Bernardino Mei was from the city of Siena in Tuscany, Italy. He was born there sometime between 1612 and 1615, and he grew up to learn draughtsmanship and engraving, as well as the type of painting skills that eventually earned him a Pope’s patronage. Mei’s artistic style was Baroque, and the themes which he painted came from both religious narratives and mythological stories.
He was much influenced by several artists whom he learned from or studied during his early years, starting with his first teacher, Giuliano Periccoli, who briefly schooled him. Periccoli was a cartographer and a skilled draughtsman; he introduced Mei to the art of engraving. Mei went on to train in the studio of Rutilio di Lorenzo Manetti, a painter in the late-Mannerism style and the earliest form of Baroque. From Manetti he learned the importance of naturalism and how to create such an effect on his figures. Some of Mei’s work shows influences which he may have picked up from Francesco Rustici (1600-1625), also called Il Rustichino. Francesco Rustici was a Baroque painter with a workshop in Siena at that time, and some of Mei’s works have a semblance with Rustici’s works.
Mei’s major surviving works in Siena, the early ones from the 1630s to before he went to Rome, are mainly frescoes that show that he was greatly influenced by the 16th century Sienese art styles. Located in the oratory of the Sanctuary of San Bernardino is his fresco called The Life of St Bernard (1639), followed by the Annunciation in the Seminario Montarioso (1630-1640s), and his two impressive works on display in the Conservatori Femminili Riuniti, one is called St Peter in Prison Awoken by the Angel and its matching companion painting is St Peter Freed by the Angel. One of his most dynamic paintings is that of Orestes Slaying Clytemnestra (1655), in which he depicts the climax of the famous Greek myth in which Orestes, a prince, avenges his father’s death by killing his mother.
Mei’s skill in artistry became known and appreciated by Cardinal Fabio Chigi, who was a member of the wealthy, powerful and prominent Chigi family in Siena. Cardinal Chigi was elected as Pope (he changed his name to Pope Alexander VII) in 1655 and within two years he had called Mei to Rome, offering him a chance to work for the papacy. Mei came under the beneficial patronage of the Pope, and also took commissions from Cardinal Flavio Chigi, the Pope’s nephew.
Numerous artists, great and small, had always flocked to Rome to make their career by meeting wealthy patrons, and Mei saw their works and met some of the greatest artists of the time. He was influenced by Pier Francesco Mola, Andrea Sacchi and Mattia Preti to a small degree. Guercino, on the other hand, whom Mei had really emulated, was credited with some of Mei’s work, particularly the Aurora fresco which is in the Palazzo Bianchi Bandinelli. Research by some 20th century art historians discerned that Mei was the author of the Aurora fresco, and that his reputation was more established and deserving of note than previously thought.
He remained in Rome for almost two decades, but meanwhile, in 1667, the Pope had died. It’s not known if Mei remained in the good graces of the next Pope, or who his new patrons had become, but he did continue to produce excellent works of art. During that time he also had a long time friendship with sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was a great inspiration to Mei’s latest paintings. Bernini had a talent for making his sculptures show a kind of theatrical action, and Mei soon used that in his paintings, especially with the figures in his allegories and mythological scenes. Bernardino Mei’s tale ends here, with no other news about his life; only that his death occurred one day in 1676, in the city Rome. The majesty of his work continues to be appreciated today, in two of his more well-known paintings, Allegory of Fortune and The Vision of St Jerome.