Day 56 – Apollo and Daphne

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25, Museo Borghese, Rome.

This truly is one of the marvels of marble carving – nothing can rival the delicacy of the leaves rustling in the breeze, the firmness of the roots thrusting into the ground, or the varied textures of tree and tresses – nor is there anything to match the scent of fear, and of confused compulsion, which the sculpture exudes.

And to think that Bernini was only 23 when he conceived this masterpiece! Not only that, but it was the third sculpture he completed for the most important patron of his youth, Cardinal Scipio Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul IV. He probably started work on it after finishing the Pluto and Proserpina, but then broke off to execute his David before going back to this. Three larger-than-life-size masterpieces before he was 26, it’s quite remarkable. And this is the tour-de-force.

The story is well known, but just in case, here it is again. Daphne, daughter of the river god Peneus, had asked for something rather special: perpetual virginity. Her father thought this a strange request, suspecting she might grow out of her dislike of men, but she was adamant. After all, she said, ‘Diana’s got it – why can’t I have it’ – just like many teenagers nowadays (although, nowadays, they are more likely to want a new phone). So that’s what she got. Meanwhile, not so far away, Apollo came across Cupid playing with his bow and arrow, and laughed, and teased him: ‘You’re just a baby, playing with your toy bow and arrow set – wait until you’ve grown up, and get some real weapons – then you can have proper arrows like mine, which cause the plague’. Cupid wasn’t having this. He can be vicious when he wants, so watch out. He waited until the right moment and shot one of his best golden arrows at Apollo – so that Apollo would fall desperately in love with the first living thing that he saw. Cunningly, Cupid had waited until Daphne was nearby, and shot her with one of his worst leaden arrows. If you didn’t know he had leaden arrows as well – well, he does. This might explain any problems you’ve ever had chatting people up: a leaden arrow makes you hate the first thing you see. So of course Apollo sees Daphne, and goes up to her, she sees him coming and starts to walk away – already averse to the company of men, but now with a strange new compulsion. So he speeds up – and so does she. Before long, it is an all out race, with him charging full pelt towards her, and her fleeing as fast as her feet will allow. She called out desperately to her father, pleading with him to save her honour, to protect her chastity, to change that beauty that would be her downfall. So he turned her into a tree. How many fathers would do that for their daughters nowadays?

The story is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses – the changes of form. We live in a fluid world, were things are always in flux, and this is what Ovid explores. It’s not just the physical form, but our shifting moods and emotions as well. His description of Daphne’s transformation is wonderfully specific, and shifts from sensuous to serious: ‘a heavy numbness seizes her limbs; her soft breasts are surrounded by a thin bark, her hair changes into foliage, her arms change into branches; her foot, just now swift, now clings to sluggish roots.” Bernini must have read this carefully, but inevitably he riffs on the idea, and we see leaves growing from her fingers as well – although as yet, there is no bark on her breasts.

A while back I mentioned that I think that Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes is the first sculpture of the Renaissance to be conceived fully in the round (Picture Of The Day 35). By the time Bernini was born, the idea was old hat – but that doesn’t stop him from excelling. It is not possible to see this sculpture from enough different angles… here are just some suggestions.

It rewards continued inspection, looking at it from every possible angle, including stooping down and looking up, if you can. And if I could take in a step ladder, I would. It is also worthwhile getting as close to it as you can (wisely, there is a chain at some distance, this is a remarkably fragile piece) – or for that matter as far away, to get the overall feel of the piece. I would advise a variety of viewing distances for any work of art, to be honest – the further back you get, the more likely you are to be able to take in the overall composition. As it happens, the room in which this sculpture is exhibited is not very big.

Bernini has chosen the moment at which Apollo finally catches up with Daphne – his right foot is firmly planted on the ground, his left is trailing behind, as is his right arm. The left hand rests on her waist, but – almost as if the transformation has responded to his touch – he doesn’t feel flesh. Oddly, and ironically, her feet are not firmly planted – it is almost as if she was trying to fly away. But you can see the roots shooting out of her toes, and bark has grown up between her legs, leaving a tantalising gap between its rough exterior and her soft, shadowed thigh. It grows over her groin, and round her left hip, and that is where his left hand rests, delicately, his thumb and forefinger a matter of millimetres away from her stomach. But he doesn’t quite touch her. As his face approaches her right shoulder, she twists it away, elongating the stretch between her right foot and hand, but she looks round, involuntarily perhaps, to see how close he might be. Her mouth is open with an almost audible cry.

His cloak is wrapped around his left arm, and falls over the protecting bark, his fingers and the folds of the cloak contrasting with the rough and smooth of tree and flesh. The cloak then goes round his shoulder and flies out in a loop behind him, before wrapping around his hips, leaving a inviting gap just like her bark. If you stand at the right angle you can see the light from the window glowing through this cloak – in places it is so thin it is translucent.

When we get closer in, we learn more about their feelings. Bernini has carved their irises and pupils – eyes are always hard to capture in sculpture. Daphne is looking right round, her pupils in corners of her eyes, whereas he looks quite vacant. His lips are slightly parted – but do not seem to express worry, or determination, or even love or longing. He may still be running towards her, reaching out to grab her, but he is not even looking at her – his gaze misses the mark. And I think that is the unrealised genius of Bernini’s sculpture. Neither of these people know what they are doing. They are both bewitched by Cupid, he to run towards her, she to flee. They are acting under compulsion and do not understand their own actions. Her hair flies out behind her, between them and then up towards her fingers, where both hair and hands become leaves. There is just one delicate, stray curl above her right eyebrow. Similarly his hair flies back in the wind, soft and supple – no one could texture marble like Bernini. It is a soft and flowing variant of Apollo’s classical top knot.

Indeed, if we look again, it is clear that the figure of Apollo as a whole is based on the Apollo Belvedere, one of the classical treasures of the Vatican Museums: it has stood in the Belvedere Courtyard since 1511, and is not so far away from the Belvedere Torso which we saw Angelica Kauffman drawing in POTD 48. Bernini was keen to make his mark, not just by his conceptual and technical skill, but also by acknowledging his awareness of the art of others. An early work (and you thought this was early!), which is also in the Museo Borghese, is his Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius, completed before he reached the ripe old age of 21. Aeneas, carrying his aged father on his back, is modelled on Michelangelo’s Risen Christ. His Pluto and Proserpina includes the three-headed Cerberus, modelled on a classical sculpture of a dog, which, like the Apollo Belvedere, is in the Vatican Museums. By breaking off work on the Apollo and Daphne to carve a sculpture of David he could only have been pitching himself against Michelangelo himself. The face of his David is a self portrait. Bernini casts himself as the giant-slayer, and the giant at whom he was taking aim was undoubtedly Michelangelo. With Apollo and Daphne he pitches himself against the ancients. 

All of this was exactly what his patron wanted – the next bright young thing, who not only had the most fantastic technique, and the most imaginative ideas, but also the intellectual grasp of the subject to make it doubly rewarding. But surely, neither this sculpture, nor the Pluto and Proserpina, were ideal subjects for a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church? The former is another fantastic sculpture – a monstrous act, but a fantastic sculpture – and like this, it is another pagan story. But this one is maybe worse, seeing how it flirts and tantalises with its strip-tease like semi-concealment of the figures, and its tempting tactile values. It is just asking to be touched. To be caressed. To be enjoyed. So how could Borghese possibly justify it? Well, there’s an inscription on the base – two in fact, one on either side. On one side, there is a quotation from Ovid – more or less the section I quoted above – and on the other, a moral verse, written by Maffeo Barberini, who would become Pope Urban VIII, the next Pope but one after Scipio’s Uncle. They are held by the eagle and dragon of the Borghese coat of arms.  

On the left, the Ovid. On the right, in a rough translation, it says: ‘If you chase the joys of fleeting beauty, you’re grabbing at leaves and picking bitter berries’. So that’s alright then – this is a moral sculpture, it teaches us a lesson, it warns us of the dangers of physical pleasure. Which might convince me if the sculpture itself wasn’t quite so sensuous. But then, like many Cardinals, Borghese knew how to have his cake and eat it…

There are several theories about how it would originally have been displayed. Is there a predominant view, for example? I’m not sure that there is. Several of Borghese’s sculptures were placed against a wall – this is clear in the David, the back of which hasn’t even been carved. But I can’t see how that would make any sense with this one. Every viewpoint is interesting. However, given that there were so many different, and interesting ways of looking at it, which would be the best view to see first? After all, anyone entering the room where it is exhibited will have their viewpoint determined by the position of the sculpture in relationship to the position of the door. And I favour this final position. Not the most striking perhaps – and this is not quite the right view. Maybe the top left one in the mosaic up above… but, basically, there is a viewpoint whereby you can only see Apollo – and leaves. He appears to be running headlong into a tree. I think that would be a great ‘first view’ as you really wouldn’t know what was going on. Only as you walk into the room and around the sculpture would you discover the story – you see Apollo first, and then the chase, and then the transformation. That sense of the viewer’s participation in the drama is one of the things that can make the Baroque so profound, and so profoundly exciting.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

4 thoughts on “Day 56 – Apollo and Daphne

  1. DearRichard, My PC is in a state of confused old age. Unfortunately I cannot get new one as it would setting up and that is beyond my capabilities. I cannot set up a payment for your posts of major artwork so I am cancelling my membership. Please let me have an address and I will send a cheque for £120. I tried to contact you 5 days ago and my PC cheerfully said ‘Howdy we were unable to forward your message’ That is when I moved the PC out. Very best wishes Muriel

    Sent from my iPhone



    1. Dear Muriel – this is entirely free! I’m not sure how you would go about paying anyway… so I’m not sure what you’ve done. You just have to put your email address in, and an email will be sent to you every time I post, which, at the moment, is once a day.
      I hope you are a great deal better than your PC!
      All best wishes,


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