Benrnini’s Apollo and Daphne – a rock animated by love

Apollo and Daphne, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese

Apollo and Daphne, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese

Looking at the sculpture we see, as in front of our very eyes, the nymph’s hair starts changing into leaves, arms into branches, and corpse into a trunk of a laurel tree, at the moment when the pursuing Apollo seems so close to his triumph. It is no wonder, that both the client and his friends had to be amazed.  In the young author of this work they saw unprecedented talent, a successor to Michelangelo. It can be both surprising and pleasing, that this respected body was in large part made up of high-ranking clergymen.  It is them, whom we should thank for the creation of rather pagan, but magnificent works, completed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Apollo and Daphne, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese
Apollo i Daphne, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese
Apollo i Daphne, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese
Apollo i Daphne, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese
Apollo Belvedere, Musei Vaticani
Apollo i Daphne, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese
Apollo i Daphne, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese
Apollo i Daphne, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, bust of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, Galleria Borghese
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Rape of Proserpina, Galleria Borghese
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Aeneas and Anchises, Galleria Borghese

Looking at the sculpture we see, as in front of our very eyes, the nymph’s hair starts changing into leaves, arms into branches, and corpse into a trunk of a laurel tree, at the moment when the pursuing Apollo seems so close to his triumph. It is no wonder, that both the client and his friends had to be amazed.  In the young author of this work they saw unprecedented talent, a successor to Michelangelo. It can be both surprising and pleasing, that this respected body was in large part made up of high-ranking clergymen.  It is them, whom we should thank for the creation of rather pagan, but magnificent works, completed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

The Apollo and Daphne group is considered the best, early sculpture of the artist. It relates to Book I of Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid, to the history of Apollo struck by Cupid’s arrow. The latter not being able to take any more of the god’s boasting about his shooting abilities, decided to spark a passionate desire for the nymph Daphne who took vows of chastity.  In order to free herself from the ongoing courting of her admirer, the depressed girl desired to throw herself into a river, but instead it brought her help in a miraculous way.
 
But let us give the floor to Ovid:
so the god and maiden; he is swift because of hope,
she because of fear.
But the one who pursues, aided by the wings of love,
is swifter and denies her rest
and hangs over the back of the fugitive
and blows on her hair scattered on her neck.
She, her strength used up, turned pale and conquered
by the labor of swift flight
[watching the waves of Peneus] said,
“Father, bring your aid, if you rivers have divinity!
Destroy by changing that form, by which I have been too pleasing!”
With her prayer scarcely finished,
a heavy torpor seizes her limbs: her soft chest is surrounded by tender bark,
her hair grows into foliage, her arms into branches;
her foot, just now so swift, sticks with thick roots,
a treetop has her face: only her glow remains in her.
Phoebus also loves this one, and withhis right hand placed on
her trunk he feels her heart still fluttering under the new bark,
and embracing her branches as human limbs
with his upper arms he gives kisses to the wood: yet the wood flees from his kisses.
(Translated by Sarah Ellery)
 
A connoisseur of art, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, for whom the sculpture was completed, perhaps noticed this unyielding desire of fulfillment, as well as doubt and pain being an inseparable element of love. That it is possible, to show movement and dynamics, was already shown by earlier artists, but the capture of that fleeting moment of metamorphosis, as well as anxiety and fear was something truly novel and revolutionary. Bernini’s figures seem to be created not out of rock, but formed from mass; their bodies pulsate with life and only the whiteness of the material indicates, that it is an artistic creation – a sculpture.  Yet it possesses a brittleness and delicateness of marble – a material from which Bernini could conjure up anything and everything he set his mind to.
 

It is impossible not to notice that the inspiration for the figure of Apollo came from another well-known and valued sculpture of that time found in Rome, in the Vatican Museums – The Belvedere Apollo (Musei Vaticani), which Bernini in a miraculous way brought to life.
The Apollo and Daphne group is directly connected with two other, earlier compositions of Bernini, found in the collections of Cardinal Scipione – the Aeneas and Anchises group and The Rape of Proserpina (both in Galleria Borghese). In the mind of the collector they were supposed show the most beautiful myths and legends of the antique world but also in a perfect way compete with literary works, which took up the subject. In the confines of the cardinal’s villa the beauty of the words of antique writers was enjoyed and the artistic interpretation of Bernini was admired, not only in the context of pagan culture but also the Christian one. Both Proserpina as well as Daphne were a personification of virtue, which protects itself against sin and desire even at the price of death – because such was the interpretation of the hierarch client and at the same time the pope’s nephew, who comissioned these masterpieces.  Otherwise it would have been difficult for him to defend his passion for this type of scenes.


Apollo and Daphne, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, marble, height 243, 1625, Borghese Gallery