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Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence

Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence is an early sculpture by the Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It depicts the saint at the moment of his martyrdom, being burnt alive on a gridiron. According to Bernini's biographer, Filippo Baldinucci, the sculpture was completed when Bernini was 15 years old, implying it was finished in the year 1614.[1] Other historians have dated the sculpture between 1615 and 1618. A date of 1617 seems most likely.[2] It is less than life-size in dimensions, measuring 108 by 66 cm.

Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence
Martrydom of Saint Lawrence by Bernini.jpg
ArtistGian Lorenzo Bernini
Year1617 (1617)
Dimensions66 cm × 108 cm (26 in × 43 in)
LocationUffizi, Florence

The sculpture is now held in the Uffizi in Florence as part of the Contini Bonacossi Collection.


There is some confusion over the patronage of the sculpture. Filippo Baldinucci simply wrote it was done for Leone Strozzi, a Florentine nobleman living in Rome.[1] Bernini’s son, Domenico Bernini, who wrote a biography of his father, paints a more complex picture, suggesting that Bernini executed the sculpture out of his devotion for the saint rather than for a specific commission.[3] Michela Uliva suggests this may be true, with Bernini's supporter Cardinal Maffeo Barberni enthusing the artist with the burgeoning post-Tridentine interest in early Christian martyrs.[2]

Recent historians tend to agree with Domenico Bernini's statement that Leone Strozzi was impressed by the sculpture and acquired it for his Villa del Viminale. Irving Lavin suggests that Strozzi may have become familiar with the work as he was commissioning a chapel in the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle at the same time as Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, particularly as the Strozzi Chapel included a tomb dedicated to Cardinal Lorenzo Strozzi (who died in Avignon in 1571) and bore the same name as the saint.[4] In any case, the statue is included in Strozzi inventory in 1632, described as a "San Lorenzo above a modern gridiron".[4]


The sculpture was created from a single block of Carrara marble. Restoration in 1997 revealed that Bernini used different tools to create different surface textures on various parts of the sculpture. The reverse side of the gridiron has not been polished and finished in the same way as the front, implying that the artwork was clearly meant to be seen from the front only.[2] A highly sculpted pedestal, made of wood and gilded with golden paint, was designed as a platform for the sculpture.[2] There is a possibility this was also executed by Bernini, although its design suggests that while it was a Strozzi family commission, it was done at a later date.[5]

Description and interpretationEdit


The subject of the artwork is Lawrence of Rome, who was condemned to death by the Roman Emperor Valerian in the year 258 C.E. for defending the Christian faith. According to tradition, Lawrence was burnt to death by being placed on a gridiron.

In depicting a highly naturalistic St Lawrence, tortured and yet undergoing some kind of spiritual epiphany, the sculpture presents a taste of many of the themes that Bernini would adopt during the course of his artistic oeuvre, and that would come to represent many of the most pertinent features of the artistic traditions in Italian Baroque art—that of solitary figures undergoing intense emotional states, whilst being depicted with illusionistic verisimilitude. Unlike earlier depictions of Lawrence, there are no other figures—no sign of his judge, torturers or spectators witnessing in depth. Rather the focus is solely on the martyr and his emotional state.

Saint Lawrence's emotional stateEdit

Commentators have subtly varied in describing and interpreting the face of Lawrence. Domenico Bernini contextualised the creation with the anecdote that Bernini placed his actual hand in a flame and fashioned Lawrence’s expression from his own facial reaction seen in a mirror; thus implying that the focus of the portrait of Lawrence would be the physical pain.[3]

Yet later commentators have described Lawrence's face not as one of pain, but of being "tired" or more commonly of being spiritual rapt. To Howard Hibbard, the sculpture makes a clear religious statement of spiritual salvation—inner strength overcomes external bodily pain.[6] Certainly, observation of the sculpture seems to bear this out. The martyr almost turns away from the pain, his upper body and head reaching upwards towards the skies, with his clear, almost peaceful eyes, focussed in the direction of God.

Others take Bernini's depiction of Lawrence even further: describing the martyr as being "reclined on his left elbow languidly as any Roman banqueter", and thwarting his torturers with "a carved attitude of rapture".[7] Another art historian, Avigdor Poseq, interprets the expression a little differently: “the calm face was apparently meant to convey the intensive of the martyr’s fear of God.” He continues by suggesting that Bernini presented Lawrence with an outstretched to hand to indicate the martyr’s desire to be turned over by his torturers, thus exposing even more of his flesh to the flames below.[8]

Technical excellenceEdit

Twentieth-century commentators have largely agreed on the technical excellence of the sculpture. Rudolf Wittkower speaks of the “high degree of technical perfection [and] the anatomical precision and an infallible sense for the organic coherence and structure of the human body.”[9] Irving Lavin sees, in the flesh-like quality achieved with the marble, a criticism of Michelangelo, who mastered design and anatomy but not the appearance of flesh.[10]

The flames also receive attention. During the baroque period, the ability to represent to recreate nature, as in flames, water, flesh, in illusionistic marble would be a frequent challenge. Bernini's "attempt to represent leaping flames in sculpture is a tour de force" [9] "depicting convincingly something as evanescent as flames, or as dependent on colour as glowing coals."[11] Daniele Pinton talks of the "skilful rendition of the flames under the gridiron, where the portrayal of an immaterial element such as fire is magnificently rendered in stone." [12]

Charles Avery goes as far to see the technical innovation of the work as its raison-d’être. He cites the piece’s naturalism, its emotional intensity, his use of subject previously never previously depicted as a full three-dimensional sculpture and concludes that “the work is a manifesto of his ability on the threshold of his adult career, much like the ‘master piece’ with which a craftsman matriculates into his guild.” [11]

Recent historyEdit

At the start of the 1800s, the sculpture was moved to another Strozzi-owned palace in Rome, and then around 1830 it was moved to the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. In 1935, it then became part of the Contini-Bonacossi collection, before being acquired by the Italian state in 1969. It was shown in the Palazzo Pitti from 1974, and then in the Uffizi from December 1998.[2]


  1. ^ a b Baldinucci, Filippo (1966). Catherine Enggass (ed.). Vita Del Cavaliere Gio. Lorenzo Bernino. Nabu Press. p. 12. ISBN 978-1-148-63920-8.
  2. ^ a b c d e Coliva, Caterina (2002). Bernini scultore: La tecnica esecutiva. De Luca Editori d'Arte. ISBN 978-88-8016-506-4.
  3. ^ a b Bernini, Domenico (2011). Franco Mormando (ed.). The Life of Giano Lorenzo Bernini. University Park: Penn State University Press. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-271-03748-6.
  4. ^ a b Lavin, Irving (2007). Visible Spirit: The Art of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Volume 1. Pindar Press. p. 69. ISBN 978-1-899828-39-5.
  5. ^ Bernardini, Maria Grazia; Maurizio Fagiolo dell'Arco, eds. (1999). Gian Lorenzo Bernini: Regista del barocco. Skira. p. 186. ISBN 978-88-8118-484-2.
  6. ^ Hibbard, Howard (1991). Bernini. New York: Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-013598-5.
  7. ^ Spivey, Nigel (2001). Enduring Creation: Art, Pain, and Fortitude. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-23022-4.
  8. ^ Poseq, Avigdor (2008). Bernini Revisited: New Insights into His Work. Academon.
  9. ^ a b Wittkower, Rudolf (1955). Gian Lorenzo Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque. London: Phaidon Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-7148-3715-4.
  10. ^ Preimesberger, Rudolf (1985). Irving Lavin (ed.). Gianlorenzo Bernini: New Aspects of His Art and Thought. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 978-0-271-00387-0.
  11. ^ a b Avery, Charles (1997). Bernini: Genius of the Baroque. Bulfinch. ISBN 978-0-8212-2465-6.
  12. ^ Pinton, Daniele (2009). Bernini: I percorsi nell'arte. ATS Italia. ISBN 978-88-7571-777-3.
  • Avery, Charles (1997). Bernini: Genius of the Baroque. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 9780500286333.
  • Baldinucci, Filippo (2006) [1682]. The Life of Bernini. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 9780271730769.
  • Bernini, Domenico (2011) [1713]. The Life of Giano Lorenzo Bernini. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 9780271037486.
  • Mormando, Franco (2011). Bernini: His Life and His Rome. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226538525.
  • Wittkower, Rudolf (1955). Gian Lorenzo Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque. London: Phaidon Press. ISBN 9780714837154.

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