Apollo and Daphne – a marble sculpture in the Baroque style in natural size, made by the Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini and executed in 1622-1625. Placed in the Borghese Gallery in Rome, this work depicts the culmination of the history of Apollo and Daphne (Phoebe and Daphne) in Ovid’s Metamorphosis.
The sculpture was the last of a series of works commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese at the beginning of Bernini’s career. Apollo and Daphne sculpture was ordered after Borghese transferred the earlier work of his patronage, Bernini’s Pluto and Persephone, to Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi. Most of the work was done in 1622-23, but there was a pause, most probably for work on the sculpture of David, which interrupted its completion, and the artist did not finish the work until 1625. Moreover, the sculpture was not transferred to the Villa Borghese until September 1625. Bernini did not complete the sculpture himself; he received considerable help from his student, Giuliano Finelli, who worked on the details that show the transformation of Daphne from person to tree, such as bark and branches, as well as her weathered hair.
Some historians ignore the importance of Finelli’s contribution
While the sculpture can be assessed from different angles, Bernini planned to look at it from the side, allowing the viewer to simultaneously see the reactions of Apollo and Daphne, thus understanding the narration of the story in an instant, without having to move the position.
When Phoebus (Apollo), clothed with Cupid’s love arrow, sees Daphne, the daughter of Peneus, the river god, he is amazed at her beauty and absorbed in desire. But Daphne was doomed to Cupid’s repulsive love and denied the love of men. When the Nymph runs away, he ruthlessly pursues her – pleading and promising everything. When her strength is finally finished, she prays to father Peneus: “Destroy the beauty that has injured me, or change the body that destroys my life.”
Before her prayer ended, a stupor engulfed her entire body, and the thin bark covered her tender bosom, and her hair turned into moving leaves, her arms turned into swinging branches, and her legs, like clinging roots, were attached to the ground — her face was hidden by girdling leaves. And yet Phoebus has not lost his passion for Daphne. Even as this Phoebus loved her, and putting his hand on the chest, he felt her heart still trembling under the new bark. He squeezed the branches as if they were parts of human hands, and kissed the tree. But the tree shrank from his kisses, and the god said:
“Since you cannot be my bride, you must be my tree! Laurel, with you my hair will be wreathed, with you my lyre, with you my quiver. You will go with the Roman generals when joyful voices acclaim their triumph, and the Capitol witnesses their long processions. You will stand outside Augustus’s doorposts, a faithful guardian, and keep watch over the crown of oak between them. And just as my head with its uncropped hair is always young, so you also will wear the beauty of undying leaves.”
Apollo and Daphne is a complex portrayal of rapid movement. It can be viewed from all angles. Every time you can notice something new in the composition. If you look at the sculpture for the first time, you will see Apollo chasing Daphne. But after a while you begin to notice the magical transformation of a living being into a tree. In front of you is still a beautiful nymph, but hands are already beginning to turn into twigs and leaves. And later the legs begin to grow into the ground.
Bernini masterfully showed all the curls on the girl’s hair and the transition of the body into the bark. He also knew how to properly polish the marble surface to show the beauty and greatness of his work. The sculpture is filled with life, changing under the eyes of people. If you go to its left side, you can see the joy of the young man because he caught the fugitive, as well as the fear in the eyes of the girl. Standing right in front of the sculpture changes the look of the composition: Daphne is not so worried anymore, but Apollo is terrified and desperate. Bernini combined in his work the contradictory principles of images.