Apollo and Daphne

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Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1624

Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne illustrates a typical Greek god falling head over heels for a nymph. He shows his love for her by attempting to kidnap the forest creature, who of course does not return his affections. The beautiful nymph fled from him, running every bit as fast as she could. However, Apollo had divine intervention on his side. Eros, the god of love who had first infected Apollo with mad desire, helped him with his chase and allowed him to catch up to his love. Just at the moment when he finally caught her, Daphne desperately begged the gods to save her. Her wish was granted. They turned her into a tree.

Bernini sculpts the exact moment of transformation. Apollo, who shows relatively little emotion, has made his catch. Daphne flees upward and to the right in abject terror. The nymph does not yet realize that her wish has been granted. She seems to float just above the ground, already removed from the world. A wall of bark erupts from the ground and envelops Daphne, separating her from Apollo. Leaves, sculpted by an assistant, sprout from her outstretched fingertips. Her hair floats behind her. To me, that is one of the best parts of the work. The hair is detailed and beautifully sculpted. It no longer looks like it is made from marble. Bernini’s skill with stone allows him to take heavy, lifeless marble and turn it into lifelike, dynamic hair. Bernini’s ability to mold marble creates movement and allows this statue to come to life. This commission, along with the two others he created almost simultaneously, vaulted him to the highest level of Roman society.

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