A Bernini Masterpiece: Apollo and Daphne

One of my favorite art pieces in all of Rome is a Bernini sculpture in the fabulous Galleria Borghese. The topic of the sculpture is the god Apollo pursuing the nymph Daphne.

As Apollo pursues her — with a lustful mind — Daphne calls on her father, a nature god, to protect her.  To protect her from Apollo’s lascivious intent, her father turns Daphne into a tree.  It’s a subject that has been visited over and over again but is difficult to capture in a static form of art.

In this engraving, the artist has decided to try and depict the story in two separate stages. The main image is Daphne running, with no signs of transformation.  Although it looks like she was trying for speed, holding her hands up in the air doesn’t seem like a good idea.

Engraving by the Master of the Die (Italy, c. 1530-1560)

A smaller image in the background shows that one of Daphne’s legs has become a tree trunk, and her hair is turning into leaves.  Apollo appears to still be running towards her, although obviously she is now, well, entirely grounded. It’s not a persuasive depiction.

This example, attributed the Florentine Renaissance artist Piero del Pollaiuolo, seems one dimensional and flat.

Attributed to Piero del Pollaiuolo (c. 1443 – 1496)

Instead of terror at the prospect of being raped, Daphne has a coy smile, and Apollo is again in full run, while one of her legs is a tree.  It does not look like she is moving forward at all.  And, she and Apollo look much more like idealized Italians of the time (including the preference for blond hair) than a pagan god and a wood nymph.

In this painting, by the prominent artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, a plump and pale Daphne, bedecked with voluminous golden drapery, gazes over at Apollo with a languid expression.  Again, there’s little sense of movement, little sense of fear.

Daphne Chased by Apollo, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1744

None of these depictions works well at depicting the the dynamic nature of the scene.

Bernini, however, made masterful use of the three-dimensionality of sculpture. As you move around the sculpture, the different viewing angles reveal different aspects of the scene. Being able to do this in a three-dimensional art form allowed Bernini to depict the physical force and speed of the two figures, and the sense of transformation.

His sculpture is a masterpiece of movement, of panic, and of transformation.

As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, Daphne’s hair is streaming, giving a sense of the speed of her flight.  Her mouth is open as if she is screaming, and her eyes are wide with fright.

Apollo closes in on Daphne


Daphne’s fear is evident while her hair spins as she turns her head

Bernini depicts her twisting and leaping, throwing herself forward, away from the pursuing god, whose drapery flows behind him as he runs after Daphne.

The sculpture, seen from the back

Viewing the sculptor from further back, you see Daphne is becoming a tree as she frantically throws herself forward, away from Apollo.  Bernini portrays a split second in time: one thinks that in just a few seconds, Daphne’s body will have completely transformed, and the scene will be over.