Three Must See Bernini Sculptures At The Borghese Gallery In Rome

Three Must See Bernini Sculptures At The Borghese Gallery In Rome

Baroque art is a distinctive style that emerged during the late 16th century and took root in the 17th century. The origins of the Baroque are typically seen in Rome during the late Renaissance and Counter-reformation. Sculpture and architecture were Rome’s principle modes of expression during this time. Gian Lorenzo Bernini dominated the fields of architecture and sculpture, making him a controlling influence on most aspects of artistic production in Rome. Between the years 1621 to 1625, Bernini produced his best known early works for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, his first important patron. These works, Apollo and Daphne; Pluto and Persephone; and David exemplify the zeitgeist of the Baroque period. He revolutionized the field of sculpture by pushing the resources of marble to their extremity. In doing this, the figures depicted became more active, emotive and vigorous.

Bernini was born in Naples on November 7 1598. His father, Pietro Bernini was also sculpture and taught Bernini from a young how to cut marble. Pietro moved his family in 1606 to Rome to gain more commissions. Once in Rome, Bernini spent most of his days in the Vatican, sketching ancient marbles and modern paintings. His genius was realized at a young age because his father was employed by the papal family. Bernini received his first papal commission at the age of 17 and after he almost exclusively worked for the papal family.

Cardinal Scipione Borghese a favorite nephew of the the pope became one Bernini’s earliest patrons. Bernini’s first masterpieces, Pluto and Persephone, Apollo and Daphne, and David were commissioned for Borghese’s suburban villa. These three sculptures are made of marble and freestanding in the round.

in the round. They were meant to be placed against the walls of the Borghese villa. In doing, this Bernini moved the Baroque away from the Mannerist sculptures whose views created an unending search for their meaning. Bernini was rather concerned with an intensely charged moment created through the moment created through the viewers first glance.

Three Must See Bernini Sculptures At The Borghese Gallery In Rome

Pluto and Persephone, 1622

Pluto and Persephone was commissioned in 1621 and completed in 1622.  It was originally meant to stand in the Borghese gallery, but was later sent to Cardinal Ludovisi as a gift.  Bernini presents the classical story of the abduction of Persephone. Persephone the daughter of Jupiter and Ceres is detected by Pluto the king of the underworld. Pluto falls in love with her and tries to carry her away  to the underworld. Bernini depicts this story at it’s climatic moment.  In the sculpture, Apollo forcefully grabs Persephone by the hips as she fights to get free of his grasp. Persephone’s body is pushed towards the upper right-side of Apollo. Her left hand pushes to hit his face and her other wails above. Her efforts are in vain and it appears that Pluto is seconds away from overpowering her. Cerebus the three-headed dog that guards the entrance to Hades sits at Proserpina’s leg. The inclusion of Cerebus foretells what’s to come.

Classical stories were usually depicted in paintings and not sculpture because of the difficulty of portraying pictorial effects. Bernini was able to overcome this problem in his marble sculptures. He believed art should be concerned with the expression of action and emotion.  In Pluto and Persephone the action is resolved as much as possible upon one point of view.  The action moves directly up and from out of the the front of the base.  Bernini chose to depict the story of Pluto and Persephone in it’s climatic moment.  Allowing him to express the intense action and emotion that would have taken place at that moment. This can be seen in the crisscrossing lines of movement in the arms and legs of Persephone and Pluto. The terror of the capture can be seen in the face of Persephone. Her mouth opens as if to scream for help, tears run down her left eye and her hair slashes to the right.  Her fingers separate as they would in a capture in the real world. The viewer is confronted with a violent episode. Bernini does not depict a figure, but an event that is captured in  between a “before” and “After”.  Portraying subjects in this manner was a baroque characteristic and was popularized by artists like Caravaggio. The violent theme Bernini chose to depict was also popular in the Baroque. Violent stories are charged with extreme drama and emotion and allowed the artists to exploit them.

In the Renaissance sculptures were highly finished, subtle and sophisticated looking.  After the Renaissance, Mannerism distorted and unnaturally proportioned the forms of there figures. Bernini’s figures are different than both styles. They flow organically into one another and they are not static, but dynamic. Bernini was the first Italian Baroque artist to do this. Baroque artists also looked to the naturalism found in classicism and reevaluated it’s naturalistic feel. Bernini emphasizes the naturalistic details to emphasize the force of Pluto. This can be seen in the strain of the muscles Pluto must use to capture Persephone.  The indentation of his  powerful hands can be seen in her voluptuous hip area. Bernini’s advanced skills as a marble carver allowed him to make it appear as dough and completely manipulable. Bernini turns marble into real flesh and emotion.

Three Must See Bernini Sculptures At The Borghese Gallery In Rome

Apollo and Daphne, 1622-1624

Bernini began work on Apollo and Daphne in the same year as Pluto and Persephone. However, he did not finish till 1625. Scipione Barberini commissioned Apollo and Daphne as a replacement to Pluto and Persephone. The group is made in a very high relief and finished in the round which adds a spatial interest because the group is freestanding. Like Bernini’s last work, Apollo and Daphne was meant to be seen from a certain view-point. The group was originally placed placed against an interior wall close to two doors. Upon the entering the room the viewer would see the back and drapery of Apollo. As the viewer ventured further in the room he would see the drama unfolding in real time ans space. Bernini once again uses movement and emotion to tell the story.

The sculpture is inspired by a passage in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Apollo, the Greek and Roman god of Sunlight, prophecy, music and poetry is struck by Cupid’s golden arrow. Daphne, a nymph is struck by Cupid’s lead dart. Apollo pursues Daphne because he was struck with the Golden arrow and Daphne flees because she was struck with cupid’s lead dart. Once she is captured she cries out to her father, a river God. He responds by transforming her into a laurel tree. The intense action and movement seen in Pluto and Persephone is taken further in Apollo and Daphne. Apollo’s left arm extends forward and his right behind him. His legs are in the opposite manner giving the feeling that he reaching up with all his might to capture Daphne. The extension of there forms into space and multiple directions was revolutionary in the field of marble carving. As Apollo grabs Daphne she starts transform into a laurel tree. This can be seen on her hands, feet and body. The tips of her hands start to transform into branches and leaves. Her toes turn to roots and a trunk starts to encase her body.

Apollo and Daphne look like real people with real changing emotions. Caravaggio studies of transitory emotions influenced Bernini’s portrayal of Daphne. Bernini would have been aware of Caravaggio as his works because were placed in the same room. Daphne’s mouth opens to let out a cry of distress. Yet, at the same time it a blank expression crosses her face as her hands and toes transform. Apollo’s face is calm, but at the same times expresses a look that he has just come to realize that something is wrong. Bernini borrowed the stance, gestures and feature from the classical statue, the Apollo Belvedere. In the Baroque there is a continued interest in antiquity that was carried over from the Renaissance. This can also be seen in the drapery of there clothes. The drapery is classical and Bernini gives it a naturalistic look.

The Counter-Reformation’s influence on the Baroque can be seen in Bernini’s Pluto and Persephone; and Apollo and Daphne. Renaissance artists depicted fully nude subjects like the ancients, but Baroque artists were more modest. Bernini uses classical drapery to cover the genitals of the male figures. The genitals of the women are also covered, but there breasts are slightly exposed. The female nudity of Daphne caused some concern at the time. An epigram was inscribed at the base of the sculpture and reads:

“The lover, who would fleeting beauty clasp Finds bitter fruit, dry leaves are all he’ll grasp”.

The Christian church tried to moralize the story, so it could be read as a Christian message. Daphne was not meant to be viewed as a symbol of feminine sexuality, but a symbol of chastity.

Work on the Apollo and Daphne was halted in the summer of 1622, so Bernini could start his sculpture of David. David can be considered one of the first true baroque statues. David stands in a contrapposto pose with his body weight carried on one leg. His feet are wide apart and he twists to gain the maximum swing for his shot. The viewer should imagine David, “spinning to his left off his base as he completes his throw in the direction of Goliath.”. He has dropped his armor below his legs alluding that he does not need his armor because he has faith. His focus rests on a fixed point outside his own space. His fixed point is upon Goliath who appears to be in the observers space. This fusion of artistic and real space stands at the center of much of Baroque art after this.

Three Must See Bernini Sculptures At The Borghese Gallery In RomeDavid, 1622

Work on the Apollo and Daphne was halted in the summer of 1622, so Bernini could start his sculpture of David. David can be considered one of the first true baroque statues. David stands in a contrapposto pose with his body weight carried on one leg. His feet are wide apart and he twists to gain the maximum swing for his shot. The viewer should imagine David, “spinning to his left off his base as he completes his throw in the direction of Goliath.”. He has dropped his armor below his legs alluding that he does not need his armor because he has faith. His focus rests on a fixed point outside his own space. His fixed point is upon Goliath who appears to be in the observers space. This fusion of artistic and real space stands at the center of much of Baroque art after this.

In this work, David’s adversary is not present. The decisive action is not taking place, but about to occur. The heightened moment caught in time is more intensified because of this. Psychologically the David is the most advanced of the three sculptures. His body is in the height of tension and there is feeling of intense concentration. The tension can be seen in the face and muscles of David. His lips are clinched, his eyebrows are downward-drawn, and his hair is unruly. Resoluteness, spirit and strength can be found be found in every inch of David’s body. “David’s complete physical and psychic resources of the will are summoned to superhuman effort”. The emotions area so real that appears that David could come to life at any moment.

Bernini’s David is often contrasted with Donatello and Michelangelo’s Renaissance depictions of David. In Donatello’s David is portrayed as young boy who has triumphed over the giant Goliath. The action has already taken place and there is no sense of further action. There is a serene and stable feeling. In Michelangelo’s, David there is a sense of calm. David is shown before the attack. He appears reflective and contemplating the task at hand. Bernini’s, David exemplifies the shift Baroque sculpture underwent. In Bernini’s David, the calm of the Renaissance is gone. David is portrayed in the moment of attack. Extreme feeling and drama can be seen. David extends into the viewers space and interacts with his surroundings. David is no longer a statue, but a real being.

Bernini’s Pluto and Persephone; Apollo and Daphne and David exemplify the change sculpture underwent during the Baroque. These sculptures are all important to understanding Bernini’s development as an artist. Bernini no longer portrays the subtle, calm and serene statues of the Renaissance. Each work is full of action and emotion. They reach out and interact with space. Bernini achieves they through depicting his figures in moment of heightened action. Bernini turned his figures into real beings. They reveal the Baroque’s love of exuberant emotion, action and drama.

As a student of Art History this is a term paper I wrote about Bernini and what I believe were three of his important works.  Within the Borghese Gallery there are many other outstanding examples of his work.

If you are visit Rome make sure to book your tickets for the Gallery in advance.


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Robyn is one of the Travel Moms and also the founder and owner of Celeb Baby Laundry and the Mom to 2-year-old Ava. She was recently named one of 2013's most Influential Moms In Canada.

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31 Comments on this article. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Terry (My Journey With Candida) October 13, 2013 at 8:37 pm - Reply

    I very much enjoyed these sculptures you showed us. David does look very tense and intent on what he is about to do. Too bad that Goliath isn’t present to make the scene even more vivid.

  2. Amberlee Cave October 13, 2013 at 8:51 pm - Reply

    I would LOVE to visit Rome some day. I love all of the art and everything else there is to see there. These sculptures are new to me, but I would love to see them! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Margaret, Margs World October 13, 2013 at 10:04 pm - Reply

    This post so did not help my love for wanting all to go over to Rome. Great pictures!

  4. Aisha Kristine Chong October 14, 2013 at 2:30 am - Reply

    So beautiful. Hopefully, I would get the chance to personally visit and look at them too. I was really someone who was fond of those stuff.. especially with the mythology things.

  5. Michele October 14, 2013 at 3:58 am - Reply

    Well written and informative term paper-I am sure you received high marks or at least should have. Marble sculptures are magnificent-I can stand and gaze at them for hours. If I ever get to Rome I will be sure to check these out.

  6. kay adeola October 14, 2013 at 7:19 am - Reply

    I love Sculptures like this and amazing stories that go with them the people that made these have a great talent

  7. DD October 14, 2013 at 9:36 am - Reply

    Beautiful sculptures

  8. Sarah Bailey October 14, 2013 at 12:32 pm - Reply

    Wow what some beautiful sculptures – I have to admit I do love walking around museums and galleries something so beautiful about them. x

  9. Pepper October 14, 2013 at 12:36 pm - Reply

    Isn’t an amazing how an artist can manipulate stone or marble. It’s just mind boggling to me.

  10. Liz @ A Nut in a Nutshell October 14, 2013 at 1:04 pm - Reply

    I’d say he was more than successful about capturing movement and action through his work. Fabulous!

  11. Pam October 14, 2013 at 3:20 pm - Reply

    I am so jealous of your trip to Rome. The picture you have been posting are beautiful!

  12. Tough Cookie Mommy October 14, 2013 at 3:44 pm - Reply

    These are some beautiful photos. I’ve traveled all over Europe and I also marveled at the amazing sculptures and architecture that I saw. It almost transports you back in time to the time period when they were created.

  13. Amber Edwards October 14, 2013 at 4:44 pm - Reply

    I am in such awe at these sculptures! They take so much time and effort and skill! I had some art classes that just required me sculpting just in clay, let alone STONE! I could repair if I made a mistake…they cant’. lol. But really they are quite stunning and beautiful and I would love to see them in person some day.

  14. Anita Breeze October 14, 2013 at 5:36 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the very thorough information on those sculptures! My son has just returned from a school trip to Germany and France and now I have the travel bug! Italy is definitely on my list!

  15. Bobbi Renee Hass-Burleson October 14, 2013 at 6:05 pm - Reply

    Those sculptures are absolutely gorgeous! I love art like this. I would kill to be able to go to Rome!!

  16. Stacie Connerty October 14, 2013 at 6:08 pm - Reply

    I have been to this museum and its just amazing. These sculptures are so beautiful. I was in awe of all the meticulous work that went into these works of art.

  17. Cynthia October 14, 2013 at 6:19 pm - Reply

    I traveled Europe for 3 months in 1976. I visited Rome, but didn’t see these sculptures. I am hoping to go back to Italy in the next few years. We just got back from Germany and need to save a little money!

  18. Melanie a/k/a CrazyMom October 14, 2013 at 6:55 pm - Reply

    What a great post with wonderful information, we are traveling to Germany next summer and have a few days in Rome planned, so this will come in handy and I can make notes of what we need to visit…thanks for sharing

  19. Growing Up Madison October 14, 2013 at 6:57 pm - Reply

    I’ve never been to Rome but I would so love to go. Italy is actually on my bucket list of places to go to when I get a chance to actually travel Europe. Now I have some place to visit when I go. Thanks for the beautiful photos and history lesson.

  20. Kyle W October 14, 2013 at 7:31 pm - Reply

    Beautiful artwork. I would love to be able to see this in person one day!

  21. BusyBee October 14, 2013 at 7:54 pm - Reply

    What beautiful sculptures. Quite humbling to know someone spent over a year to make those and I get distracted after 20 minutes

  22. Katherine Bartlett October 14, 2013 at 11:22 pm - Reply

    Wow, so jealous! I want to go to Italy so much!

  23. Pamela October 15, 2013 at 6:51 am - Reply

    Stunning, definitely not to be missed.

  24. Slap Dash Mom October 15, 2013 at 9:38 am - Reply

    Those sculptures are nothing short of amazing! How breathtaking must it be to visit in person. Lots of rich history, I would LOVE to visit Rome.

  25. Healy Harpster October 15, 2013 at 11:26 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing the photos! It’s all absolutely gorgeous! How I wish I could visit Rome one day and explore all those amazing sculptures.

  26. BalancingMama (Julie) October 15, 2013 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    I’ve been there and yes, it is a jaw-dropping gallery! Everything in Rome is amazing. It’s hard to believe you are there, even when standing right in front of these amazing sights.

  27. Melanie October 15, 2013 at 8:33 pm - Reply

    Amazing! I want to go there so bad. The art, the entire city is art! Just breathtaking I think and it’s something you need to see in person

  28. Jody October 17, 2013 at 10:13 pm - Reply

    I have seen Pluto and Persephone it is beyond brilliant – you can almost see them moving!

  29. BusyBee October 22, 2013 at 10:54 am - Reply

    I always wonder what old statues have seen in time.

  30. Olga February 6, 2014 at 11:34 am - Reply

    I visited Rome 2 years ago and didn’t know I should buy tickets to Galleria Borghese in advance. So disappointed I didn’t get a chance to see ‘Pluto and Persephone’, it is truly a masterpiece!

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