The genial sculptural masterpiece, Apollo and Daphne, was the last of Bernini’s works commissioned by the Borghese family and one of his most popular statues. The influence of antique sculptures like the Apollo in the Vatican Museums can be clearly seen. This life-size marble sculpture, begun by Bernini at the age of twenty-four and executed between 1622 and 1625, has always been housed in the same room in the Galleria Borghese, Rome. The young artist certainly flexed his technical and creative muscles in this piece at a time when his popularity was growing amongst Rome’s rich and powerful patrons. His remarkable skill can be seen in the way he has worked marble as though it were clay in his hands, rather than the demanding stone he worked with hammer and chisel!
Bernini’s inspiration for this complex composition comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses where Apollo, the sun God, is in love with Daphne and Cupid wounds him with a golden arrow, while Daphne has declared herself eternally chaste. Apollo being the son of Zeus, was accustomed to getting his own way so Daphne’s refusal of his advances aroused him even more! Daphne herself was a nymph who though not a god, had power over natural phenomena like springs and trees. Apollo chases Daphne and almost overtakes her when he breathes on her hair. She pleads with her father (Peneus) to make her ugly so that Apollo will stop hunting her. Her father transforms her skin to bark, her hair to leaves, and her arms to branches. Even in this form Apollo still loves her. The narrative tells of desire and pursuit and is full of references to sense and touch, which Bernini uses and transforms into poetic art using, amazingly enough, the unforgiving medium of marble!
Bernini maintained his theme of giving his sculptures one central view to see the action, but also used line to force the viewer to move around the sculpture to determine its meaning, playing with our minds and certainly demanding real participation on the part of the viewer! We the viewer are witnesses to Daphne’s transformation where she actually becomes a laurel tree. Her toes have taken root, her flesh has turned to bark, her hair to leaves, and her arms to branches. Bernini portrays Apollo with a sense of great loss on his face.
It’s intriguing to think that this statue which portrays one of the best known mythological stories was carved for Cardinal Scipione Borghese! The presence of this pagan myth in the Cardinal’s villa was justified by a moral couplet composed in Latin by Cardinal Maffeo Barberini (later Pope Urban VIII), engraved on the statue’s base which reads: Those who love to pursue fleeting forms of pleasure, in the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands. Bernini of course continued to enjoy the sweat meats and excellent wines of Rome’s best tables, safe in the knowledge that his Apollo and Daphne had secured for him the reputation as Europe’s most important artist.