Apollo and Daphne
Apollo and Daphne is a life-sized statue by the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the Borghese Gallery in Rome. The story of Apollo and Daphne comes from Greek and Roman mythology and is one of doomed, unrequited love. The myth was recounted by the Roman poet Ovid in the first century AD in a book called the Metamorphoses. During the renaissance, ancient literature had emerged from obscurity thanks to the printing press. Ancient texts were widespread and became popular with the cultured elite who commissioned artworks based on mythological themes.
Bernini was only 24 when he began the statue for his patron, the wealthy Cardinal Scipione Borghese. It was completed three years later; an impressive feat when we consider he sculpted his version of David at the same time! Alongside the ‘Rape of Persephone’ completed a few years earlier the Apollo and Daphne is truly a sight to behold. Bernini may be called the Michelangelo of the 1600s but his ability to create drama, passion and flesh out of hard stone was unprecedented and is still awe-inspiring today.
Bernini lived in Rome in the 17th century, to call him an artist is an understatement, he was multi-talented as artists of his age had to be. Whether you recognise his name or not, if you have been to Rome – we guarantee you have definitely seen some of his work. Bernini is credited with creating the baroque style of sculpture, full of drama and intensity.
In his early years he worked primarily as a sculptor and produced numerous pieces for aristocrats, cardinals and the popes. A number of his early works were commissioned by the cardinal Scipione Borghese who built a villa (the Borghese gallery) to display his collection of art, where they still stand today.
Under the pope Urban VIII (his friend and patron) he would change the face of Rome. As an architect he designed secular buildings, churches, chapels, and public squares, as well as massive works combining both architecture and sculpture, including elaborate public fountains and funerary monuments.
The story of Apollo and Daphne
Apollo was the god of archery, music, healing and divination. He had taken a fancy to Daphne a beautiful, but chaste woodland Nymph. The background of the story involves Eros or Cupid – the god of erotic love, attraction and desire; he is often portrayed as a chubby boy with a bow and arrows. His bow was lethal; golden tipped arrows inflamed the hearts of those they hit; whereas lead arrows created aversion and made the subject want to run away.
One day, Apollo finds cupid cleaning his bow; he mocks and humiliates the winged god saying a child has no business using a weapon of war (the weapon of Apollo). Cupid is furious and to take revenge he fires a golden arrow at Apollo and a lead one at Daphne. Apollo enflamed with love, chases Daphne determined to have her; she is repulsed by him and tries to flee. In desperation she cries out to her father the river god Peneus to save her asking him ‘Destroy the beauty that has injured me, or change the body that destroys my life’. Bernini’s sculpture captures the moment when roots sprout from her toes, leaves sprout from her fingers and her body is enveloped in bark.
On the base of the sculpture is a couplet in Latin composed by Maffeo Barberini (later to become Urban VIII) who was a gifted poet. It seems this was added as a moral overtone to explain the concentration of pagan-inspired artworks in a Cardinal’s villa. ‘Those who love to pursue fleeting forms of pleasure, in the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands.’
In the Borghese Gallery the sculpture is displayed in Room IIII where it has been since 1625, today the sculpture stands in the centre of the room and we can walk around it to enjoy it from every angle. Bernini’s skill is captivating, as you walk around the sculpture Daphne’s metamorphosis into a tree unfolds, from one side we see a beautiful young woman being chased by her relentless pursuer, her body is visible in profile; from the other side her body is barely visible as it is almost entirely covered in bark. Originally it was placed against a wall, so the viewer could only see the tree side.
The painted ceiling tells the whole story in pictorial form (1780). The theme in the room continues with a painting of Apollo by Dosso Dossi dated a century earlier. This represents the continuation of the myth after Daphne becomes a laurel tree again taken from Ovid:
‘Since you cannot be my bride, you must be my tree! Laurel, with you my hair will be wreathed, with you my lyre, with you my quiver. You will go with the Roman generals when joyful voices acclaim their triumph, and the Capitol witnesses their long processions.’
Visiting the Borghese Gallery
If this has piqued your interest and you would like to see the artworks in Rome, there are a few things to bear in mind. The Borghese Gallery is a private museum and has timed entrance every two hours. A limited amount of people can enter the gallery, which means you have a finite amount of time to enjoy everything on display. In order to make the most of your two hours a guided tour can enhance your visit and ensure that you see the most significant pieces in each room. Moreover, your guide will explain the collection as it was conceived by the man who started the gallery; bringing the artworks to life by giving the socio-political background of the time as well as sharing stories about the acquisition of these works (not always legally) and about the lives of the artists who created them.