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Keri A. Miller

Bernini's Mythological Sculptures

Bernini was a famous Baroque sculptor, architect, playwright, stage designer, and painter from Italy. This great artist was born in 1598 in Naples, and is said to be one of the greatest of sculptural artists of the 17th century. He seems to have, in fact, created the very form, for it is said, "Bernini created the Baroque style of sculpture and developed it to such an extent that other artists are of only minor importance in a discussion of that style" (Web Gallery of Art, Bernini). So life-like and real were his sculptures that one could almost see a heart beat beneath the surface. It would also seem that he did not carve them by subtraction but built up the forms with clay (Hibbard, 25). Because of his immense talent he was hailed a miraculous prodigy and deemed by people of his time to be successful at most everything he tried his hand on. For so celebrated was Bernini by contemporaries of his time that it is said, "more than one contemporary thought Bernini was not merely the greatest artist of the century but the greatest man. Pope Alexander VII said that Bernini would have excelled in any kind of endeavour…( Hibbard, 19). Yet, his praise did not stop at just one pope, but went on to include others such as Annibale Carracci, Cardinal Borghese (later Paul V), Urban VIII, Innocent X, Pope Clement IX, and even Louis XIV of France--many of which were his patrons.

Bernini started out young under the direction of his father sculptor, Pietro Bernini. His talent grew quickly and he soon became an independent artist with commission and patrons of his own, including that of Pope Paul V. At this early time his influences include that of the classical Greek and Roman sculpture and Renaissance paintings, especially Michelango, Raphael, and Giulio Romano. Howard Hibbard claims, "We know that Bernini's sculptural taste was formed by the late antique works in the Vatican : the Laocoön, Apollo Belveder, 'Antinous', and the Hellenistic torsos though to be of Hercules" (Hibbard, 25). Bernini's talent for accurately portraying the anatomy and "reality" of human forms was surely inspired here. Many of his early works reflect these classical ideals and often take the form of mythical sculptures.

His mythological sculptures appear mainly in his early works of the 1620s. The first notable mythological piece to be mentioned is The Goat Amalthea with the Infant Jupiter and a Faun. It is one of his earliest surviving works. The marble was created in 1615 (though some claim 1609) and shows the divine goat Amalthea, who suckled Jupiter on Crete where he was born. To repay her for her kindness, Jupiter turns the goat's horns into magic Cornucopia, so that they are always filled with whatever the goat wishes. Here we see not only the goat and Jupiter, but a young faun as well to balance out the composition with each boy on either side of the goat, forming a stable triangle form with their heads. Though in its early stages of development, Bernini's special talent for portraying virtuosity and the life of his subject matter still shine though. The realistic quality of the goat's skin and the boys' hair have been pointed out the reoccur in Bernini's later works. (Wittkower, Catalogue). This late-antique realism is said to be a result of his study of Hellenistic sculpture in his youth (Hibbard, 26).



The Goat Amalthea with the Infant Jupiter and a Faun
1609 or 1615, Galleria Borghese, Rome





 Another mythological piece is that of Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius. The classical story of Aeneas is written in Bulfinch's Mythology. Aeneas was a citizen of Troy, a city attacked by the Greeks by way of a wooden horse. Since they had no luck in infiltrating Troy, the Greeks hid several of their men in the horse and left it outside the city walls. The Trojans took the horse inside and thus began the destruction of Troy. Aeneas was one of the citizens who escaped with his wife, father, and son. However, since his father was so old he could not walk the distance. and Aenus had to carry him. Aenus's son follows close behind, but his wife was lost in the chaos on their way out of Troy.

Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius was created for Cardinal Borghese in 1618 as Bernini's first big commission. It is a life-size grouping of the three surviving men of the Trojan story. Anchises rides on Aeneas's shoulders carrying the household gods, while the young son trails behind carrying the sacred fire. The emergency of the situation is emphasized by Anchises's terrified, deeply drilled, wide eyes, while Aeneas has a almost stoically heroic determined expression on his face, his eyes half-closed in concentration and exhaustion



Although the life-sized work was created by a prodigy it has often been criticized. The main weakness of the men seems to be the overall "crowdedness", compression, and lack of balance. Hibbard writes, "..the center of gravity is distressingly high….there is some of the spiraling instability that is typical of the style of Giovanni Bologna and his predecessors, and this is emphasized by the tiny humped-up base on which the towering group perches precariously." (Hibbard, 34). Indeed the gross amount of mass concentrated at the shoulders of Aeneas does give a sense that the sculpture might topple. The base work, miniscule circular base, and tiny boy, Ascanius, do little to help carry the visual weight of the mass.

Indeed this is also an extremely complicated sculpture with the intermingling of three separate masses as one solid form. Torgil Magnuson states, "The contorted spiral, and the lines which can be followed though Aeneas' arms and Anchises ' thighs and which tempt the spectator to walk round the sculpture, are certainly a relic of Mannerism's figura serpentinata, although it was doubtless intended that the main viewpoint should be diagonally to the front of the statue" (Magnuson, 1183)

Interestingly, the piece is also often thought to have been produced by Bernini's father, Pietro, by more contemporary scholars because of its "tower-like composition" (Web Gallery of Art, Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius). Yet, Bernini's virtuosity still appears in Aeneas's hair, and the sculptures realistic muscles again point to his early Hellenistic models. Hibbard writes, "Muscles, sinew, and veins play realistically under the skin of Aeneas…The sagging skin of the old man is subtly differentiated from that of the son and recalls Bernini's study of the antique Seneca" (Hibbard, 36).

Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius
Galleria Borghese, Rome

Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25, Galleria Borghese, Rome

After Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius Bernini was commissioned by the Cardinal Borghese to create three more sculptures. These were the biblical marble David. as well as the two mythical masterpieces Apollo and Daphne and Pluto and Proserpine (also called The Rape of Proserpine). The mythical Apollo and Daphne sculpture, too, has a classical story behind it important to the understanding of Bernini's work of art. Apollo is the god of light who falls in love with and pursues the nymph, Daphne. However, she abhors his attentions and tries to flee from her suitor. Apollo finally catches up with her, but in the end she escapes him by being turned into a laurel tree.

This sculpture is one of his most famous works and was created between 1622 and 1625. The sculpture was designed to be viewed diagonally from the front as "type of relief", where the moment and expression can best be seen (Britannica online). Unfortunately, the sculpture has been moved to the center of the room at the Galleria Borghese in a position that does not match its design.

Yet, here is one of Bernini's greatest examples of his talent for virtuosity and sense of moment. He has captured the very millisecond of Daphne's metamorphosis. Here semi-human, semi-tree her body is being encapsulated with bark, her feet molding into roots, and her fingers and hair sliding into the form of leaves. Daphne's hair still swings in the momentum of her chase and sudden stop in being caught by Apollo. Her mouth hangs open and her eyes are wide with the dual surprised reaction to the transformation and capture. Apollo's expression, too, is one of talent showing the change of his expression in transition from satisfaction to the beginning of surprise. His dramatic baroque drapery still tells of his flight as it still whips around him in theatrical movement. Furthermore, the delicate leaves and realistic hair and texture of the bodies are so miraculous in Bernini's rendering, they are even thought to have never been duplicated by the artist.



The Rape of Proserpina, 1621-22, Galleria Borghese, Rome


Lastly, The Rape of Proserpina depicts the abduction of the young daughter of Ceres by Pluto. This myth is more popular under the figures' Greek names. The Greek names for Pluto, Ceres, and Proserpina are Hades, Demeter, and Persephone. In this classical story Pluto falls in love with Proserpina, abducts her, and takes her to his home in the underworld. Ceres, Proserpina's mother, is the goddess of the earth and is so distraught over the loss of her daughter that she does not bring things to grow. Thus, winter ensues. At the end of the story there is an agreement that Perserpina will spend half the year in the underworld with Pluto and half on earth with her mother. During the times Proserpina is in the underworld Ceres does not allow things to grow and thus the seasons of the world are explained.

Like Apollo and Daphne, the sculpture is meant to be viewed from the front and must be to get the full effect. Bernini has, however, included the three-headed dog of Hades as a point of interest in the back and giving visual support to the structure. Additionally, although less split-second accurate than Apollo and Daphne, The Rape of Proserpina still shows the "moment" of the abduction, as Pluto hoists her up carrying her away to his home in underworld. Here, Proserpina actively struggles against him, pushing forcefully away from his body, stretching the skin of his face in the process. Pluto tries, likewise, to desperately hold onto her, the deep depression on her thigh show the heavy grip, life, and force of his hands. Facial-wise Proserpina is shown very similar to Daphne. Her mouth and eyes are open wide in distress. Yet, the expression is more urgent and panicked in her active resistance, as her eyebrows are furrowed and tears stream her face. Her right arm flails about in a symbolic pleading for help, which does not come. Even the arrangement of the figures points to increased violence and drama. Torgil Magnuson writes, "…this time it is a question of conflicting action, as the criss-crossing lines of movement in arms and legs so powerfully emphasise." (Magnuson, 207-208).

Overall, this sculpture is the most dramatic and "baroque" of Bernini's mythical works showing the true theatrical nature of the period, while still displaying Bernini's special talent of virtuosity and for accurately portraying the anatomy of humans, even down to their veins. Together these two elements of drama and accuracy combine creating a sense of life and breath in Bernini's works.


Bulfinch's Mythology: bull31.html

Britannica Online, Bernini:

"Bernini, Gian Lorenzo." Encyclopædia Britannica 2003 Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
14 Apr, 2003 <>.

Grove Art, Bernini.

 Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1971.

Magnuson, Torgil. Rome in the Age of Bernin: Volume I From the election of Sixtus V to the death of Urban VIII. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1982.

Web Gallery of Art, Bernini:

Webgallery of Art:

Wittkower, Rudolf. Gian Lorenzo Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque. London: The Phaidon Press, 1955.


All images taken from Web Gallery of art except Aeneas sketch from Bulfinch's Mythology.