A-Level: Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25, Carrera marble, 243 cm high (Galleria Borghese, Rome) A conversation with Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, and we’re looking at one of Bernini’s first major commissions, “Apollo and Daphne.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] This is a fabulous story of Eros, the god of love, causing quite a bit of mischief.

Dr. Zucker: [0:18] People may know Eros as Cupid.

Dr. Harris: [0:20] What happens is Apollo, the god of music and poetry, insults Eros, and Eros takes his revenge.

Dr. Zucker: [0:28] Eros fashions two arrows, one made of gold and one made of lead. He pierces Apollo with the golden arrow, which makes him fall in love with the nymph Daphne. He pierces Daphne with an arrow of lead, which makes her repulsed by Apollo.

Dr. Harris: [0:43] Now Daphne, we should say, has dedicated her life to being a virgin, to remaining unmarried. This was very important to her.

Dr. Zucker: [0:50] So she flees Apollo’s advances.

Dr. Harris: [0:52] But Eros gets involved again, and while Daphne is very swift and is able to flee from Apollo, Eros gives Apollo a bit of a push and he catches up to Daphne .

Dr. Zucker: [1:05] Daphne has beseeched her father, a river god, to help her escape. He intervenes so that at the moment that Apollo catches up with her, she turns into a laurel tree.

Dr. Harris: [1:15] And that’s what Bernini gives us. This is the very moment when Apollo catches up with Daphne, wraps his hand around her torso, and she begins to transform into that tree. We can see the bark growing out of the earth coming up around her, her fingers turning into branches and leaves, her toes forming into roots.

Dr. Zucker: [1:37] Even as Apollo reaches around her waist to touch her belly, his hand touches only bark, and so it is this moment of transformation. What a perfect subject for Bernini, who transforms this rock, marble, into something that looks as if it’s in motion, and it’s living flesh.

Dr. Harris: [1:55] Typical for Baroque art, this caught moment in time, figures in motion: Apollo on one leg, the other leg behind him. The drapery flowing out behind him in midair. Daphne’s hair also pushing back. We feel them moving through space. We feel the atmosphere around them.

Dr. Zucker: [2:15] We forget that this is marble, an unforgiving stone that is brittle and heavy.

Dr. Harris: [2:20] Well, especially those laurel leaves that grow between them. They are so delicate and so easily broken. It’s true. With a hammer and chisel, it is so easy to chip away and have something break.

Dr. Zucker: [2:33] This stands in such contrast to the Renaissance, where you have a sense of stability, you have a sense of clarity. Here, there’s a wonderful sense of disorder, a sense of confusion, a sense of change and motion.

Dr. Harris: [2:46] Well, we could think, for example, of an early work by Michelangelo, like the “Pietà,” where the forms take the shape of a pyramid, the most stable of forms. Here in Baroque art, we’re interested in instability.

Dr. Zucker: [2:57] We see arcs. We see the arcs of the body, the arcs of the arm, the arcs of the drapery.

Dr. Harris: [3:02] The drapery is my favorite, because you follow it and have to move around the sculpture to see where it goes. Starting at Apollo’s hip, wrapping around, going over his shoulder, and then finally moving around Daphne herself.

Dr. Zucker: [3:17] It’s important to note that the sculpture was intended to be against a wall, and it originally was. The sculpture is now in the center of the room, which allows us to move around it, but it does have its most perfect view in front.

Dr. Harris: [3:28] Also to the side is a lovely view. What’s especially interesting to me is the difference in the expressions between Daphne and Apollo.

Dr. Zucker: [3:37] Apollo seems to have just the beginnings of a recognition of the tragedy that is taking place, that he’s both catching up with and also losing forever his beloved Daphne.

Dr. Harris: [3:49] Although it seems to me that he’s on the side of, “I’m still going to have Daphne. I’m still going to have what I want.” His face still looks mostly tranquil to me, but his right arm reaches behind him, and the way that his wrist is flexed feels to me as though there’s that moment of, “Oh no, something is happening.”

Dr. Zucker: [4:09] A bit of surprise, especially the way those fingers splay out. Simultaneously, Daphne’s face is both an expression of horror and of a kind of blankness. We see both her recognition and her loss of her humanity.

Dr. Harris: [4:22] I mean this is a tragic thing. She has chosen to return to the earth, to a non-human form, rather than be beloved by the god Apollo.

Dr. Zucker: [4:32] Apollo will continue to love her. In fact, Ovid writes:

Dr. Harris: [4:36] “Apollo loved her still. He placed his hand where he had hoped and felt the heart still beating under the bark; and he embraced the branches as if they still were limbs, and kissed the wood, and the wood shrank from his kisses,


“[5:16] and the god exclaimed, ‘Since you can never be my bride, my tree at least you shall be! Let the laurel adorn henceforth my hair, my lyre, my quiver. Let Roman victors, in the long procession, wear laurel wreaths for triumph and ovation. Beside Augustus’ portals let the laurel guard and watch over the oak, and as my head is always youthful, let the laurels always be green and shining!’ He said no more.

[5:16] The laurel stirring, seemed to consent, to be saying ‘Yes.’”

[5:20] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A-Level: Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne," in Smarthistory, July 18, 2017, accessed July 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/bernini-apollo-and-daphne-2/.