Michelangelo vs. Bernini

Frank Lin asked:


Who do you think was the better sculptor, Bernini or Michelangelo? ….I’d say Bernini surpasses Michelangelo in skill, facile of skill, and dramatization. He has a larger body of work, was more prolific…

I agree. Bernini was a faster stone carver. He could run circles around Michelangelo. And Bernini had more ideas, more ease at expressing them, less hesitation.

Yet I think Michelangelo was the better artist. Why?

There is more of Michelangelo in his statues than there is of Bernini in his. Every stroke of the hammer seems to come after he has thought about it; and there is no part of his figure that he didn’t re-create. Nothing is merely copied from a real nude. He never just does “a toe” or “an arm for this gesture”. He transforms every single feature, makes it part of a very tight general design; and the design is a vision of his, not a model sitting on a stool.

There is something halting about Michelangelo’s style. Let’s say it is like Hemingway’s style versus Scott Fitzgerald’s. You see that each word of Hemingway’s is molded to fit a rhythm and a sound, and those words mean as much—or more–than the story. Fitzgerald writes well, but it is the story itself he is concerned with and there is no impression that he wouldn’t exchange any word for another, let alone a sound.

Michelangelo’s work is more abstract and so less bound to the real flesh and bone contraption.

His men are Renaissance architecture—they are governed by strict laws of symmetry and geometric design, which here and there he relaxes for surprise and grace. He turns the body into a sort of building. He sculpts broad masses and then decorates them with the accidents of flesh or cloth that serve his architecture.

Michelangelo exaggerated that (geometric) design, Bernini and the Baroque exaggerated gesture. It is typical of Michelangelo’s statues—it was even supposedly a rule of his—that they are compact, that no limbs protrude; and of Bernini’s, that arms and legs and drapery stick out everywhere.

Bernini shows them acting. Bernini entertains. His statues call. Bernini knows that no one will spend time looking at a statue unless it is spectacular, unless it comes half-way toward him.

Michelangelo makes his figure as deep and as beautiful as he can and leaves the viewer to his own resources. His figures meditate—it is as though you surprise them in thought and your look is indiscreet.

The one (Bernini) was an extrovert, the other (Michelangelo), a reclusive brooder. Michelangelo was always trying to please only himself. Bernini was like the stage director as well as the playwright, minding the show. Michelangelo sculpts a lyric poem, Bernini hammers out a catchy ballad.

Bernini’s beauty is of a fleshly kind. He never manages to get into another realm, try as he might—and he tries. His figures stay outside you. You look (since they are invariably DOING something, you watch), you admire. But the action or the detail they show anchors them forever to the material world. Their struggle doesn’t pass from them to you, the viewer.

Michelangelo’s was the stronger personality. Which of his figures could be done by another? Which parts of them?
None. Ever.

Our own time feels more affinity with Bernini’s sculpture, partly because its excellence is more easily reach-able. Michelangelo’s vast mental universe with all its Renaissance swagger and tragedy is long gone. His ideas of perfection too. No one has heard his muse in centuries.


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56 Responses to Michelangelo vs. Bernini

  1. erikatakacs – Canada – I am a figurative sculptor working in paper pulp.
    erikatakacs says:

    Swallows, this is your best, most beautifully written post yet. I truly enjoyed reading it. Two different personalities, two different approaches. It’s like asking which personality is better, the extrovert or the introvert. There’s no real answer to it, each has its own good and bad traits. So I see Michelangelo and Bernini as equals.

    • Ken Januski says:

      I have to agree with Erika, about this long ago post that I’ve never read. It is one of your best Swallows!

      Veronica, I don’t want to answer for Swallows but I would say that I love to read this sort of post. The reason is that it gives me something to think about and often clarifies my own thoughts and feelings about the artists involved. I value posts that give me something to think about more than most other types of posts. So it makes no difference to me if it’s apples and oranges. It’s still very interesting, at least to me.

      • 100swallows says:

        Thanks, Ken. I’m glad you liked the post and it gave you something to think about. And Veronica: I can only say that Michelangelo and Bernini are the best orange and the best apple: the men with the strongest artistic personality, the artists who had the greatest influence on their time. Thinking about them and what they did is good not only to understand what art is all about but how it evolved. Of course you will find other good artists that might mean more to you personally.

  2. 100swallows says:

    Hey, erika, thanks! It was a hard post to write and with a compliment like that I can feel it was worth the trouble.
    I just thought of another way to talk about the difference between the two and maybe I’ll write that up here as a comment or in another post.
    It isn’t a minor question, after all–not for me.

  3. Frank Lin
    Frank Lin says:


    Bernini, what a virtuoso indeed! The things he did with sculpture is incredible — the texture of cloth he was able imitate on sculpture for instance! It doesn’t take one with a patient intellect to appreciate his work.

    With Michelangelo I agree with what you’ve said. With him, he spent a lot of time contemplating the emotional framework, as a result his sculpture has intentional restraint; one can almost sense a presence of power lurking inside…Therefore, in order to fully appreciate Michelangelo, it takes more introspection.

    With that said, I think their powers being polar opposites, end up canceling out, meaning any superiority in regards to any of them is reliant on personal taste.

  4. kimiam says:

    Nice, Swallows! Michelangelo is my fave. Bernini is also awesome. I like the soothing, harmonious lines in Michelangelo’s work. This is what makes me content to look at his sculptures for all eternity in absolute bliss. Bernini’s work is amazing, but his lines and elements are more chaotic, disturbed and I can’t look at his sculptures nearly as long with pleasure.

  5. Brenda says:

    I’m not sure about who was the faster sculptor. Michelangelo was so often pulled off his sculpting to do “other duties as assigned” that I’m surprised that he was able to get anything done. I read once that Pope Leo X sent him to the rock quarries at Carrara for eight years to find good blocks as a sort of punishment because he was unhappy with the artist’s attitude. I’m not sure of the entire truth of that story. And there were also those two Sistine Chapel detours (first the ceiling, then the altar wall). And there was also his stint as architect of St. Peters. In the end it may come down to who had the better patron. The period when Michelangelo worked was an unsettled time fraught with political, religious, and military strife including the sack of Rome by Charles V.

    Both sculptors were virtuosos within their own stylistic periods. An interesting question is if there had never been a Michelangelo, would there have been a Bernini at all? So many artists stood on the shoulders of Michelangelo that it’s hard to say how much influence he had on others. Bernini is wonderful, though, isn’t he?


  6. 100swallows says:

    Michelangelo lived through very troubled times and was much kicked around by his patrons. But the reason he produced so little was not all their fault. Here is what Vasari says:

    “[Michelangelo’s] judgment was so severe that he was never content with anything that he did. That this was the case can be proved by the fact that there are few finished statues to be seen of all that he made in the prime of his manhood, and that those he did finish completely were executed when he was young, such as the Bacchus, the Pietà in St, Peter’s, the giant David at Florence, and the Christ in the Minerva. The others…., which altogether do not amount to eleven,…were all left unfinished. For Michelangelo used to say that if he had had to be satisfied with what he did, then he would have sent out very few statues, or rather none at all. This was because he had so developed his art and judgment that when on revealing one of his figures he saw the slightest error he would abandon it and run to start working on another block….
    He would often say that this was why he had finished so few statues or pictures.”

    Off hand you might think there is a difference between the ability to cut a figure out of marble and pleasing yourself with the figure or the result. But they are so closely tied that they might as well be the same thing.
    Bernini was famous in his life, as was his father, for whipping off a figure in no time; and he finished many works. So I think it’s safe to say he was a faster carver.

    As for your story about Pope Leo’s punishment of eight years in the quarry, the dates don’t support it. The Pope decided to build the facade for the S. Lorenzo, according to my footnotes by Hellmut Wohl for the Condivi Life, in 1515. Vasari says there was a competition and Michelangelo won and was awarded the contract in January 1518 (although, say those same notes, the commission had been his since November 1516). He spent some thirteen months of 1518 and 1519 at Pietrasanta. In March 1520 Leo inexplicably cancelled the contract.

    The Pope didn’t send him to Carrara but to Pietrasanta because those quarries belonged to Florence (and Leo was not on good terms with the Duke of Carrara). This meant much trouble and work for Michelangelo and a waste of time, as he had to even build the road through the mountains there to transport the blocks. And he seems to have resisted at first, which may have been one of the reasons for the ill will with Leo.
    There was also ill will between Leo and the relative of Pope Julius, who kept insisting that Michelangelo finish his uncle’s tomb first, according to contract; and Michelangelo seems to have really preferred to do that tomb. And maybe Leo could feel he wasn’t cooperative. In any case, Leo didn’t dismiss Michelangelo but gave him the Medici Chapel project next.

    I agree with you that Bernini owed more to Michelangelo than Michelangelo owed to any single artist. Michelangelo gave a greatness to sculpture itself—something no other sculptor had. Bernini’s very ambition had its root in Michelangelo’s legend and work. Who would ever have gotten so excited about the figures of Sansovino or Bandinelli or Cellini or even Donatello, great artists though those men were?

  7. 100swallows says:

    Kimiam:A good example of those disturbed chaotic lines and elements is the St. Teresa in the Coronaro Chapel. And if you compare her robes to the Virgin’s in Michelangelo’s Pietà, you see just how far apart those two men’s idea of art was. Of course Bernini was trying for just that dynamism and what better means!

  8. I mean no disrespect for either of these two great sculptors. They, like Beethoven and Mozart, are pillars of our western art. Nevertheless I have reservations especially about Michelangelo. Neither an academic nor even well read in Art History I am a simple sculptor with strong but malleable views.

    If you were an alien with no prejudices, no foreknowledge of these sculptors would you believe that Michelangelo’s David and Pieta were by the same artist?

    If you knew the story of David and Goliath and were asked which of the two Michelangelo was trying to depict; using reason only, who would it be?

    If you did not know what the Pieta was meant to depict, honestly would you believe it to be a Mother and Son subject?

    In the first I would argue that he is huge; facially very ugly and anatomically wrong (head and hands too big).

    In the second, even if Mary had borne Jesus at the age of 16 she would have been approaching 50. The actress Sarah Barnhart was also a sculptress and produced this extraordinary work. Surly the great pillar of Renaissance sculpture could have come somewhat closer to the emotion framework Frank Lin mentions. I do not deny, it is very beautiful and moving but for a different story.

    Now the first book of Samuel, chapter 16 vv 12 describes David ‘of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look too.’ Judging by the number of intimate relations he subsequently had with women, how could we possibly doubt that? How also could we think that Michelangelo would have missed this? He was well able to create beautiful male faces!
    Michelangelo’s attempts at sculpting women are a laugh, they are men with breasts.

    Bernini’s work, like Mozart seems to pour out of him, unlike his great predecessor he does not destroy his work (does he?), or even cross anything out! He is streets ahead of him in animated action. Who could miss St Theresa’s passionate emotions either?

    It is not so much a matter of who is best, the guy who comes after is always at an advantage, he or she knows what they have to surpass. In their own way they were both ground breakers of sorts.

    (On a more technical point, I understand that Michelangelo believed in carving from one block of marble where Bernini used multiple blocks joined together facilitating more difficult poses.)

    PS unfortunately none of my html links have worked.

    • Are you aware that Michlangelo was gay, as were alot of Renaissance artists. I do agree though with most of your comments. All of his sculptures were of males. Even the Pieta has a rather formdable body for such a lovely face.

  9. Korey says:

    I have not read all of the post, therefore I do not know if what I’m saying is simply repeating a post by another, but one thing I would say is that a great many people do not understand about Bernini is that he had quite an expansive workshop which made quite a few of his works. He often designed these works in miniature terracotta pieces, but often times one of his many talented artist would complete them. If you knew the amount of work Bernini truly produced you would see that there is no way one man could have ever produced so much, at least carving all of them individually. The several dozen larger than life people which stand on pillars near St. Peter’s Basilica alone would have taken him a lifetime to produce by himself.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Korey. I should have made more of Bernini’s armies of helpers and collaborators, you are right. And it’s true, all Rome is full of “his” statues (not just topping the Vatican but also all those angels on the the Sant Angelo Bridge, for instance, besides the big works like the Four Rivers Fountain). This David is always considered to have been carved by him, however.
      Bernini had a reputation for being irascible and tough but he must have been good at dealing with men and getting them to cooperate and do things his way.

  10. Lucian says:

    I never liked Michelangelo’s David or understood its appeal. The sculpture is flawed: the head and hands are glaringly out of proportion and I find this inexcusable. Also, the figure and stance of David is extraordinarily effeminate, more like the kind of males Michelangelo loved, which doesn’t conform at all with the biblical depiction of a strong male and thus removes the subject from the context. An “eromenos” anatomically incorrect David would actually feel straight at home in the company of worthless “artworks” produced in modern times centered upon deriding Christianity.

    Bernini’s David, on the other hand, is a very good sculpture indeed: it does depict a subject in context and the quality of craft is exemplary. However, so much is spent to show action that there is a bit too much drama to the expense of stately gravity. This is a common flaw in baroque artworks, but to Bernini’s credit, here it’s well contained.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Lucian. De gustibus non disputandum. However, your criticism of the David lets show prejudices not about art.
      What is this? “An ‘eromenos’ anatomically incorrect David would actually feel straight at home in the company of worthless ‘artworks’ produced in modern times centered upon deriding Christianity”? This goes far afield.
      And this: “The figure and stance of David is extraordinarily effeminate, more like the kind of males Michelangelo loved…”?
      What kind of young men do you think Michelangelo loved, and where have you seen examples of his “type”?

      “…the biblical depiction of a strong male”?
      The Bible doesn’t depict a “strong male”. Look what it says: “What [Goliath] saw filled him with scorn, for David was only a youth, a boy of fresh complexion and pleasant bearing.”
      I Samuel 17, 42

      The fact is, neither Michelangelo’s nor Bernini’s David is very convincing as a shepherd kid.
      However, Michelangelo would himself give the palm to Bernini’s figure as illustration. He, Michelangelo, was trying for what he considered a beautiful figure—David or Everyman.
      Have you seen it? Most photos don’t do it justice. Remember: it is colossal and Bernini’s is about life-size. Even Gianlorenzo wouldn’t have made such an action figure so large.

      His loses some “stately gravity”? That is of course Michelangelo’s forte and hardly a minor flaw in the depiction of an Old Testament king.

    • Rafaela says:

      Michelangelo’s David is about 14ft tall, and specially standing on a tall base, his head would appear very small seen from underneath if it was not of a bigger proportion. Optical illusion as been used since the Greek made their temples 2500 years ago.

    • Shilo says:

      The statue of David by Michelangelo is anatomically out of proportion because it was meant to stand on the roofline of the Florence Cathedral. Michelangelo used foreshortening to correct for the perspective when viewed from ground level.

  11. thetruth says:

    ok guys….

    here is the jigg, BERNINI WAS BETTER, he thought the same as Michelangelo, and was much better technically as well.

    But the thing is, BERNINI LEARNED FROM MICHELANGELOS SCULPTURES, without his guiedence bernini would have become nothing, everyone after the renaissance learned from michelangelo even painters

    also berninis fatehr was a sculptor so he began sculpting much earlyer than michelangelo,

    it is true bernini surpassed michelangelo, but it is not true bernini is greater than him. fools.

    • Johan says:

      Apollo and Daphe made by Bernini, think Michelangelo clouldn’t do that, Bernini is the best marmer carver ever.
      But I admite the Pieta of Michelanggelo made me also speechless.
      I love both
      Bernini the good and fast marmer carver.
      Michelangelo, the allrounder
      Who is better, hmm that depends on what you like

      An Art lover

  12. Rafaela says:

    About the two Davids.
    I am surprised no one has considered the ideals of the periods the two artists lived in. In the renaissance the classical ideals were strong, tightly connected to the new Platonism. Michelangelo’s David is pictured before the battle with Goliath. He is standing in a classical contra post pose expressing an amazing balance in his body and mind, but he is all tense and prepared to act. He’s head is turned to the left, he is obviously looking at his enemy and his face is also tense and deeply concentrated. He stays calm and his power is in his head, not in his muscles. Calmness, balance and beauty are elements that provides inner strength, and this is deeply connected to the classical ideals. No one had ever shown David before the battle, as Michelangelo does here, yet the sculpture expresses a confidence that does not leave us any doubt about whether he will win over Goliath or not.
    Michelangelo’s David is a public commission to be placed outside Palazzo Vecchio, the cityhall of Florence. Bernini’s David is a private commission for Cardinal Borghese in Rome.
    Bernini takes sculpture to another level with his Borghese statues, and also those to come. His David is depicted also before the battle, but Bernini has frozen the moment in which David has twisted back and is about to throw the sling at Goliath. The sculpture is almost breaking out of its own pose and this provides a lot of energy to the space around it. It is a dramatic pose and David face expression is dramatic and very realistic as well. In one of the post here it was said that this David does not involve the public as much because we get tired of looking at him, but actually he involves us very much. When we stand there looking at him, he is aiming over our shoulder and is about to throw the sling. He is somehow including us in his act and there is his space, our space and that of the Goliath we cant see. The spirit of the sculpture in communicated through three dimensions of reality.

    Please add to my post if you wish, I think this is a very interesting topic.

    • 100swallows says:

      Rafaela: Thank you for this interesting comment. It has made me think about the Davids again. Two years ago I published a post here called He tried to Beat Michelangelo.My purpose was to make students look at the differences between the two Davids—Bernini’s and Michelangelo’s. Now I want to add here and to that post that Bernini was no American frontier sculptor who sat alone and figured things out himself, as one might gather from my staging of his thoughts: he is challenged by Michelangelo’s David alone, as though there were nothing else in the world to beat.

      But as you say, he was surrounded by older artists and intellectuals who gave him a different direction already from the time he was a child.
      He almost certainly did NOT have Michelangelo’s David in mind when he designed his own. Rather, he was much more impressed by the Hellenistic statue of the Gladiator, which had been recently unearthed and stood in his patron’s private collection, where it was much praised;

      and by figures like this one by Annibal Carracci, who at the time was also working for Cardinal Borghese

      And as you also say, a new David wasn’t even Bernini’s idea but was a commission. And this was not the first figure where he experimented with a new dynamism. It was preceded by at least three real masterpieces: the Neptune and Triton, the Pluto and Proserpine, and the Daphne and Chloe—all astonishing works, not only because of their originality but because Bernini was yet in his mid-twenties when he sculpted them.

      Serenity and balance were classical features that were also fundamental to Michelangelo’s work. Bernini’s generation seemed more captivated by Hellenistic figures, with their greater realism and action. You might say he began where they left off. But I wouldn’t call his a “new level”, only a new direction—or theater, call it, in his case.
      Bernini’s innovation was to involve the viewer, to reach out. And what you say about his David’s including us in his act is a catchy way to explain the attraction, though I don’t know about the “three dimensions of reality”.

      As for our getting tired looking at him, that was said to explain precisely his departure from the classical ideal of serenity in general. Maybe in fact the figure does keep fascinating us, contrary to the old academic rule.

  13. Max Hartzenberg – Cape Town based street photographer.
    Max says:

    Was Michaelangelo not also interrupted to go and build and inspect walls in Bologna and in Rome?

  14. veronica says:

    This is all good and fine, but comparing these two artists artworks are like comparing apples and oranges. Must we always have imperatives? Can they not merit our attention in any other way? Michelangelo was great with the male form, classical ideals and carving. Bernini was more dramatic: sculpting movement, and action, capturing a moment, not a profound pose. With Michelangelo we are left with a body of work that is meant to be profound. I think that Bernini was having more fun. I have a preference but I think it is irrelevant, for the sake of argument or not. I am more concerned with those artists that were overlooked and deserve ou attention…such as the female Renaissance sculptors. Can anyone suggest someone?

  15. veronica says:

    I didn’t expect such a response. I guess that means no one knows of any female sculptors.

  16. Pingback: Mperience!

  17. glennterryart
    Glenn Terry says:

    An enjoyable discussion. I would have to disagree with Frank’s original premise that Bernini does not take one into another realm or is as deep as Michelangelo. The Esctasy of St. Teresa, for example, is such a tour de force that one may lose sight of the fact that it is an incredibly moving interpretation of her divine vision and experience. If it appears as theater, that is owing more to the what viewer brings to the table rather than a lack in what Bernini has created.

    Not mentioned here are Benini’s portraits, which are incredibly full with depth of character. Nor are discussed his clay or wax bozzettos, full of vibrant energy and a freshness that is much more descriptive than mere fleshiness.

    Bernini ‘s technical virtuosity and inventiveness was balanced by a tremendous sense of design that most of his imitators lacked. For all of their intensity of action and drama, the works become complete ideas in a harmonious wholeness, not a discordant jangle of overly wrought expressions without rhyme or reason. His Apollo and Daphne is a great example. Bernini broke new ground by depicting a phyical transformation in mid-action, with jaw-dropping technical virtousity. Yet it all flows together gracefully from nunmerous viewing angles as a solid, unified composition.

    I also disagree that Michelangelo’s was the stronger personality. But this is perhaps because of a different way of measuring. Michelangelo’s seems to be a lot more self-absorbed with a ponderous heaviness, always playing the heroic victim of some affliction or burden. Bernini also had some challenges and bore the brunt of some intense hatred, professional jealousies, and intriques against him. But he in the main kept his positive outlook and sense of humor intact, rather than retreating into a “woe is me” attitude. To me, that shows a greater strength of character. But art history books look to the rebels and the oppressed and the obsessive personalities as being more entertaining and dramatic than those who maintain a steady course.

    Still, my preference for Bernini may as well be a matter of of personal taste, if we are asked to choose between to great figures in art. They were both trememdous artists who lived in different though comparable circumstances and ages, each responding to the need of their particular hour. Both created timeless works that broke into new artistic territory, and neither were immune from incorporating into their works some of attitudes of their times, which also affects how were perceive and interpret them in our day.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Glenn. I admire Bernini’s work more and more. But I can’t help seeing it as an entertaining show of virtuosity. I watch from the audience, I applaud–I even stand up and clap. He gives his figures a role to play. But he can’t give them a soul. They represent and to a certain extent transmit the emotion of the moment but the aesthetic magic, the mystery, is missing. A statue, by its beauty and design, should invite you inside, inside yourself. With Bernini I can never find the door to go in.
      As for the strength of his personality, here’s a comment of mine I wrote to Erika on my post called Bernini’s Ingenious Stairs.

      Erika: Should I tell you the ugly things that will make you dislike Bernini or keep them quiet until you read them yourself some day?
      When he caught his brother with his girl friend, the pretty Constanza, Bernini tried to kill him. He broke his ribs with an iron bar. Then he ordered a servant to go cut up Constanza’s face with a razor, which he did. Bernini was fined 3000 scudi but his friend the Pope waived the fine and the servant took the rap.
      “Well,” maybe you think, “a crime of passion. Understandable if not forgivable, especially in those days.” But there’s more. Remember where Constanza came from too: she was the wife of one of Bernini’s assistants.

      The Berninis worked as a family, the father included, and it was best to stay away from them. While they were doing the Scala Regia Bernini’s brother Luigi grabbed a boy who was working with them and brutally sodomized him, breaking sixteen bones. A judge made the family pay 2000 scudi to the boy’s father and 24,000 scudi to the public treasury.

      Bernini kept other sculptors away from the Pope. One of his enemies wrote: “That dragon who ceaselessly guards the orchards of the Hesperides made sure that no one else should snatch the golden apples of papal favor, and spat poison everywhere…”
      These facts are not in the Hibbard book. I got them from Leonardo’s Nephew, by James Fenton, who wonders why no complete biography of Bernini has ever been written. He got them from a book called Bernini: Genius of the Baroque by Charles Avery.

      That is Bernini the man—proud, jealous, mean. But he was another uomo universale and the more you read about his work, the more amazing he seems. He wrote plays and acted in them. He was an empresario as well as a playwright. He took on every kind of problem and solved it beautifully.
      Now you know.

  18. Humphrey Bogart vs. Leonardo DiCaprio.. No contest… Don’t mistake over the top box office smash for a timeless epic.

  19. Durer and Botticelli along with Caravaggio, Bernini and Rothko are my favorite artists. I like how you contrasted Michelangelo and Bernini. Even if I like Bernini so much for his flashy sculpture, I can’t agree with your opinion of him more.

    …and I understand that depth itself is much more meaningful beauty than just an entertaining picture.


  20. André says:


    I discovered only recently your blog and this post in particular.

    First of all, I’ve been amazed to discover an opinion which matches so closely a feeling I carry in my mind (and in my heart) for a long time. If I’m not the only one, maybe I’m not totally wrong…

    So, allow me to submit some personal thoughts to your appreciation.

    Firstly, I’m not totally convinced Bernini surpasses Michelangelo in skill. For sure when you look at masterpieces like Apollo and Daphne or The rape of Proserpina, Bernini’s virtuosity seems hardly believable. But don’t forget that Michelangelo, as he stated himself, had a deep philosophy of the carving’s process. He considered the sculptor has to visualize in his mind and free with his hands the subject imprisoned within the (single) block of marble he chose to carve, what didn’t allow him to make the slightest mistake. On the contrary, Bernini’s virtuosity is reached at the expense of joining several blocks of marble, what allowed him to carve a new piece in case of a mistake. So, what technique requires the most skill ? Even more amazing, while looking at the David one must fully realize that Michelangelo carved it out of one old block of marble already roughed out in a clumsy way by two other ‘artists’ and abandoned since more than twenty years !

    Now, if I may give an advice to all those who have seen only photos or videos of it, go to Florence, go to the Galleria dell’Accademia and look at the one and only David by Michelangelo. Nothing can be compared to seeing the real one standing in front of you, almost alive, full of tension and terribilita. No picture can give you any idea of the incomparable emotion he’s going to provoke in your mind (and maybe in your heart). As for me it was so breathtaking I had to sit down for a while, looking at him, fascinated. After that (not before), go to Rome, go to the Galleria Borghese and look at the many Bernini’s masterworks exhibited there. I bet none of them will provoke such an emotion in your mind (without even mentioning your heart).

    Of course I don’t mean Bernini is only a virtuoso. He’s much more than that; undoubtedly his virtuosity is magnified by some kind of genius. Indeed when you look at many of his works, you feel a strong emotion. They are full of energy, most of the time almost vivid, frozen in the middle of a dramatic action (Apollo and Daphne, David, The rape of Proserpina). Still more, Bernini is a genuine scenographer inviting the spectator to a real ‘show’ (The ecstasy of St. Theresa and the loggia surrounding it, the church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale). You can’t watch all those masterpieces without being moved. But what you feel is somewhat superficial; it’s more admiration and astonishement than a deep emotion.

    Even more, I think that such an opposition may be found in other artistic disciplines. For me, to compare Bernini to Michelangelo is like comparing Mozart to Beethoven or Leonardo to … who ? (An impressionist perhaps ? I should confess I’m not so fond of painting, maybe because so far no painter really succeeded to generate in me such a strong emotion as Michelangelo with his sculptures. In this regard, you can guess I don’t like much either Michelangelo’s paintings. Although the decoration of the Sistine Chapel is truly a colossal, totally original and amazing masterwork, I personnally regret that the pope forced Michelangelo to spend several of his best years to paint it rather than to carve his much more amazing tomb).

    To conclude I’d say that (in my opinion) the authentic genius lies not (only) in the virtuosity of the artist, but in his ability to instill a soul (his soul ?) within his masterpiece, a soul that catches the viewer at the first glance.

    Hoping this (rather long) post might generate some interest.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks a lot for your comments. I’m like you: the David knocked me over (though not so literally as you: I was already sitting down in the Piazza Signoría, which used to have tables and drinks, when I first saw the reproduction in front of the Palazzo). Critics always quote that poem of Michelangelo’s where he speaks of the figure imprisoned in the block. But that is poetry. I can’t believe he actually sculpted looking for the figure (like the jinii in the bottle). In that same poem, after all, he says it is the artist’s idea—“the concept living in the artist’s mind”—that guides the chisel. He did seem to have some rule for himself that his figure ought to come out of a single block, which must have been unusual enough for his biographers to comment on. But that has nothing to do with his skill at carving—rather with his concept of the stone figure. It must be compact, (nothing sticking out to break off), centripetal.

      Bernini, like most sculptors and all stone-cutters, had no special (mystic or superstitious) respect for the marble. To him it was no more than a sort of hard clay. Putting pieces together was no big thing. Word carvers did it. The ancients did it (the Laocoön is six pieces). But he would have designed single piece figures if required.

      Everything ultimately depends on the soul of the artist, right? Bernini was simply not as deep. With Michelangelo, every design, every stroke of the chisel, shows respect, awe—a vast world inside. With Bernini there is largely only ambition, though as you say, he wasn’t without a genius (histrionics) of his own. As for the miracle of Michelangelo’s extracting a figure (the David) from an old, botched block, that is an additional triumph but it isn’t the reason the David is such a unique work. Bernini could surely have made a design for the botched block too.

      I agree that it was unfortunate for the world that old Pope Julius made Michelangelo turn from sculpture to painting. As you know, Michlangelo felt sad and even guilty the rest of his days because he hadn’t done in this life “what he was meant for”.

      • André says:

        Thanks for your answer Swallows.

        Of course I agree that sentence about the ‘figure imprisoned in the block’ is a metaphorical one. (There is also that somewhat ironic quote : “Can’t you see there’s an angel imprisoned in this block of stone ? I’m working as hard as I can to set him free.” (don’t know if it’s an authentic one)).
        But I think those sentences were intended to express a strong philosophical rule regarding the process of translating into the stone what is in the artist’s mind, so end up with a ‘compact, centripetal figure’ was just a consequence.
        When you look at his unfinished figures like the Saint Matthew or the four slaves, you can see that “His method of sculpture in the round was that of a carver of bas-reliefs. He gradually cut away the background more and more until the relief was actually the highest relief possible, the round.” (I’m borrowing that comment from a translation of Condivi by Charles Holroyd, 1903), what indeed gives the strange impression he made emerge the subject from the marble…

        Now, to come back to my post, I think you didn’t get my point on virtuosity (perhaps my fault because english is not my mother language, as you probably suspect). My point was the following : had Michelangelo allowed himself to carve by putting pieces together, maybe he would have been able to challenge Bernini’s virtuosity (though I doubt he would have carved so theatrical sculptures as Bernini’s). Conversely no doubt Bernini could have extracted an impressive statue out of the block of the David (though I doubt he would have carved a so powerful sculpture as Michelangelo’s David). So, in so far as virtuosity is concerned I’m not convinced it’s possible to rank one higher than the other.

        To conclude, let me dare to express this very personal feeling : “Michelangelo was all the more able to visualize in his mind a figure deeply buried into the stone as (part of) his mind was (and still is) deeply buried into that figure.”

  21. Veronica says:

    Wow, I’m glad to be a pert of this discussion – just received an email form this forum. Having returned to Europe for a couple of weeks last fall I was able to re-visit Michelangelo’s sculptures; and I must say I have changed my opinion of his Moses since my 1988 visit. All I can say is that I could not understand the sculpture at that time. I now think that it is one of his finest works. There is an understated power to this work, not evident in any of the other art I have seen from this artist. Michelangelo has achieved a powerful statement in the simple sitting pose of a single figure. The tension created is nothing short of amazing. I also visited Greece for the first time, and had the chance to visit the beautiful new museum in Athens, as well as the older antiquities museum. Of course the city itself is a living work of art, but what I was most struck by is the virtuosity of the figurative sculptures, perhaps surpassing Bernini’s. Unfortunately I was unable to see a lot of Bernini’s work this time around because of time restrictions and not being aware that one had to book ahead to get into the galleries. But from what I can recollect, I believe that the Greeks were by far the more virtuosic.

    • André says:


      I fully agree with you. Moses is one of the most impressive sculptures of Michelangelo. It’s hardly understandable that he managed to instill so much power, energy and indomitable will into this fairly static subject (even more static than the David, since Moses is sitting and dressed).

      While looking at it, could you imagine what would have been the awesome effect of the Pope’s tomb if Michelangelo had been given the opportunity (and the time) to carve the one he designed initially, including more than forty such statues (let alone bronze reliefs) ?

      To add a personal feeling, when I look today at Moses and the two insipid statues surrounding him, I definitely cannot believe Michelangelo was telling the truth when he wrote about the sculptures still needed to reach the pitiful (as Swallows stated elsewhere) final outcome of this ‘tragedy of the tomb’ : “Of these five statues my Lord the Pope (Paul III) having at my earnest prayer and for my satisfaction conceded to me a little time, I finished two of them with my own hand, that is to say, the Contemplative Life and the Active Life” !

      As for your admiration for the antique greek sculptures, I think the subject is too vast and there is too much to say and to discuss to make it here.

    • 100swallows says:

      Veronica: Thanks. I agree with you about the Moses. Vasari lists it among the unfinished works. I wonder what he thought Michelangelo would still have done to it.
      As for comparing Bernini’s work with that of the ancient Greeks, I think I’m not ready here to, as we say in Spanish, open that melon. One thing is carving skill and many of “the Greeks”, who were, after all, five hundred years of great artists, would surely have been the equals of Bernini. But it is the concept (what they carved) that matters, not how they whipped it off in marble. And Bernini ranks high in any age. Remember that to him the marble figure is often only an accessory to the theatralic plan—not the end in itself.

      Maybe you are right that Michelangelo lied a little when he said he himself had finished those two figures beside the Moses. He was so disgusted with the tomb project by then that he just gave up.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this very accessible post and the many interesting replies, it’s been very interesting. I agree with the writer of the post. It’s clear to me that Michelangelo was concerned about very deep things, whilst Bernini was more of an entertainer and an exhibitionist. I think that the two David’s represent this very clearly. Michelangelo’s is a mythical ‘Man Child’. The intense gaze and that wrist, vibrating with unusual power, are those of a man, older, wiser and more intensely committed than the real age of the boy (shown by his body), suggests is possible. A boy prophet. Bernini’s admittedly brilliantly executed offering is that of the prococious ‘Lad’ who ‘got off’ athe lucky shot that hit the big Philistine between the eyes. Michelangelo was the ‘real’ artist in my view, the realist there ever was.

  23. Having fun reading these posts. I haven’t read them all, but will finish them after piping up a bit. Just like there would be no Bernini without Michaelangelo, no Michaelangelo without Donatello, etc., etc., ad naseum etc. Rodin at his zenith I think could easily put Michaelangelo or Bernini to shame, not because he was a later sculptor with the advantage of all those that came before, but because he distilled the essence of all the greats that came before and one upped them at their own game. Bernini would have been the Bertolucci of his day, Michaelangelo the I M Pei of his, and Rodin would have been the the Artist in any of them. He made great “stand alone” art. Both Michaelangelo and Bernini were architectural and dramatists respectively. Their art was meant to be seen “attached” to something else, which is great. It hasn’t been until recently, with the advent of the camera, that their works have been ‘detached from their bases’ so to speak. Rodin prided himself on fragment work and Frankensteinien rework. The greatest thing about seeing Rodin’s work, is the copious, variations on a theme found in multiple placements found all over the world. One example, the Burghers of Calais, in light bronze, dark bronze, green bronze, plaster, golden, and two-toned bird poop. They are all amazing, don’t know if you could say the same for setting a Michaelangelo or Bernini in the same spots. Aw, such the advantage of the Industrial Age as a opposed to ‘one-off’s.
    Btw, Bernini, Michaelangelo, and Rodin, are my top three sculpting gods, in that order. Bernini by far outweighs them all in technical brilliance, Michaelangelo’s Moses is the one masterpiece that should be saved in the coming apocalypse for placement in the New Jerusalem temple sculpture garden and Rodin’s entire collection at Meudon should be on permanent traveling display as a beginners and master class for any and all artists, musicians, . . . humans.
    Of coarse I digress, this is Bernini vs Michaelangelo, and their respective David’s as ‘seconds’ in the pugilistic duel. The jury, or judges panel is still out on this one I think, because neither they nor the other mentioned contenders have certifiably thrown the right cross, haymaker, upper cut, knockout blow. They with Caravaggio and Donatello have not carried the weight of scripture as their guide when trying to present a David worthy of sacred description; young, pretty-boy, brave yet humble, confident from being backed by God, as Goliath said, “you ain’t no champion”. For sake of argument, until someone can come forward, toe the line, stay in bounds of scripture, and display a Worthy David, my vote is still looking for a ballot box.

    • Veronica says:

      I believe that Camille Claudel was a superior artist to Rodin, but unfortunately she didn’t have the resources to continue on to the ripe old age that Rodin had.

      • I agree wholeheartedly, and I apologize for forgetting about her. There is much to suggest that Rodin’s work was pilfered from the great Camille. Not unlike some artists I have worked for that when confronted, claim to have been “subconsciously” inspired by this or that artist. The fact is, in noting Rodin, I think the small head of Camille coming out of the stone he made was perhaps one of his finest works, and ironic then that the head also looks, with not a little imagination, to be a guillotined head retrieved for mounting.
        Does anyone know if she did a worthy David?, maybe Rodin got there before she was able and subsequently rendered asunder by the ‘Master’. (Reference ‘head of Goliath’)

      • Anonymous says:

        …at least as an artist.

    • 100swallows says:

      Dan: Funny about restoring the pyramids.

      Michelangelo got rich but I can’t believe he worked “for the money”. He knew he could do better than the rest and wanted to prove it and show it all the time. He might even have believed he had a divine mission. The genius does what he must.
      I too noticed the silvery tones of the Tondo Doni and concluded that he was no painter. I have a post somewhere here which says, as you do, that the Sistine ceiling is mostly painted statues with their drapery and other trappings. But later I came to admire the colors in those frescoes, which are surely as original as, say, Picasso’s (another draughtsman but also considered a painter). Recently I saw in Vasari’s life of Sebastiano del Piombo that Michelangelo even came to despise oil painting as an art inferior to fresco painting because of the difficulty of precision and alla prima application of the colors in the latter.

      I’m glad you enjoyed some of the posts. I see we like many of the same things.
      I recognize the attraction and the originality of Rodin’s style but I can’t put him on the altar with Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s style is too cold for many people and Rodin’s, to me, is too hot. When I see one of his stones with lovers loving my first reaction is to look the other way, just as I do when I come across real lovers in the park. Then maybe I peek back to see how far he’s actually gone and I do find some nice details. I always thought the Burghers was a mess in any color and the Thinker, such a hollow brute (why all the muscles? Does he need them to think? Maybe he should be taken as a representation of late nineteenth-century man, so bloated with technological progress but empty of philosophy.). I really ought to do a post on Rodin. As to Camille Claudel, I haven’t seen enough of her work to judge. I went to Wiki and read up on her sad life. Poor thing.

      I agree with you on Warhol and also that there aren’t enough good “animaliers”.
      Un saludo.

    • anagasto – madrid, spain
      gerald b santover says:

      (re: your http://100swallows.wordpress.com/2008/05/01/michelangelo-vs-bernini/#comment-13554) But after all David could be a historical figure. In that case, there would be different views as to his meaning. What if these sculptors did not have the Biblical meaning in mind? Or, more probably, did have just that in mind, but thought they knew what it was without actually looking and studying the texts.

  24. BenT says:

    Which bear is best?

  25. Anonymous says:

    These pictures are inapropriate!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

  26. I think the argument that Michelangelo was the better artist is ludicrous. If you have seen in person any of the masterworks in the Borghese museum, Daphne and Apollo, David, Rape of Proserpina, let alone the Ecstasy of St. Theresa, and compared them with the masterworks of Michelangelo in situ, you would see the difference between the two masters as “night and day”. (Pun intended) To trifle at the virtuosity of Bernini’s flesh, hair, drapery, and the sheer defiance of gravity coerced from its stony origin, and catagorize it as something less than perfection compared to the weighty ‘dignity’ of a Michelangelo, is akin to putting on the ’emperor’s new clothes’. Retarded and prejudiced comparison. I dare say the author has never picked up a chisel in his life. There is no doubt that Bernini excels in every way more than his predecessor, and Michelangelo is directly responsible for that. There would be no Bernini without Micheangelo, and I dare say the Florentine would agree and lay down his hammer and chisel, bring out votive candles, kneel at the young prodigy’s feet and worship what his progeny’s hands had wrought. Attempting to ‘pull the wool’ over the uninformed, uninitiated, and the untraveled eye does an injustice to both Greats as well as any potential patron of the sculptural arts. You gave literary comparison to your argument, and I shall supply my own virtual comparison. The birth of cinema with its trite archaic theatrical staging and monochromatic fuzzy focus is no comparison to todays 3-D, frenetic, multi-angled, CGI and hyper pixelated high-def. Of course being a cinefile helps in the appreciation of all eras of the cinematic arts, but to compare apples to elephants is naive at best and critical drivel at its worst.

    • 100swallows says:

      Dan Mortensen: Thanks for the comment, though I was a bit surprised at its harsh tone. I easily give the prize for technical skill to Bernini (and the latest movie makers). It is the conception of his figures that I find undeserving of the first place. Remember that this is no football game and I don’t root for the one and condemn the other, the enemy. I admire Bernini’s work.

  27. anagasto – madrid, spain
    geraldo b santover says:

    You simply identify with the Baroque rather than the Classic . I think this is mainstream in the US. Let’s say that Bernini is more “expressive” . Typically, this term is now often used just like that, without saying what is being “expressed”. Michelangelo avoids such expression and so doesn’t get through to you. Whose loss is that?

  28. Ken Januski says:

    I believe that Stephen Whitcomb above says it all. His comment should especially appeal to the cinephiles among us.

    But more to the point I think the first thing anyone who reads this post should do is thank Swallows for writing the original post, which has gotten so many thoughtful comments over the years, and then graciously replied to each of them, no matter how ungracious the comment it is.

    Someone way upthread calls Bernini a virtuoso. I think that’s true. But some of us think more highly of virtuosity than others. For myself I can admire it. But I also see that it often leads to limitations. Artists, like politcians who are smooth orators, sometimes get so enamored of their skill, that they don’t realize they’re not actually saying anything. Bernini obviously said a lot and I confess it’s been years since I’ve seen him but I sometimes think that he might have been deeper and more rewarding if he were a bit less facile.

  29. The Bernini-Michelangelo comparison seems to me a manifestation of a common dichotomy in the arts, universal vs individual appeal, which comes from interpretability. When we see a work of Bernini’s we all experience it in more or less the same way. He appeals to our collective experience, which is actually a shallower pool. On the other hand, Michelangelo’s best work appeals to our individual experience, which is probably infinite in variety. So we can be sure that when you and I behold the Pieta together, while our eyes are seeing the same form, I am having an entirely different experience than you are. This explains why people are passionate about Michelangelo and only friendly to the technically brilliant Bernini. I can find my own identity in Michelangelo but not in Bernini.

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    MuralForm says:

    I like bernini more.

  31. Antonio says:

    Bernini made of sculpture the supreme art, as it seems to represent souls, more real than the real, and more clearly than in music, M. Buonarroti didn’t get there yet, although he is near.

  32. Pingback: My Comments with Links, Bernini vs Michelangelo | Robert Mileham

  33. Kathy says:

    I absolutely loved this post! Thank you to all who contributed their thoughts as I enjoyed reading each and every one of them. I love both artists for all the beauty the created in for our world.

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