Bernini Before I Die

Painting is a craft that I feel I can work hard and excel at, so much so that I am amazed when people say to me “I could never do that”. I feel as though, if they tried hard enough they definitely could. But then I look at Bernini and say “How is that even possible? I could never do that”, the wall of skill that I’m facing here seems as high as the tallest building, insurmountable, impassable and overwhelmingly beautiful.

Apollo and Daphne

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This is “Apollo and Daphne” a life-sized Baroque marble sculpture by Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini executed 1622–25. Housed in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, the work depicts the climax of the story of Daphne and Phoebus in Ovid‘s Metamorphoses. It’s amazing how Bernini sculpts flesh out of stone and makes it look gentle and wielding.

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A great view of Daphne turning into a tree. These leaves are carved out of marble!!

The Story

When Phoebus (Apollo), fated by Cupid‘s love-exciting arrow, sees the maiden daughter of Peneus a river god, he is filled with wonder at her beauty and consumed by desire. But Daphne has been fated by Cupid’s love-repelling arrow and denies the love of men. As the Nymph flees he relentlessly chases her—boasting, pleading, and promising everything. When her strength is finally spent she prays to her father Peneus:

“Destroy the beauty that has injured me, or change the body that destroys my life.'” Before her prayer was ended, torpor seized on all her body, and a thin bark closed around her gentle bosom, and her hair became as moving leaves; her arms were changed to waving branches, and her active feet as clinging roots were fastened to the ground—her face was hidden with encircling leaves.

Phoebus loved the graceful tree, clung to it and kissed the wood:

“But since thou canst not be my spouse surely thou shalt be my tree. Thee O laurel my hair, thee my lyres, thee my quivers shall always have … And as my head is youthful with unshorn locks, do thou likewise wear always evergreen honours of foliage. The laurel nodded assent with its branches lately made.”

The Rape of Proserpina

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This is not the best photo of “The Rape of Prosepina” but it shows the full sculpture. The truly amazing part of this sculpture is the next image showing how Bernini sculpted the strong hands of Pluto sinking into the flesh of Prosepina. Truly awe inspiring.

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The Story

The twisted contrapposto or figura serpentinata pose is reminiscent of Mannerism, and allows the simultaneous depiction of the abduction (as seen from the left, with Pluto striding to grasp her), the arrival in the underworld (as seen from the front, he appears triumphantly bearing his trophy in his arms) and her prayer to her mother Ceres to return to the real world 6 months a year (as seen from the right, with Proserpina’s tears, the wind blowing her hair, and Cerberus barking). Pushing against Pluto’s face Proserpina’s hand creases his skin, while his fingers sink into the flesh of his victim. Proserpina’s lips are slightly opened, as if she were screaming and begging for help. Upon closer examination, one would notice the delicately crafted marble tears that look as though they are dripping down her face.

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Before I die I need to visit this sculpture in Rome.