The life of Costanza Bonarelli is a remarkable story of love, desire, betrayals and violence inflicted by her lover Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Yet, she had the strength to overcome the struggles and build back her life, becoming a symbol of women's resilience to overcome abuses. This is celebrated in the exhibition named "il dolore non è un privilegio" (Pain is not a privilege) by Ilaria Sagaria at Galleria Uffizi in Florence.
Gender inequality is a socially constructed issue in human history, and it was a bleak reality in Italy during the Counter-Reformation period in the 16th and early 17th centuries. During this period of time, the Catholic Church undertook a series of internal renewals to tackle the corruption of the clergy to oppose the Protestant Reformation. Women were considered to be the symbol of Catholic morality whose identity was confined in their domestic household. In line with this, they had to follow a strict moral code ruling all aspects of their life; most importantly, they had to preserve chastity until marriage. Indeed, the only woman who was supposed to triumph from her sinful life in the Catholic paradigm was Mary Magdalene through a process of repentance, self-mortification, and self-isolation away from the public sphere. But Costanza Piccolomini Bonarelli was an exception in terms of the Catholic norms.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Re-Illustration By Joongwon Jeong
In literature, Costanza Piccolomini Bonarelli was recognized merely as Gian Lorenzo Bernini's mistress, who betrayed him for his younger brother. Still, less attention has been given to her historical figure as a successful businesswoman. In this regard, McPhee studied her noble genealogy and discovered that she belonged to the impoverished branch of Pope Pius II's family. Nonetheless, in the relationship with Bernini lies the turning point for Costanza Piccolomini Bonarelli’s life. According to the first Bernini’s modern biographer Stanislao Fraschetti:
“This woman [Costanza] gave Bernini her favors, and it was then that the lover, returning her affections, made her portrait first in painting and then in marble, to perpetuate the memory of their happy hours. Then, perhaps because the beautiful sinner sought affection and pleasure elsewhere, he decided to do her the vulgar affront”.
The important role of Costanza in Bernini’s life is noticeable when one takes a look at the bust of her made of marble to make the artwork timeless—an aspect that is relevant if we consider the fact that other portraits of his mother, sisters, and wife did not reach us. The Bust of Costanza Bonarelli, made between 1636 and 1638, presumably during their affair, is unique because it was the only sculpture made by Bernini for his personal pleasure and not for public exhibition. The intimate relationship between the artist and the model adds value to the artwork as he transferred all his personal feelings in carving his muse, revealing his passion and desire. This is visible in the bust's sensual disheveled state with her wide-opened eyes and parted lips, expressing an emission of sigh or gasp; this is considered to be the incarnation of his lust. Yet, Bernini's love turned into blind and mad jealousy when he found out Costanza's betrayal insofar that he ordered one of his servants to have her face—the symbol of her beauty—slashed.
Anton Van Den Abbeelan, Personal Photograph, 2003, Pinterest
Given the fact that Costanza was married to the art dealer and restorer Matteo Bonarelli, she committed adultery. For this reason, she was punished by serving time for wayward women in Santa Chiara in Rome. At the same time, Gian Lorenzo Bernini was condemned to pay a penalty of three thousand scudi, but pardoned by the Pope later. Although Costanza Piccolomini Bonarelli endured her penitence, she went back to work showing her resilience to overcome a hard time by becoming a successful well-connected art dealer who had a child named Olimpia after the death of her husband.
Until her passing, she had lived in a large house downhill close to the Quirinal, exquisitely decorated with many statues and paintings, revealing Costanza’s taste and wealth. The most interesting part is the connection she felt with Mary Magdalene. As indicated in her will, she asked to be forgiven for the grave sins she had committed in her life and “she left a third of her worldly possessions to the church and convent of Santa Maria Maddalena delle Convertite” to be absolved. Nonetheless, her life was an exception because even though she breached the Catholic moral code, she became a successful businesswoman as well as a mother.
Costanza’s story is symbolic of the unfair treatment women have been enduring over time, as well as the double standard used to judge them in contraposition to men. But also, it reveals women's strength to overcome the abuses that they suffer to put their lives back together. For this reason, the photographer Ilaria Sagaria has brilliantly created the exhibition “il dolore non è un privilegio” in the month of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, where the fil rouge connecting the Bust of Costanza Bonarelli to all the pictures of the women displayed with traces of violence on their faces caused by the men who were supposed to love them.
In conclusion, the Bust of Costanza Bonarelli is not only a marvelous piece of artwork but also a testimony of how passion and desire can turn into physical violence. But beyond the single tragic event, it is possible to realize how strong women are to build back their lives as Costanza Bonarelli did. Unfortunately, there is still a long way to root out gender inequalities and abuses from society for good. But art can be a key driver to represent social injustices and raise awareness about them.
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2021, July 22). Counter-Reformation. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Counter-Reformation
Delbeke, M., Levy, E., & Ostrow, S. F. (2006). Bernini’s Biographies: Critical Essays (1st ed.). Penn State University Press.
La mostra “lo sfregio” dice ‘no alla violenza contro le donne’. | Le Gallerie degli Uffizi. (n.d.). Le Gallerie degli Uffizi. Retrieved November 15, 2021, from https://www.uffizi.it/eventi/mostra-lo%20sfregio
Mormando, F. (2012). Sarah McPhee. Bernini’s Beloved: A Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini. Chicago Journals, 65(3), 888-889. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/668318
Women of 16th Century Venice > Veronica Franco > USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. (n.d.). USC University of Southern California. Retrieved November 17, 2029, from https://dornsife.usc.edu/veronica-franco/women-of-16th-century-venice/
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. (n.d.). Bust of Costanza Bonarelli [Illustration]. Web Gallery of Art. https://www.wga.hu/index1.html
Museo Nazionale Rai Radio 3. (n.d.). Busto di Costanza Bonarelli [Photograph]. http://www.museoradio3.rai.it/dl/portali/site/articolo/ContentItem-95fd7d7b-0021-4b37-9ac9-14df245e09ad.html?refresh_ce
Van den Abbeelen, A. (2003). Scultura Del Bernini [Personal photograph]. https://pin.it/6Hb5S40