When Bernini put his career at risk, and the turning point that made him the interpreter of the Church of Rome
The group depicts the myth of the nymph Daphne, who was transformed into a laurel to escape Apollo’s violence. This work was commissioned in 1622 by a sophisticated collector, Cardinal Scipione Caffarelli-Borghese, for his villa on the Pincian Hill (Pincio). This luxurious residence surrounded by beautiful gardens is now home to the “Galleria Borghese” museum.
La Chambre, Bernini’s first biographer, reported that Pope Gregory XV, while praising his virtuosity, considered Daphne too erotic and unsuitable for a cardinal’s house. This was a point in time when the Catholic Church was attempting to counter reform movements, and their control over culture was quite strong. Bernini was only 24 years old, and a moral condemnation of his work could have crushed his career. He was saved by the intervention of Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who placed a couplet at the base of the statue, warning that chasing pleasure creates bitterness. The statue so went from a lascivious pagan myth to a moral warning. The cardinal’s stance was rather surprising, considering the fact that Maffeo, who would become Pope the following year with the name of Urban VIII, condemned the poet Marino and Galileo Galilei for heresy, forcing them to recant.
Bernin’s rescue came at a price. From that moment on, the artist entered the service of the Church and the Pope, with many honours, a great deal of satisfactions, yet very little freedom. It is no coincidence that Bernini immediately sculpted the David, the biblical hero whose face was created in his likeness. Barberini himself held the mirror to the artist while reproducing his own face on the marble. The David was Bernini’s abjuration. However, the erotic component would not disappear entirely, resurfacing at times in his career, as in the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, contradicting the vision of an artist that was totally aligned with the Church.
The statue of Apollo and Daphne is seductive. The author pushes the potential of marble and the stone becomes skin, bark, hair, and leaves. Moreover, the artist aims at the deception of the senses, something that painting had already achieved in Rome, with formidable results thanks to painters like Rubens. It would be the same sculptor, an old man at this point, who would say that “the art is in making everything that is fake appear true”. Ultimately, this is Baroque, a continuous deception of perceptions.
The scene is also quite dynamic. We are in the culminating moment of the action, in the passage from one state to another. A cry escapes from the woman’s mouth, and we do not know if it is due to Apollo’s arm that managed to grasp her, or the wonder and horror of seeing herself transformed into a plant and losing her human form. Transition takes centre stage. This is also the Baroque, a look that has no respite in continuous movement.
Another interesting aspect is the way in which this work dialogues with space. Although the piece appears to have been made to be seen from all sides, it actually has a main frontal view. The statue was designed to rest on the wall, however the work also “explodes in space”. The figures lean forward invading the observer’s space and create an illusory environment in which the viewer is incorporated. An exchange takes place between true and false, the fiction of the statue clashes with the truth of the surprise that captures the viewer. That which should be fake, meaning the involvement of the observer, becomes unexpectedly true. In a truly modern approach, Bernini directs the reactions of the observer.
The work received a great consensus among contemporaries, and Bernini himself was aware that he had created a masterpiece. As an old man, sitting at the court of the King of France Louis XIV, he would recall the hair he had made for his Daphne.
When we look at this statue it is as if violence were unfolding before our eyes. We can almost hear Daphne’s cry as it transforms before our eyes. Let us be deceived by the spectacle that the sculptor has created for us, it is the last cry of a “free” man before entering the service of Faith and Power. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Apollo’s head was chosen as the symbol of Cultural Heritage in Italy.
Anna Maria Calabretta