We visit the Galleria Borghese and focus on two sensual statues sculpted by Gianlorenzo Bernini, both based on stories told by the old Latin poet Ovid. Both were commissioned by the Borghese family which then also held the papacy and was helping to build the new St. Peter’s Basilica. How do Ovid and these two statues fit into the Catholic worldview that was then being expressed in the new basilica? Or don’t they?

Show Notes

I warned you some time ago that my neat categories of Ancient, Christian, and Modern Rome were merely preliminary: they make for a good start, but as we learn more, we see that additional distinctions must be made. The ancient empire must be distinguished from the ancient republic, for example, and Mussolini rejected the liberal principles that Modern Rome introduced. Today, we are headed back for a second visit to the Villa Borghese, where we will see a very different side of Christian Rome than we saw in our five episodes devoted to its greatest Church. It was Gian Lorenzo Bernini who gave shape to both the interior and the welcoming piazza of St. Peter’s, but now we will turn from his work there to his most famous statues in the Galleria Borghese, and this will allow us to see that both his art and his times were more varied or even contradictory than we might have thought. On the one hand, all of Bernini’s contributions to St. Peter’s suggest and encourage a profound piety and devotion to the Church and its papacy, but the two statues we will focus on today are works in which sexual love is the dominant theme and the stories behind them come from the ancient Roman poet Ovid—not from the Bible or the Lives of the Saints. This helps to show the complexity of the world view of the Romans from the Renaissance onward. To summarize this with regard to art, an emphasis on halos gave way to a world replete with nudes.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, published in Venice 1497 (Wikimedia Commons)

It is hard for us to imagine how well-known and influential a few authors were back in Renaissance and Counterreformation Rome. Many complain in recent decades that a narrow “canon” of great books dominates our universities, but whatever may have been the case a century ago, it’s not as though many of us have been formed by the ideas and tastes of a select group of classics we’ve gotten to know well. For better or worse—I obviously think the latter—Plato, Shakespeare, and even Karl Marx are uncharted territory for most of us today: countless other influences drown them out by their powerful waves of passing popularity. But in Renaissance and Baroque Rome, by contrast, fewer works dominated the market, and these provided not just matter for reading and study: they also supplied the stories for art, which for its part, then loved to tell stories. But this was hardly a stuffy and stifling world with one narrow point of view, for the Bible and the classics offer a lot to think about.

The Bible was the first source of stories, and to it the Church added reports about the saints and martyrs, but surprisingly soon thereafter came the stories told by great Greek and Roman poets. At or very near the head of this list was Ovid, and, especially his poem The Metamorphoses. Its meter—dactylic hexameter—and its length—11,000 lines divided into 15 books—are both epic, and they begged to be compared with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. With over 250 stories, it is the fullest compendium of ancient myths we have. It was studied by Dante, Bocaccio, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, of course, by our own Gian Lorenzo Bernini, as well as by his patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Its stories were represented in stone and on canvas not only by Bernini, but by the greatest artists of the age, including Titian, Giulio Romano, Giorgione, Poussin, and Raphael. Think of it: in Ovid, artists found gripping stories with all kinds of encounters between beautiful gods and mortals, often expressing love, envy, fear, greed, and other powerful emotions. Ovid’s world was rich and complex, and could not be reduced to the idea that human flourishing is threatened by only one vice, which must be cancelled at all costs; and his characters were as recognizable to educated audiences as David and Goliath. The Metamorphoses offered a ready reservoir of gripping subjects for art, and the artists of the Renaissance and the Baroque took advantage of it.

Michelangelo, Awakening Slave (Wikimedia Commons)

Michelangelo might be the exception that proves the rule, for I don’t believe any of his works refer explicitly to a subject from Ovid. On the other hand, four of his most admired statues, often called the Prisoners or Slaves, are famous in part because they appear to be unfinished: they show their subjects as they seem to struggle to free themselves from the stone and emerge as independent and spiritual beings. When you see them in Florence, read these lines from the Metamorphoses, which tell the story of stones that turn into human beings:

The stones . . . began to lose their rigidity and hardness, and they became soft. Once softened, they acquired new form. Then after growing, and ripening in nature, a certain likeness to a human shape could be vaguely seen, like marble statues at first inexact and roughly carved.  (I.400)

Michelangelo’s Prisoners are clearly caught in mid-metamorphosis, and almost seem designed to illustrate Ovid’s account of human beings who emerge from stones.

Whereas Homer and Vergil wrote epics that centered on the life of a mortal hero, Ovid focuses on a more abstract theme, the theme of change. He seems to take up change as if it were the fundamental principle of nature, like the old Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who denied that there were fixed essences or beings and declared “panta rhei,” or “all is flux.”

Ovid invites a contrast between his work and the great epics of Greece and Rome, but how would he stand with regard to the Bible? More generally, with the rediscovery of the classical authors, including Ovid, did Renaissance and Baroque Rome rediscover not merely old stories but also new ways of understanding the world, ones that challenged the long-dominant world view advanced by the Church? Surely, there were attempts to bridge any gulf between Christian ways of thinking and those of Ovid and the other dead white guys who were speaking so alluringly from beyond the grave, but were these old but recently rediscovered authors easily made to harmonize with the univocally Christian world that had shaped Rome and the West for a thousand years? This question does not even arise in Saint Peter’s Basilica, but it’s on full display in the Galleria Borghese.

Having introduced Ovid, the poet, let me do the same for Gianlorenzo Bernini, the artist. Then we will turn to his two sculptures based on Ovid, the Apollo and Daphne, and the Pluto and Proserpina (or, as the Greeks would have called it, Hades and Persephone).

Bernini’s statue of Pope Urban VIII in the Apse of St. Peter’s (photo from

Even as a boy, Bernini began to show his extraordinary talent; and he soon found himself in circumstances that helped him develop it. In 1605 Pope Paul V Borghese called Pietro Bernini, Gianlorenzo’s father, to Rome to work on his funeral chapel at Saint Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore). While his father worked on the chapel, young Gianlorenzo had free run of the Vatican collection, and spent long days sketching the great works that we tourists now file by so quickly in the Vatican Museums. As Brunelleschi had gone to the Pantheon not just to gape but to learn how to build a dome to rival to it, so Bernini worked in the Vatican to prepare himself to create works comparable to the masterpieces he studied.

Young Bernini was carving marble by the age of 8, and by 10 he had caught the attention of Cardinal Scipione Borghese and his uncle the pope. Reportedly, the pope asked Cardinal Maffeo Barberini to guide young Bernini in his reading and other studies. This Barberini was a well-educated poet and early admirer of Galileo’s new science, so I presume Bernini received a good liberal arts education. The Barberini Cardinal also went on to become Pope Urban VIII. As we heard when discussing St. Peter’s, he supported Bernini’s work in the Vatican for the 20 years of his papacy. Bernini’s youth was one of those wonderful moments when rare talent is recognized, nurtured, and given every opportunity. Also wonderful is that in this case, rare talent seized the opportunity available to it.

Of works by Bernini in the Galleria, I know of 10 sculptures and 3 paintings. Beyond this, he helped to restore some of the ancient works that had been marred over the centuries. But I’ll focus first on the Pluto and Proserpina and then on the Apollo and Daphne. This won’t be our last visit to the Galleria.

Pluto and Proserpina (Wikimedia Commons)

Bernini sculpted the Pluto and Proserpina in 1621-22, when he was in his early twenties. It takes its subject from the Metamorphoses, Book V, when the king of the Underworld, Pluto or, for the Greeks, Hades, abducts a beautiful young woman named Proserpina, the daughter of Ceres, the goddess of grain. Pluto has chosen her to be his lover and wife, but Proserpina is repelled by him. She cries out for help, but to no avail, and Pluto carries her away. Along the way, as he heads towards his subterranean kingdom, he is scolded by a nymph who then literally dissolves in grief, a boy is transformed into a lizard, Ceres sends a plague upon the earth, and an informant is changed into a bird. It’s a wild story. In the end, Pluto reaches his home in the Underworld, and Jupiter, who happens to have fathered Proserpina, tries to resolve this quarrel between his brother Pluto and his lover Ceres by decreeing that Proserpina will spend half of the year in Hades, and half above ground with her mother.

Pluto’s Grip on Proserpina’s Thigh (Photo by Vavitour, Valentina di Pietro)

A single statue cannot fully summarize 200 lines of poetry that feature about ten major characters and several settings both on the earth and beneath it. It cannot even capture the chariot that Pluto is said to drive. It must condense things and choose one crucial moment to represent the essence of the whole story. Bernini shows us Proserpina struggling to free herself from Pluto’s tight grip, while he radiates such strength and determination that we cannot doubt that he will get his way with her. Both figures are naked, which makes it even more clear that sexual ardor has much to do with this struggle, and I am sure the statue’s sensuality is all I thought about when I saw it for the first time. She is a beautiful but terrified woman, even with a tear carved on her cheek, and he is a powerhouse of a man.

And yet while showing the power of sexual love, I do not think it honors it. Pluto’s face is disfigured by his overpowering passion: he is shown to be as little able to control himself as Proserpina can control him. I read one critic who complained that Pluto’s face is vulgar, and his look is leering; I agree but do not think Bernini wanted this rapist to look beautiful, composed, and admirable. Cerberus is also barking at his feet, and this three-headed dog helps to suggest that his master is as bestial as he is.

But Bernini wants to bring out a second element of the story as well. Pluto is the god of the Underworld: he is taking Proserpina not to just any bed but to one in Hades, so the statue is also about death; and I presume that Proserpina’s struggle, which would have been great in any event, is affected by knowing she is now leaving the land of the living. Death is the great metamorphosis we are to ponder, and Bernini shows it in two ways.

The more obvious is his inclusion of the three-headed dog, for this Hound of Hades is positioned at Hades’ gates so that none of the dead can leave. The more subtle sign that the couple are now entering Hades is that Pluto is stepping over a pitchfork with his left foot. This must mark the borders of the two worlds, the land of the living and that of the dead. The beautiful statue shows the terrifying power of sexual passion, but it also reminds us of our mortality. Like Proserpina, we will all cross this divide.

As for the technical excellences of the statue, I share the amazement of the art historians. I marvel that the proportions are so good on a complex group of figures, man, woman, and three-headed dog. I marvel at the different textures: the hairy hide of the dogs; the smoothness of Proserpina’s skin; and the tense muscles of Pluto’s torso, legs, and arms. I marvel also at the emotions behind Proserpina’s silent scream and Pluto’s deranged appearance. Everyone comments on the indentations in Proserpina’s soft flesh, which yields to the god’s powerful grip: they are right to do so, for Bernini worked the marble as if it were wax.

Another of Bernini’s statues based on the Metamorphoses is his Apollo and Daphne, whose story Ovid describes in Book I, lines 438-567. The immediate background is a flood that Jupiter sent to kill most of humankind. As the floodwaters recede, the warming mud generated all sorts of new forms of life, though without any divine purpose. Among these was Python, a snake so large its body covered much of a hillside. Using a thousand arrows, however, Apollo managed to kill it, and while exulting over his victory, he taunted another archer god, Cupid, for thinking it worthy to use the noble bow merely to spark love.

Cupid responds by shooting Apollo with a golden arrow, which kindles love, and then shooting a nymph named Daphne with a lead arrow, which prevents love. Apparently as a consequence, Daphne followed the example of Diana, the virgin goddess, and spurned all her suitors and enjoyed a life of hunting in the woodlands. When Apollo saw the beautiful Daphne, however, he fell passionately in love with her and explained to her the reasons she should love him in return. Unpersuaded by the god of reason, she ran off, and a chase began; and as Apollo was about to seize her, she cried out to her father, a river god, to save her by transforming her in such a way as to destroy her beauty. He answered by turning her into a laurel tree, so her hair grew into leaves, her arms into branches, and her feet into roots. Surprisingly, Apollo’s love did not cease, and he promised that he would always honor laurel and that Roman generals would do likewise in their triumphal parades. Her branches seemed to nod assent.

Apollo and Daphne (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)

This story again has erotic love as its most obvious theme, with a male god pursuing an unwilling female whose divine or semi-divine status is not sufficient to protect her. Bernini again chooses a key moment of transition as the immediate subject of his statue. In this case it is when Apollo reaches Daphne and wraps his left arm around her waist, at which very moment she is being transformed from a beautiful young woman into a tree with roots, branches, and emerging trunk.

As with the statue of Pluto and Persephone, the artistic features of the statue show almost unbelievable skill and care: the poses are demanding but perfectly executed, the textures of bark, flesh, hair, and drapery make for wonderful contrasts, and the faces of the pursuer and pursued show well the ardor, wonder, and fear that the moment requires. Added touches are the leaves carved so thin they are translucent and the billowing drapery which—almost in midair—swirls around the couple and shows their movement, even as Daphne’s toes sprout roots that show that the chase is over.

As compared with Pluto and Proserpina, this couple is younger and more delicate, but both couples show the effects of Bernini’s studies in the Vatican collection. The muscular torso of Bernini’s Pluto seems modeled on the so-called Belvedere Torso, the Laocoön, and the powerful Christ Michelangelo puts in his Last Judgment; Bernini’s Apollo, on the other hand, has the face and less manly frame of the famous Vatican statue known as Apollo Belvedere.

Like the Pluto and Proserpina, the Apollo and Daphne shows beautiful nudes in a close if contested embrace, and their sensuality can’t have been accidental. Both statues must make young hearts beat a little faster. But then we see and sympathize with another innocent victim of male aggression. Pluto looked deranged and kept his girl, while Apollo is attractive, unthreatening in appearance, and he loses his love. Could it be that we are meant to sympathize with him, as well as with Daphne? Did Bernini mean for us to remember the important role of Cupid’s arrows, which suggest that neither gods nor human beings are entirely free where love is involved? Could Apollo’s vain embrace of Daphne even hint that all love ultimately eludes our grasp, that the passion promises so much that it can never be completely fulfilled? Is Apollo’s tragedy meant to remind us of ours?

I have concluded with a barrage of questions because I think the works by Ovid and Bernini raise them, and this is part of their charm. The two statues we have looked at are not merely examples of skilled chisel-work; they represent excellent opportunities to think about our lives, and, thanks to Hades, our deaths.

I turned from podcasts on St. Peter’s to the Villa Borghese because these two sites are connected by the Borghese family, by the stamp of Baroque art, and by the person of Bernini as well. Guided by religious texts, pious devotion reigns in Bernini’s art in St. Peter’s; guided by Ovid, sensual passion and probing questions reign in two of his most famous statues in the Borghese. A great papal family and the great artist they helped to discover shared in both of these worlds; but what, I wonder, is the relationship between them. Could Christianity and the Church, which had just burned Giordano Bruno on the stake and was just about to put Galileo on trial, open its arms to classical thinkers and poets like Ovid?  Or would doing so call the biblical world into question and make it ever more vulnerable to direct challenge?

Our next visit to the Borghese will hardly answer such vast questions, but I hope to keep them alive.

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