Apollo and Daphne at the Galeria Borghese

The day I fell in love with sculpture: Galleria Borghese

Culture Travel in Italy

The moment I walked into Rome’s Galleria Borghese my view of sculpture changed. These were no longer ‘just statues’, this was incredible art.

The Room of the Sun in the Galleria Borghese holds one of the young Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s greatest works – David. Unlike Michelangelo’s David in Florence, which stands in a relaxed pose contemplating action, Bernini’s David is a study of movement, balance and power. David holds the sling ready to strike the fatal blow on Goliath. From the right side, David’s movement is clear – the muscles tensed, his face focused, strained and determined as he bites down on his bottom lip. From the front, David is frozen, an almost photographic shot of the moment before he releases his missile.

The Room of Apollo and Daphne is even more exciting. The central panel of the ceiling depicts the moment Eros sealed Daphne’s fate. Eros was furious with Apollo after the latter insulted him over his use of bows and arrows, warlike instruments not for a boy’s use. Eros’s revenge was to shoot a gold arrow into Apollo – inciting love – and a lead arrow into Daphne – inciting hatred.

Apollo pursued Daphne relentlessly, though she managed to maintain her distance until Eros intervened again, allowing Apollo to catch her. Calling to her father, a river god, to save her through internment or transformation, Daphne’s father turned her into a laurel tree. Apollo vowed to tend the tree as he could not have Daphne as his wife, and that her leaves would crown the heads of leaders. With his powers of eternal youth and immortality Apollo made the laurel tree evergreen.

Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne

It was the metamorphosis of Daphne that Bernini captured. Apollo’s arm reaches around Daphne’s waist, his clothes billowing behind him as he rushes to catch her. This is not a stationary piece of art, it is movement and emotion.

As I walked around the sculpture, the transformation took place before my eyes. Apollo was no longer grasping at a female form but a tree. From Daphne’s right I saw a woman fleeing in terror; from the left I saw a tree. Daphnes’ fingers become twigs, her hair leaves and her left side is encased in bark.

Apollo and Daphne, close up of the heads, at Galeria Borghese Rome

But it is their facial expressions which contribute to the whole effect. Apollo is looking at Daphne with eyes heavy with desire as she turns her head in horror and fear. I kept circling, each turn offering a new perspective, a new feeling. I had goosebumps.

Engraved on the base of the work at the behest of Pope Urban VIII is the moral couplet:

Those who love to pursue fleeting forms of pleasure,

In the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands.

 It is an exquisite piece of art from which I had to tear myself away.

Pluto and Persephone

Pluto and Persephone by Bernini at Galeria Borghese, Rome.

Pluto wanted more than a fleeting pleasure with Persephone in the next room. In the centre stood what I consider, from my humble point of view, to be Bernini’s crowning glory.

Pluto, god of the underworld, accompanied by his three-headed dog Cerberus, abducts Persephone the daughter of Gea, earth. Domination, power and fear run off every curve.

I wanted to touch Persephone’s smooth skin, run my fingers over the strength of Pluto. Bernini’s skill lay not only in creating the forms but using the tactile nature of the stone. Pluto’s hands, grasping his trophy, squeeze her flesh. Her thigh dimples under the pressure. His fingers dig into her waist. Pluto’s face creases as Persephone pushes him away, trying to free herself, crying out for help.

As with Daphne, the movement changes with each perspective. From the left, Pluto is seen taking a giant stride, grasping hold of Persephone. From the front, Pluto is triumphantly bearing his trophy away, despair on the face of his victim. Whereas from the right, with wind-blown hair, the dog barking and her tears flowing, Persephone’s torment is the focus.

Every nuance of the story is captured in one sensual piece of art. Raw emotion seeping from each smoothed cut of the marble. Stone made flesh.

If I could own just two pieces of art, Bernini’s ‘Pluto and Persephone’ and ‘Apollo and Daphne’ would be they; the epitome of the sculptural medium. Works which opened my eyes to the world of sculpture.

Rome, on a hot August day when cold marble stole my heart, and I fell in love with sculpture.

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