A Deeper Look at Bernini’s Most Radically Realistic Looking Marble Statue

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the famed Italian Baroque sculptor of the 17th century, lived and worked by a bold motto. Bernini was a great sculptor, with The Rape of Proserpina among his most prized works. He also designed St. Peter's Basilica (one of Italy's most famous buildings).

While the papacy largely supported the turbulent artist's work, he interpreted religious subject matter with not only extraordinary skill but also radical artistic freedom.

Stock Photos from wjarek/Shutterstock

This marble sculpture, created in the early 17th century, exemplifies some of Bernini's strengths notably his grasp of anatomy and ability to conjure both dynamism and drama. While the sculptor's skills are still lauded today, the work's distasteful subject matter has placed a cloud over it—although it is a defining highlight of both the Baroque era and marble sculpture in general.

The Rape of Proserpina by Bernini

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Between 1621 and 1622, Bernini finished The Rape of Prosperina. Though he was just 23 years old at the time the Naples-born artist was already achieving recognition as a rising artist. While he would take almost 40 years to construct his architectural masterwork, St. Peter's Basilica he had already established himself as a recognized sculptor in the early 1620s with four masterpieces: David; Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius; Apollo and Daphne; and, of course, The Rape of Proserpina.

The sculpture, which stands over 7.5 feet tall is carved from Carrara marble, a Tuscany-based stone that was once utilized by ancient Roman architects and, more recently, by Mannerist and Renaissance painters. Bernini "prided himself on being able to give marble the look of flesh" because of the suppleness of this high-quality marble.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

The Rape of Proserpina, a sculpture designed to depict a dramatic abduction (the term "rape" refers to the act of kidnapping in this context), exemplifies this fascination in changing a stone into the skin. Bernini's attention to detail and concern for realism is obvious in the work's anatomical features which were "pushed to the point of touching the physical boundaries of marble." The grabbing fingers of Pluto's (the sculpture's male subject) hand appear to dig into Proserpina's (the female figure's) presumably soft flesh as he holds her thigh. Similarly, his bowed knees and stiff arms protrude as he tries to overwhelm her, yet her flowing hair and twisting draperies imply mobility.

Cardinal Scipione Borghese, an enthusiastic art collector and ardent supporter of both Bernini and fellow Baroque artist Caravaggio commissioned The Rape of Proserpina, as he did many of Bernini's earlier works. People remained interested in resurrecting a Classical approach to painting after the High Renaissance including topics influenced by Ancient Greek and Roman mythology.

The Myth of Pluto and Proserpina

Alessandro Allori, “The Abduction of Proserpine,” 1570 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

This work depicts a scene from the myth of Pluto and Proserpina (also known as Proserpine), which appears in both Ovid's Metamorphoses and Claudian's De raptu Proserpinae, published 400 years later.

Proserpina, the daughter of Jupiter (Zeus in Greek mythology), and Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture are kidnapped in this fable. Proserpina was assaulted while collecting flowers by an enthralled Pluto, the god of the dead, who sprang from the soil in a chariot drawn by four black horses. Ceres heard her daughter scream as she was taken down into the underworld, but she was too late.

Nevertheless, "once she knew Pluto had kidnapped Proserpine," The Getty adds "she grew enraged and caused the soil to dry up and the harvests to fail. The world was desolate and lifeless, Jupiter saw from the skies. He intervened and a bargain was struck: Proserpine would spend half the year with her mother and the other half with Pluto in the underworld.”

Contemporary Interpretations and Legacy

Stock Photos from wjarek/Shutterstock

Given the tragic nature of the event, it's no wonder that Bernini's sculpture has sparked controversy through the decades. Bernini's depiction of such an unsavory scenario received widespread acclaim soon after its completion (the artist's son and biographer described it as "an astonishing combination of tenderness and brutality"), but applauding an image portraying a violent kidnapping might be problematic in today's setting.

Thomas Campbell, the director of San Francisco's Fine Arts Museums recently lauded the piece's "compelling, hypnotizing, even uplifting" aspects. he continued, “I am now having issues to recalibrate my opinions on this work because a subject that I used to perceive almost as an academic premise for virtuoso statue scenes are, after all, prevalent in reformation and baroque art—seems much less academic two years after the start of the 'Me Too' movement.”

Today debates over potentially problematic pieces of art—and even artists—are front and center. However, contextualizing the subject matter via both a classical and modern lens helps us to appreciate the craftsmanship while staying critical of what is shown in The Rape of Proserpina.

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