Sunday, May 25, 2014

Bernini alla Villa Borghese

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Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Rape of Prosperina, 1621-22
Two hours is all we get to before the bells ring and the guards usher us out of the collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese and family. And two hours is not long enough. Infact, it was frustratingly short. With important Caravaggios, Titians, a Raphael, Piero della Francescas, a Correggio, and the list goes on, two hours was just a beginning. And so, I spent my two hours with the three of the four Bernini sculptures that he made on commission from the Cardinal.

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Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Rape of Prosperina, 1621-22
I don’t know a lot about Renaissance/early Baroque sculpture, but I do know that David, 1623-24, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25, and The Rape of Prosperina, 1621-22, are masterpieces. The first of the three that I saw, The Rape of Prosperina by Pluto was devastating. I approached it from the left, and as Pluto’s triumph is screamed from his laughing mouth, my body went cold. As Prosperina pushes him away with one hand, the other in the air, a tear running down her face, I felt her terror. His celebration of the enormity of his conquest made me want to kill him. The clutch of his hand on her thigh, pressed into her flesh, must be the most exquisite moment in the history of marble sculpture. It is so sensuous, so erotic, so lifelike. And then as I walked around the sculpture, from the right, I saw Prosperina pushing him away, his laughter becoming a grimace, and I was relieved to see that she was the throes of escaping his grasp. And then I moved still further, to be confronted by the angry barking of the three-headed dog, and the two human figures were caught in the struggle with the fabric of Prosperina’s dress. Bernini thus creates a series of narrative scenes in the single marble group.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Rape of Prosperina, 1621-22
 However, it wasn’t the complex narrative as much as the intense emotions caught in the press of Pluto’s hand on Prosperina’s thigh or the creasing of the skin on his face by her hand, the absolute energy and motion of stone figures, that carries the power of the group. Apparently critics in the nineteenth century were harshly critical of his lack of personality, her bad outline, but I don’t care about these details. What moved me, what I took away and hope to see again one day, was the delicate tear falling down Prosperina’s face.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25
Having completed The Rape of Prosperina at age 23, the Cardinal then commissioned Bernini to sculpt the story of Apollo and Daphne. Perhaps the most beautiful thing I saw in my four days in Rome was the billowing fabric caught in the wind and the rush of Daphne’s escape as she turns into a tree. The fabric, her hair becoming leaves, magically articulates their speed, the passion she needs to escape, the urgency of her motion, the desperation of his pursuit. And the wind filled fabric becomes even more sensuous, more beautiful when we remember that the process of marble sculpting: the young Bernini found these figures hidden in his block of marble. This was his discovery, figures that have the energy to break free of the marble in which they are trapped. Bernini is the hero because he was the conduit, the facilitator of their escape – he found them in the stone and set them free.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, David, 1623-24
Over one hundred years after Michelangelo’s David, 1504, Bernini gives him a face filled with expression, determination, and once again, a body in the throes of energetic movement. Like the other commissions, David broke new ground because he was in motion, fully energized in the middle of combat. What is so unusual is that David is immersed in his task to slay the giant, but there is no giant in the sculpture.  It is movement that makes these figures so magical. They are three dimensional, moving not only through space and narrative situations, but also through a spectrum of emotions and possibilities. Moreover, their motion not only becomes possible, but also heighted by the presence of a spectator in motion, around the groupings. This incitation to a moving spectator would likewise set new standards and expectations for sculpture in the Baroque period to follow.

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