conclusive act in the artist’s spiritual journey. Not only that: the bust of the Savior, especially after the death of the great artist, became the emblem of a great work of charity built near the Lateran Palace at Saint John’s, i.e. a hospice for the homeless of Rome conceived with what were new criteria for those times.
We asked Irving Lavin how and why he had arrived at his conclusions.

Professor Lavin, some biographies claim that the bust of the Salvator mundi was sculpted by Bernini «out of his devotion». Others say that it was a gift for the Queen of Sweden. You suggest other hypotheses …
IRVING LAVIN: In the study of the Salvator mundi the history of art, ecclesiastical history and social history intertwine. This had never been grasped before. According to me, Bernini conceived the idea of a statue dedicated to the Savior at the moment in which he was involved by Innocent XI in the project for the restoration of the Lateran Palace so as to transform it into a hospice for the poor. A project which, as we will see, was finished only ten years after the death of Bernini, with Pope Innocent XII.
We have a document of 21 November 1676 which certifies the job entrusted to him by Innocent XI: «His Holiness summoned the Knight Bernini, and charged him with the task of restoring the Lateran Palace, wanting to situate the guilds there, or indeed make it a dwelling for the poor».
At this point Bernini began to plan the restoration of the Lateran Palace and at the same time to think of a statue of Christ to display there.
The person who helped him to prepare to die with dignity and no longer to conceive his works for a worldly purpose, but for personal devotion, was his nephew Francesco Marchese, a cultured and pious Oratorian, who had become apostolic preacher at the behest of Innocent XI. Marchese was involved in the Lateran project from the very beginning, so much so as to become its administrator after the death of his uncle. Strong in the particular charism of charity of the Oratorians of Saint Philip Neri, very probably he led his old uncle to sculpt a statue that would invoke mercy and salvation. Not only personal, but mundi, of the world.
The icon of the Savior, church of the <I>Sancta Sanctorum</I>, Holy Stairs, Rome

The icon of the Savior, church of the Sancta Sanctorum, Holy Stairs, Rome

You suggest that Bernini’s primary source of inspiration in creating the statue was the Lateran and its history.
LAVIN: I’m absolutely convinced of it: the ancient Lateran Basilica, built in the 4th century, was originally dedicated to the Savior. Then at the center of the apsidal dome a mosaic was set representing the Savior, to celebrate the consecration of the Basilica as a Cathedral of Rome, which happened on 9 November 324, on the authority of Constantine the Great, during the pontificate of Sylvester I.
Another image of the Savior is the icon of the Holy Face, kept in the chapel of the Sancta Sanctorum of the Holy Stairs: on the feast of the Assumption the icon was carried through the streets of Rome as far as Santa Maria Maggiore, where it met the Salus populi romani, the miraculous image of the Madonna.
For centuries the custodians of the icon of the Holy Stairs were a confraternity who also had the responsibility of administering the large hospital for the poor and the infirm attached to the Lateran church from the late Middle Ages. The image of the Savior in the apse of the Lateran Basilica was the emblem of the confraternity and of the hospital.
All these elements convinced me of the fact that Bernini wanted to sculpt a statue in line with a very ancient tradition.
Bernini did not succeed however in building the hospice at the Lateran. And he sculpted the Salvator mundi only a year before dying.
LAVIN: That’s true. Unfortunately Innocent XI did not even make a start on the works, something that roused Bernini’s ire and, in great annoyance he drew the terrible sarcastic vignettes of him. But I repeat, the artist did not sculpt his statue for private use, as one sees from the documents that have come down to us. Consider, for example, the dimensions of the bust: including the base, which has been lost, it measured over three meters. Now, it is rather difficult to think that so majestic a bust could have been used only for private devotion. I believe that Bernini left it in his will to Cristina of Sweden so that she would see that it was removed to the Lateran, once that blessed hospice had become a reality.
The emblem of the Confraternity of the <I>SS. Salvatore ad Sancta Sanctorum</I>, Hospital of San Giovanni, Rome

The emblem of the Confraternity of the SS. Salvatore ad Sancta Sanctorum, Hospital of San Giovanni, Rome

What other elements are there in support of your thesis?
LAVIN: Bernini’s Salvator mundi became the obligatory model for a new generation of sculptors who in 1690, ten years after the death of the artist, were charged with creating a series of bas-reliefs on the same theme. The bust of the Savior was therefore selected as an emblem of a work of charity wanted at all costs by the reforming pope Innocent XII. This pope wanted to bring together in a single institution, none other than the Lateran Palace, the many charitable enterprises of the city so as to centralize them and give them over to the homeless of Rome. All to be united in the Palazzo.
The bas-reliefs representing the Savior – at least seven of them have been found in Rome just in recent years – were placed on the facades of different buildings in the city where alms, afterwards sent to the Lateran, were collected.
Why do you judge this work revolutionary? The Church has always carried out works of charity for the poor.
LAVIN: Certainly, but entirely entrusted to individuals or confraternities. In the intentions of Innocent III, however, the project was in time to become self-sufficient. It’s the first experiment which sees charity as a duty of the state authority. In this case, of the administration of the Papal States. With another novelty: the Church had always set up hospitals. Places where the crazy, criminals and the poor were brought together. Only the homeless, the needy, go to Saint John’s. For the first time in fact the term “homeless” is used. By this action Innocent XII also aimed to inflict a death blow on the phenomenon of nepotism. He loved to repeat that his only nephews were the poor.
To conclude, the idea of a welfare state, according to me, is born in the Church with this pope.
Despite the enormous efforts of the pontiff, who almost emptied the coffers of the Church for the Lateran Palace, the experiment failed. And it failed not least because the beggars of Rome did not want to hear of being enclosed even in that splendid residence. Once “free” of the Palazzo they said that living «now here, now there, scrounging without effort, is just too pleasant for us lot and … those who’ve once tasted roguery, can’t easily get out of it».
In conclusion, it’s worth remembering that, apart from the failure of Innocent XII’s experiment, for many years the people of Rome associated Bernini’s Salvator mundi with charity.

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