Bernini – Apollo and Daphne

Hi everyone and welcome back to Exploring Art, this is Alessandro. During our journey together, we met Bernini in one of my first videos, here and in the description the link, and we understood his genius and his impact in art history thanks to the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa.

Today I want to talk about another well-known and awesome sculpture: Apollo and Daphne, explaining its beauty (even if that’s pretty evident), but also its importance and impact on art and also in sport. Yes, it could sound weird, but this mythological episode is the foundation of an important tradition that we can still see nowadays during some award ceremonies.

But, first of all, we need to remember that, originally, that was just a single piece of white Carrara marble and we’ll see how Bernini reached such a high realism and movement analyzing all the details and tricks he used.

Apollo and Daphne, Baroque sculpture by Bernini
ARTIST: Gian Lorenzo Bernini
NAME Apollo and Daphne
LOCATION Galleria Borghese, Rome
YEAR 1622–1625
TYPE Sculpture
DIMENSIONS 243 cm (96 in)

Statue history

A statue is for definition static, so the main difficulty is to create the sensation that the figures are moving. However, here Bernini did something extraordinary playing on purpose with this physical and conceptual contrast.

Apollo and Daphne is one of Bernini’s first major Commissions by Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Cardinal Borghese was one of the most powerful, prominent and extravagantly wealthy religious persons in Rome. A patron who wanted the best artists to work for him. Among them there was a young Bernini who started to work on this sculpture in 1622 when he was just 24. So, we are during Baroque, an art style which goal was to use movement, exuberant details, contrast, intense colors, grandeur and surprise to achieve a sense of astonishment and awe (click here if you missed the introductory post).

Remember these words because they are going to be important to understand the work of art and the challenge Bernini had to face. Plus, it is a first contrast with what we usually think Catholic religion should be. But there is another one even more evident and it’s related to the sculpture subject.

Apollo and Daphne, Baroque sculpture by Bernini
Apollo and Daphne

The Story

The statue in fact represents the mythological story of Eros, the god of love (known also as Cupid), causing a trouble after Apollo, the god of music and poetry, insulted him. Eros is not present in the statue, but we can see the consequences of his revenge since he shot two arrows: one made of gold and one made of lead.

He pierced Apollo with the golden arrow which made him fall in love with the nymph Daphne and he pierced Daphne with the lead arrow which made her repulsed by Apollo.

As a nymph, Daphne dedicated her life to being a virgin and this is very important to her. So, she is in trouble now since Apollo has different projects. Apollo catches her and so Daphne, desperate, beseeches her father Peneus to help her “Destroy the beauty that has injured me, or change the body that destroys my life.” (this is from Ovid – Metamorphoses). The father is a river god and decides to save her in the only way it is in his power: transforming her into a laurel tree.

The Scene

Bernini depicts exactly this intense moment when Apollo reaches Daphne wrapping his hand around her torso and she begins to transform. And we can see the bark growing around her body from the bottom, in the earth, to the top. And we have the feeling that the bark is really spreading and wrapping her body trapping her forever, but saving her at the same time.

Every part of her is changing into a tree, look at her toes forming into roots while even the feet are mutating. But also her elegant fingers turning into thin branches and leaves. Again, we are talking about marble, so a little mistake with the chisel meant to easily chip away one of them. Leaves that are touching Daphne’s hair that, in the rapid torsion of the head, is flying, transforming as well as we can see at the bottom of it.

Movement is the key word. And we can appreciate all Bernini’s great talent on creating the idea that everything in the scene is moving and changing. It was something typical for Baroque art, but here we are really in front of a masterpiece. Look at how Daphne’s body is naturally curving since her toes now are tied as roots to the ground and she would have fallen if the bark hadn’t started to grow, breaking her desperate running.

Apollo and Daphne’s balance and contrast

At the same time, her body seems to be held by Apollo’s left hand in a natural, but really difficult balance to sculpt since he is just on one leg while the other one is in midair. And we perceive the intense rush thanks also to the drapery flowing up in midair behind him and his hair as well. We really feel the intensity of the scene forgetting that we are in front of a heavy marble statue.

And there is this beautiful contrast between the tragedy of the scene with the delicacy of some details. Look for example these laurel leaves (between the 2 bodies). They look so thin, real and try to imagine what it means to carve them with a chisel. How they can be easily broken making a huge visual damage to the final result.

And talking about visual result, I want that we focus one moment more on the leaves because it helps to understand even better Bernini’s skills. Nothing is casual: the leaves are there to fill the space between the bodies (try to imagine how it would look empty without them), but also for a static purpose that we’ll see soon.

Baroque movement

Talking about static, it’s clear the contrast with Renaissance  where the main purpose was to depict stability and a sense of order. In Baroque instead is the opposite: there is movement, heavy contrasts, theatrical scenes, apparently a chaos with no rules.

In particular, in this statue the movement is the dominant feature made with a series of arcs. Starting with Daphne’s body, her arm, but also Apollo’s legs, his arm and the drapery.

And let’s focus for a moment on the drapery. It’s modelled by the wind around Apollo, giving more volume to his body and to the sculpture itself. But it gives also even more sense of movement and balance to the entire group.

There is an important element to consider. The sculpture was originally intended to be against a wall, so it was not possible to look all around it. Now instead it is in the middle of the room and that’s perfect so we can admire all the details, realizing how incredibly smooth is the protagonist’s skins in contrast with the crude bark. And, actually, here a surprise: Apollo never really touches Daphne’s skin. His hand is grabbing, almost sinking, in Daphne’s body and we can see it in this detail, but her skin is already transformed into bark in that point.

Contact attempt

So, there is no physical touch. A clear metaphor of Daphne’s purity. Even Daphne’s hair is touching Apollo’s drapery and not his skin and actually even there the hair is changing into leaves.

There are 3 contact points: hair, arm and laurel leaves that have the important purpose of connecting the two figures to give both static and visual strength and balance to the sculpture.

Another detail that we can admire is the torsion of the bodies.
Torsion that represents the tension of the protagonists and that Bernini made visible on their faces. On Daphne we can read the fear, but she is not screaming like we could imagine because she is probably in the moment when she realizes that she is losing her humanity forever, but she is safe.

Forever Lost

Apollo as well seems to start understanding that he is losing his beloved Daphne and his eyes are fading into the sorrow. So, a real tragedy, but he will continue to love her. In fact, Ovid writes:

Apollo loved her still. He placed his hand where he had hoped and felt the heart still beating under the bark and he embraced the branches as if they still were limbs. And kissed the wood. And the wood shrank from kisses and the god exclaimed – Since you can never be my bride, my tree at least you shall be! Let the laurel adorn, henceforth, my hair, my lyre, my quiver. Let the Roman victors, in the long procession, wear laurel wreaths for triumph and ovation. Beside Augustus’ portals let the laurel guard and watch over the oak and, as my head is always youthful, let the laurel always be green and shining! – He said no more. The laurel stirring, seemed to consent, to be saying yes.

And that’s why the laurel wreath is considered a symbol of victory. It started to be used in the Ancient Olympic games and we are still doing it today in many award ceremonies.

Beside this fun fact, I hope you learnt more about this great artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was really able to give life to a cold rock, creating an immortal masterpiece. Thanks for reading. Don’t miss the next episode because there is still a lot to discover and, if you can, please support this project on Patreon. Ciao!

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