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 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.
Pluto and Persephone, 1622
Pluto and Persephone were 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 its 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 front of the base. Bernini chose to depict the story of Pluto and Persephone in its 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 their 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 its 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.
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 viewpoint. The group was originally 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 and 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 their forms into space and multiple directions was revolutionary in the field of marble carving. As Apollo grabs Daphne she starts to 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 their 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 their 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.
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 a 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 a 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 viewer’s 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 this through depicting his figures in a moment of heightened action. Bernini turned his figures into real beings. They reveal the Baroque’s love of exuberant emotion, action, and drama.s
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’re visiting Rome make sure to book your tickets for the Borghese Gallery in advance.