Bernini’s Rome

In Destinations by Richard Carroll

The name Bernini in broad clear lettering stands out like a welcome beacon high atop the Bristol Bernini Hotel in the heart of Rome. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a huge celebrity, superstar, and personality in his day, 1598-1680, is credited with the birth of Baroque portrait sculpture, and during his life remained its greatest advocate. A celebrated painter, architect, and sculptor, he rewarded the city with an artistic and cultural legacy seen in Rome’s churches, cathedrals, palaces, and piazzas by world-wide visitors who, with cameras in hand, capture a small slice of the great artist.

The Bernini Hotel, originally built as a palace by Prince Barberini in 1874, overlooks Piazza Barberini and the impressive Triton Fountain designed and executed in travertine by Bernini in 1642-43. A short walk around the corner is the massive, Bernini-designed, Palazzo Barberini, one of Italy’s largest buildings, housing the National Gallery of Ancient Art, and nearby is the 1608-1620, Baroque Santa Maria della Vittoria church with Bernini’s celebrated Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Here, in the last chapel on the left the artist used extensive sculpture and optically difficult relief to transform the Cornaro Chapel into a petite opera house with Saint Teresa taking center stage.

Reflecting the neighborhood’s incredible art, history, and architecture, the 127-room Bernini is decorated with rare 18th century tapestries and period furniture. Two suites on the sixth floor, each offering a private gym, Jacuzzi, terrace, and incredible views, are a perfect fit for a wide range of guests from the Queen of England, Churchill, the Onasses, Rockefellers, Peter Ustinov, Woody Allen, and Kevin Costner, to Mussolini during the World War II years, and others who have chosen to set foot in this city of memories.

The eighth and top floor, accessible via a private elevator, is the new home of Chef Andrea Fuseo and his giuda ballerino, a lunch and dinner restaurant. Fuseo, born in Rome and honored with more gastronomic awards than he can count, was awarded a Michelin Star in 2010. His Italian, Asian, and internationally-influenced cuisine in addition to a 2,000-bottle wine cellar are a smash with the Romans making a one-week window for reservations a matter of course.

Rooftop giuda ballerino, overlooking the ageless city and Bernini’s fountain, is the essence of romance as lights slowly emerge each evening in a web of shimmering radiance, a soft breeze sweeping diners into an ageless setting of meandering streets and monuments, and immense 14th century cathedrals and churches where Romans long-forgotten knelt on the tiles with hopeful thoughts.

The enlightened Bernini concierge and door butlers guide guests in the correct direction, but also explain, “Rome at first glance can be overwhelming even for a visiting professor teaching European history, realizing that within every block there is a discovery. Also realizing the city has a strange marriage, not always loving, between traffic and pedestrians, togetherness not optional, communication questionable, touching a no no, skirmishing for space agreed by means of an agile minute-by-minute dance of chance with no rules. But somehow over the ages, along the narrow city streets and sidewalks, the marriage has survived.”

Close by is the fascinating, 1636 Capuchin Church of the Immaculate Conception, and Museum, noted as a “must see” historic attraction. The Bernini, located at the beginning of the Via Veneto, is a ten-minute walk to the crowded Spanish Steps, where people sit instead of step. The Trevi Fountain, also a short walk away, is undergoing a major facelift, but the Villa Borghese lined with elegant fashion boutiques and Rome-based designers in search of fame, is close at hand and full of visitors constantly posing for selfies.

Browsing through the city, travelers will find that Bernini pops up repeatedly, first with his design of the Piazza San Pietro in front of the Basilica, then again with his much-honored Saint Peters Square Colonado. But for all the exquisite art on public display around every corner, it is the family-owned Tritone Restaurant within sight of the hotel that dramatically places the city into perspective. Owner Antonio Camponeschi leads diners down a series of steep steps into Rome’s other world. While designing a cellar wine bar he accidentally uncovered a huge section of ancient Rome, circa 80AD with passageways, a small cell with original iron window bars and, ironically, wine bottles.

Camponeschi said, “Rome was built atop Rome. Every time we move earth we find something that could belong in a museum. I think about this constantly. Who walked along this path and who was in that tiny jail?”  Bernini, who had a wife, eleven children and a lover, came along after the ancient Romans, yet he too is unquestionably museum quality, and is still a source of mystery and unanswered questions.