Monday, January 28, 2013



Gian Lorenzo Bernini is in his twenties when he is commissioned to do four different statue groups for Cardinal Scipione Borghese in Rome. The last of these, begun in 1622 when Bernini is 24 and completed in 1627 when Bernini is 29, is a marble carving of two people out of one block, the god Apollo and a nymph named Daphne. 

Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-27, Galleria Borghese, Rome
The story is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1st cent. A.D.), Book 1, and concerns a certain revenge which is exacted upon Apollo by the god of Love, Cupid.  Cupid is mad that Apollo has said that Cupid’s arrows are not manly and Cupid is thus determined to show Apollo the full force of his power. He shoots Apollo with a golden arrow designed to enflame love in him; he then shoots Daphne with a lead-tipped arrow that causes her to be repulsed by love. What follows is the ultimate story of unrequited love. Apollo falls enamoured of Daphne, then chases her.  Daphne runs, horrified by his pursuit; as he is about to reach her, she calls out to her father, the river-god Peneus, and asks him to save her from her pursuer; her father turns her into a laurel tree just as Apollo is about to touch her. Ovid records this story because he was interested in transformations, hence his book’s title. Apollo, in Ovid’s version, reacts to his love’s change into a tree by proclaiming the tree sacred to him and the laurel leaves the perfect flora for victory wreaths. “Since you can never be my bride,” he says, which seems an acknowledgement of Cupid’s victory, even though he never formally tells Cupid himself.
           When Bernini decides to sculpt the statue group of Apollo and Daphne in 1622, he does not include Cupid at all, but many of Ovid’s lines are realized in the sculptor’s figures.  Here are some of the passages of Ovid’s tale that may influence Bernini’s choices (light blue for Daphne, purple for Apollo):
Ovid on Apollo and Daphne (from his Metamorphoses, trans. Rolfe Humphries, (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press, 1955, 1983), Book I, pp.16-21:
“He would have said
Much more than this, but Daphne, frightened, left him
with many words unsaid, and she was lovely
Even in flight, her limbs bare in the wind,
Her garments fluttering, and her soft hair streaming,
More beautiful than ever.

But Apollo,
Too young a god to waste his time in coaxing,
Came following fast.  When a hound starts a rabbit
In an open field, one runs for game, one safety,
He has her, or thinks he has, and she is doubtful
Whether she’s caught or not, so close the margin,
So ran the god and girl, one swift in hope,
The other in terror, but he ran more swiftly,
Borne on the wings of love, gave her no rest,
Shadowed her shoulder, breathed on her streaming hair.

Her strength was gone, worn out by the long effort
Of the long flight; she was deathly pale, and seeing
The river of her father, cried “O help me,
If there is any power in the rivers,
Change and destroy the body which has given
Too much delight!” And hardly had she finished,
When her limbs grew numb and heavy, her soft breasts
Were closed with delicate bark, her hair was leaves,
Her arms were branches, and her speedy feet
Rooted and held

and her head became a tree top,
Everything gone except her grace, her shining.
Apollo loved her still.  He placed his hand
Where he had hoped and felt the heart still beating
Under the bark

and he embraced the branches
As if they were still limbs, and kissed the wood,
And the wood shrank from his kisses, and the god
Exclaimed:  “Since you can never be my bride,
My tree at least you shall be! Let the laurel
Adorn, henceforth, my hair, my lyre, my quiver:
Let Roman victors, in the long procession,
Wear laurel wreaths for triumph and ovation.
Beside Augustus’ portals let the laurel
Guard and watch over the oak, and as my head
Is always youthful, let the laurel always
Be green and shining!”  He said no more.  The laurel,
Stirring, seemed to consent, to be saying Yes.”

      It is clear when the text is compared to the statue group, that Bernini must have read some of the lines in Ovid’s telling. He carves the bare limbs, the soft hair, the god breathing on her shoulder. Her hair is sculpted as though turning into leaves, her “speedy feet” are shaped into marble roots emerging from her toes. (The marble of the roots is carved to such a thin width in parts, the marble broke and had to be restored later.)
         But the passage of both text and sculpture that is the most moving because of what is implied is the hand of Apollo on the bark/skin described by Ovid and carved by Bernini on the abdomen of Daphne. 
He placed his hand
Where he had hoped and felt the heart still beating
Under the bark
The sculpted passage of the hand on the bark that is fast covering up the skin reveals Bernini’s ability to show the woman still alive, with heart beating, beneath the bark, beneath the marble. It is the beating of the heart described in the text that Bernini wants to present to the viewer in the touch of Apollo’s hand on the body of the girl/tree. The viewer is meant to imagine the pulse.
We see three layers of marble in this passage:  the naked skin of Daphne, the bark of the laurel that is forming around her body, and the spread fingers of Apollo carved above the level of the bark. The beating heart in Ovid means the girl is still alive inside the tree; the beating heart is what Apollo had hoped to appeal to, the emotional side of her nature. The beating heart in Bernini is implied by the hand feeling her body under the bark, a visceral response to touch. For the viewer, the beating heart implied there also means the marble lives as well as the girl. For a story about Cupid’s control of love in everyone’s lives, the beating of the heart is the theme pressed (literally) home by the sculptor. He wants his white block to live.
            When that passage is added to the other images carved where Bernini manages to transform marble into toes into roots,
marble into hands into leaves,

marble into skin into face, marble into curls into hair, the effect is to change not only Daphne into a tree but the marble itself into figures that are alive in a landscape. They move through space in rapid flight, one possessed by the desire for the other, one straining to avoid contact with the other. The tension between the two and yet their inevitable linking holds the viewer’s attention. Even Daphne’s beautiful head, which looks back as her mouth opens to call for help from her father, seems, from certain angles, to move toward Apollo, rather than away from him, so that the viewer coming upon them in the villa’s room might have thought them lovers with a different ending. 
    It is the emotional drama of the story that Bernini wishes to render most of all. The ardor of Apollo is intentionally made exquisitely beautiful by using one of the most perfect classical statues as the model for the god, the Apollo Belvedere, which Bernini must have studied in the Vatican (something noted by Howard Hibbard in Bernini (London: Penguin,1965):

When placed side by side the Apollo Belvedere looks positively staid in comparison with Bernini’s Apollo, whose weight is entirely on the right leg and whose left leg is lifted up into the air in full sprint. But they are both nude statues of the hunter god with drapery and outstretched arms. While the drapery of Apollo Belvedere is slung over his left arm as it gestures out to hold what would have been originally a bow,

Bernini’s Apollo has drapery that sways back behind him at the waist from the wind as he moves through the air. The drapery over the shoulder of Bernini’s Apollo pushes out into an arc that compliments the forward curve of Daphne’s body (another way in which they are joined as a couple). 

         The head of Bernini’s Apollo is a close twin of the Apollo Belvedere’s head as well:

From certain angles the laurel leaves of the tree Apollo makes sacred sprout, in Bernini’s version, out of his head (2nd view) as well as Daphne’s; those leaves make Bernini’s Apollo different from the ancient statue where the feathers from the arrows stand out of the quiver behind him (1st view) but there is no reference to the laurel. The same gathering of the sun’s rays on the top of his hair, since he is the sun god, is nearly identical (4th and 5th views). The same contrast in texture between skin and deep-cut hair curls is present in both, the angle of head-turn to torso the same, and the delicate limbs and youthful body of an excellent athlete are portrayed in both.

But the running of Bernini’s god is what implies desire; the passion which “moves” him to reach for the maiden in his hunt. Bernini’s action and passion are the same here and are what differentiate his statue group from that of Leochares.
         It is possible that Bernini was influenced by another written source: a 1620 poem by Giambattista Marino entitled “Apollo e Dafne”. Here is the text and my translation (with thanks to Professors Victor and Ann Marie Carrabino for their help with it):
Stanca, anelante a la paterna riva,            Tired, longing for her father’s riverbank,
qual suol cervetta affaticata in caccia,       Like that sweet doe fatigued from the hunt,
correa piangendo e con smarrita faccia     The virgin was running, crying, and with confused face,
la vergine ritrosa e fuggitiva.                    Bashful and fleeing.

E già l’acceso Dio che la seguiva,            And already the inflamed the god who was following her,
giunta ormai del suo corso avea la traccia, By this time having found the track of her run, 
quando fermar le piante, alzar le braccia    Saw her immediately in the act of escape
ratto la vide, in quel ch’ella fuggiva.          Put down roots and raise up her arm branches.
Vede il bel piè radice, e vede (ahi fato!)   He sees the beautiful foot root, and sees (oh, destiny!)
che rozza scorza i vaghi membri asconde,     What a rough covering the beautiful limbs hide
e l’ombra verdeggiar del crine aurato.           And the shadow greening of the golden brow.

Allor l’abbraccia e bacia, e, de le bionde       So he hugs and kisses her, and, of the blond
chiome fregio novel, dal tronco amato        Tresses a new frieze forms from the beloved trunk.
almen, se’l frutto no, coglie le fronde.         At least, if not the fruit, he’ll collect the leaves.

(Italian text taken from

In this version of the story there is no Cupid mentioned and the description of the scene is much as Bernini chooses to carve it, making the viewer wonder which came first, the poem or the sculpture.(The fact that Marino repeats the verb “vede” (he sees) in the third stanza seems a Freudian slip that gives away his having “seen” the sculpture or a bozzetto of it before writing the poem, in my opinion.)
        The most pertinent passages in the poem that connect to the sculpture are highlighted in purple:
correa piangendo e con smarrita faccia (in the marble she is running as she cries and has a confused face)and the description of the foot turning into root and the rough bark on the skin:
il bel piè radice, e vede (ahi fato!)
che rozza scorza i vaghi membri asconde. The foot turning into a root is the section of the sculpture closest to the viewer when the viewer is standing below it.
        The emphasis in the Marino poem, however, is on the feelings of both figures and on the futile nature of the hunt; the hunter ends up with leaves instead of fruit, inedible love-making. The emptiness and waste of the man’s hunt is what the poet sees as the moral since the poet imagines the definitive end of the chase.
        Bernini, on the other hand, chooses the moment before the end, the moment of greatest tension and greatest movement, the apex of the hunt, before it closes down. That way the viewer still sees the human beauty that envelopes both the protagonists. The lifelike quality of both Apollo and Daphne, the youthfulness of their heads, and the loveliness of their figures in motion all contribute to Bernini’s riveting scene, the moment when she is about to turn into a tree, the moment when Apollo is about to reach her, the moment when the chase is about to be over. Bernini chooses that moment, not the moment when her change into tree is completed, not the moment when Apollo spies her, not the moment when she is alone in the forest, before she runs from the god. 
        The apex of the action is what is appealing to him because it is before the action stops. In this way his art can continue to live. She will never fully be a laurel tree; he will never fully grasp her as a tree. Apollo is most alive in his pursuit; Daphne is most alive in her flight before the roots take hold and she is immobilized by ground.  She will never lose her youthful beauty that made him love her in the first place; he will never lose his youthful power that made her fear him. The energy conveyed by Bernini in the movement of the drapery and hair and limbs of the figures will continue to surge even after this century is gone; he has understood that the electricity between the figures will be eternal, he has understood that his art will continue to represent the fleeting moment in time eternally.  The capturing of the maiden is not the art; the almost capturing of her is.  She can never die in this sculpture; she and Apollo are in marble the essence of what they are in the myth, nymph (daughter of a god), and god. They are caught in youthful beauty in the timelessness of all the gods and Apollo also in a human timeless longing not only for love but for youth itself.
     The viewer is caught, too, in the beauty that Bernini creates that nourishes no how many times a person revisits. In that way the metamorphosis that is taking place in the sculpture is mirrored in the viewer. We are transformed by the vision that he presents of what sculpture can achieve, the vision of beauty caught in a story where the beautiful nymph is not caught, a vision of the capture of movement in a material that seems unwieldy and unmoving, the capture of realistic materials in a material that appears unbendable. The unrequited love then is also the wish of the viewer to be those figures, be that beauty, be young again forever.
       For Bernini art is metamorphosis, the transformation of marble into human beings, into hands, toes, fingers, hair, eyes, legs, then transformation into nature: tree trunk, tree bark, tree leaves, branches, and roots, and finally drama. But Bernini’s transformation always includes beauty of form. If you compare his work with painted images of the same story in early periods: i.e.,
Pollaiuolo’s Apollo and Daphne of 1470-80 in the National Gallery, London:

or Domenichino’s Apollo and Daphne painted for the Aldobrandini villa in Frascati from 1616-1618, now in the National Gallery in London, too, the distance between the figures is, in the first example, too close and, in the second, too far away. Like the bed finally decided upon by Goldilocks, Bernini’s is just right. In Pollaiuolo’s the branches of the laurel tree that emerge from Daphne’s arms look like two pompoms on a cheerleader being lifted at a football game. In the Domenichino example, she almost looks back at him as if to say, “What’s taking you so long?” because the space between them is too great. Only Bernini understood the importance of proportion in the bodies of the figures and in the space between them. These two painted images seem laughable when set next to Bernini’s sculpting.(Domenichino's fresco is noted by Bruce Boucher, Italian Baroque Sculpture, (London: Penguin, 1998).
        But what Bernini also understood that these two painters did not is that if you are making a work of art about desire and love, you must carve physical beauty into the figures so that the viewer will understand why the person desired, why the person was loved in the first place. Both Apollo and Daphne in his version are peerless young people and the viewer’s desire to be nourished by looking at them is evident when groups of people who stop in front of them cannot leave; they are transfixed as though they are the ones turned into trees. Beauty is nourishment, and Bernini nourishes with his whole heart and soul in this statue group, mesmerizing the public. In his skillful hands the dramatic moment comes alive and the metamorphosis continually recurs. What doesn’t change is the nature of desire, and our desire to view beauty is, in Bernini’s sculpture, a love requited.

No comments:

Post a Comment