Gian Lorenzo Bernini was said to have been only 8 when he carved a stone head that “was the marvel of everyone” who saw it, according to a contemporary biographer. He was not much older when he dazzled Pope Paul V, who reportedly declared, “We hope that this youth will become the Michelangelo of his century.” Prophetic words: over a long lifetime, Bernini undertook commissions for eight popes, transforming the look of 17th-century Rome as Michelangelo had helped shape Florence and Rome a century before. Much of the Baroque grandeur of the Eternal City—its churches, fountains, piazzas and monuments—can be credited to Bernini and his followers.

Yet, despite his artistic stature, Bernini is only now receiving his first major American exhibition—at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (through October 26) and then at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (November 28, 2008-March 8, 2009). One explanation for the oversight is obvious, says Catherine Hess, associate curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the Getty and a co-curator of the exhibition. “How do you move Piazza San Pietro?”

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