The ground floor houses three famous sculptures that Gian Lorenzo Bernini carved at the behest of Scipione Borghese. The first two statues are based on the mythological stories by Ovid: Pluto abducting Proserpine (1621- 1622) and Apollo and Daphne (1623-1624). Bernini started working on his third statue, the David, even before he had completed Apollo and Daphne. Bernini didn’t complete his Apollo and Daphne until after his David was finished in 1624. Cardinal Scipione had donated his Apollo and Daphne, which had been sitting unfinished in Bernini’s workshop for a year, to his cousin Pope Paul V (Camillo Borghese). The cardinal probably wanted to curry favour with his cousin and had by then already seen the David. Bernini’s biographer Baldinucci claims the sculptor carved the David in eight months; it was immediately recognised as a masterpiece.
The sculpture Pluto abducting Proserpina had great impact because Bernini achieved an effect that was considered impossible. Proserpina’s tears and Pluto’s hand that dents the skin of the upper leg of his ‘beloved catch’ were technical feats that were unheard of at the time (Wikipedia).
Fortunately, this museum still allows visitors to come close to this statue so you can take a close look at its refined details. This is no longer the case with Michelangelo’s Pietá at St Peter’s, where this statue is protected by a thick glass plate. Gian Lorenzo chose the most exciting moment of the story. Pluto has just grabbed hold of her, and she is struggling to get out of his grasp. If you compare the facial expressions of the two figures, you will see an enormous contrast. Her face is contorted in fear, while his expression is triumphant. The three-headed hellhound Cerberus marks the exact spot where the god of the underworld will take her. This does not just fit in nicely with the story, but is also essential to this sculpture, but more about this when we are there.
The contradiction so clearly seen in Pluto abducting Proserpina and its technical tours de force are surpassed in Gian Lorenzo’s next sculpture for the cardinal: Apollo and Daphne.
This sculpture was also based on Ovid. Cupid, the cute little angel with his arrows, takes revenge on Apollo and hits him with his golden arrow, causing the god to fall in love with Daphne. At the same time, another of Cupid’s arrows strikes Daphne, extinguishing her love. When Apollo sees the object of his great love, he immediately follows her and …
“thus god and maiden; he is swift with hope, she [is swift] with fear.
Yet helped by the wings of Love, he who pursues
is the swifter and denies her respite and overhangs the back
of the fleeing one and blows on her hair spread on her neck(s).
With her strengths spent she paled and having been conquered
by the effort of swift flight, watching the waves of Peneus,
she said, “Father bring help! O Rivers, if you have divinity,
destroy my shape by which I’ve pleased too much, by changing [it]!”
Having barely finished the prayer, a heavy numbness seizes her limbs,
her soft breasts are girded by thin bark,
her hair grows into foliage, her arms into branches,
her foot, just now so swift, clings by sluggish roots,
her face has the top of a tree: a single splendour remains in her.
Apollo loves this one too and with a right hand placed on the
trunk feels that her heart still trembles under the new bark,
and having embraced the branches as limbs with his own arms
he gives the wood kisses, and the wood shrinks from the kisses.”
From: Ovid ‘Daphne and Apollo, translated by Wikisource
If you look closely at the statue, you will see that Bernini stuck to Ovid’s text as much he could. He depicted the exact moment at which Daphne’s supplication to the river god is being answered. If you look at Apollo’s face, you can see that he is not yet aware that his beloved is changing into a tree, what is more, he still looks like he’s holding happiness in his hands.
Standing before the statue, you can see how masterfully Gian Lorenzo gave shape to this contradiction; the hands, the defensive gestures, Daphne’s opened lips that appear to cry out without producing a sound, or the expression of utter bliss on Apollo’s face, who still believes he has just found utter happiness. He has not yet caught on to the fact that both of them have fallen victim to Cupid’s sweet revenge.
Photos: Steven Zucker, faces: Hervé Simon; Apollo’s face: damian entwistle
Not only does Gian Lorenzo surpass himself in the psychological representation of the states of mind of the gods, but also reaches new heights from a technical point of view. Let’s not forget that Bernini was working in marble, a rather fragile material, and if you look at how Daphne throws her hair into the air in a wild move, it would seem like an impossible task for any sculptor. When carving this sort of fine and thin details with a chisel there’s an enormous risk that these fragile details will break off, even if the last details were created through scraping, sanding and polishing after the chiselling was done. What Bernini did here was something that, from a technical point of view, was reserved to artists creating statues in bronze. And they often had problems achieving these type of effects in clay, which is much easier to work with than marble, if something goes wrong, you simply stick on some more clay. This is impossible with marble. If you add on a new piece, it will always remain visible due to the nature of the material. In bronze, the fine details are always added later. And yet, it was this level of perfection that some contemporaries criticised Gian Lorenzo for.
Bernini’s assistant, Giuliano Finelli (Wikipedia) from Carrara, made the bay leaves and the bark, but was never given credit for them. On the contrary, it was Bernini who took all the credit. Angrily, Giuliano Finelli left Bernini’s gallery. In the biographies about Bernini as written by Filippo Baldinucci and Domenico Bernini, not a single sentence is devoted to this incident.
When the sculpture group of Apollo and Daphne is completed in 1625, it is the biggest sensation in Rome. The entire city convenes to witness this amazing spectacle. From this moment, Bernini receives many an admiring glance of passers-by when he walks through Rome. But still, there was something wrong with Daphne.
Cardinal Maffeo Barberini put it as follows: “While very realistic and true to life, it would be far less offensive to watch for the modest spectator were the sculpture to have a moral warning.” The cardinal made up a two-line verse, the noble fruit of his erudite mind, as can be read in the biographies of Bernini: the one of Filippo Baldinucci (Wikipedia) and Domenico Bernini (Wikipedia). Cardinal Scipione had these verses applied to the pedestal as a riposte to criticism about its nudity, with the following moral warning:
“Quisquis humi pronus flores legis, inspice saevi / me Ditis ad domum rapi”
“Quisquis amans sequitur fugitivae gaudia formae / fronde manus implet baccas seu carpit amaras”
The lover who will fleeting beauty follow
Plucks bitter berries; leaves fill his hand’s hollow
The next statue that Bernini carved while his Apollo and Daphne was sitting unfinished in his workshop, was the David. Friend and foe alike agreed that this statue really was a masterpiece. Floor plan of the room in the Villa Borghese where Apollo and Daphne (and their current location in the museum) were located originally.