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Bernini's First

I hope Michelangelo won’t be jealous at this but Gian Lorenzo Bernini deserves to be considered one of history’s best sculptors. This is Bernini’s first major commission, Daphne & Apollo (1625).

I’ve said it before but when art tells a story it really helps you appreciate the art if you know the story being told. Apollo was smitten with Daphne the nymph when he first noticed her at a river’s edge. But as a devotee of Diana, she had taken a vow of virginity for life. We all know that waving chastity in front of a Greek or Roman god was more of a dare than a deterrent. But Daphne was committed to her vow and she rebuffed Apollo’s advances. I wish the story ended there but Cupid had a hand in making it didn’t. The love god had intervened in an act of revenge against Apollo, who had made fun of Cupid’s youth earlier. One shot from Cupid’s golden arrow multiplied Apollo’s lust for Daphne beyond what was ordinary. At the same time Cupid had used a leaden arrow on Daphne, which deepened her revulsion to Apollo. So an amorous chase took place and, just as Apollo caught up with her, Daphne prayed that her father the river god would turn her into a tree. She morphed into a Laurel tree on the spot.

Bernini sculpted the moment where Daphne’s metamorphosis began and I think his interpretation is really forceful. The tree is just sort of bolting from her body: limbs are sprouting from her fingertips, leaves are almost erupting from her hair, rough bark is replacing her smooth skin, and roots are shooting down from her toes. If you really look at her and try to feel what you’re seeing, her transformation is a little bit jarring. And I think I can read that in her facial expression. She may have asked for the transformation but Bernini makes her look caught off guard by the reality of it. She’s going to quite an extreme just to keep her vow, after all, and maybe we’re seeing the shock of it set in. For his part, Apollo looks undeterred, even though it’s hopeless. He’s caught her but lost her simultaneously, and still not taking no for an answer. As the myth goes, he stayed in love with her even after she took the tree’s form. He even went so far as to feel around the trunk trying to find her beating heart somewhere within. Cupid’s revenge was a pretty nasty piece of work.

Bernini’s sculpture is classic Baroque. Artists of that era loved to depict movement and to convey emotional intensity. With its arcing postures, flowing robes, their deep expressions, and Daphne’s near-violent transfiguration, this may be one of the best examples of the era.

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