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Apollo and Daphne

January 8, 2014

Rome is blessed with artistic treasures beyond compare, especially when it comes to sculpture. A few years ago I happened to be in Rome’s magnificent Borghese Gallery. This wasn’t my first trip to the Borghese but this time I’d brought along friends to share this incredible collection of masterpieces.


The choicest rooms in the museum house sculptures by Bernini (1598-1680), the Steven Spielberg of the seventeenth century. Bernini, more than anyone else, created the dazzling special effects characterizing Rome today. When I pointed out my favorite sculpture in the museum, my friends stared at it for a few minutes before one of them said, “We’ve seen hundreds of statues in Rome. What’s so great about this one?”


I did my best to explain. Bernini was the most famous artist of his age and the successor of Michelangelo. He was a master of Baroque art, a style characterized by intense drama that strove to engage spectators by inserting them into the peak of the action. Bernini’s popularity would be his undoing and eventually he would fall from favor, but his reputation was currently on the rise, and with good reason. I asked my friends to look more closely at the artist’s life-size Apollo and Daphne.


A few centuries earlier a painter had tackled the same subject with feeble results. Bernini, never one to turn down a challenge, was determined to outdo all interpretations of this subject—and he chose to do so in stone. His marble Apollo and Daphne, created in 1622-25 for a cardinal, is an astonishing tour de force.


The story’s comes from The Metamorphosis by the ancient Roman writer Ovid. Ovid must have spent most of his life with a throbbing erection under his toga because much of his work is erotic. In this story, the god Apollo looks down from Olympus and sees the mouthwatering Daphne. He descends to Earth and gives chase to the fleet-footed nymph, promising her anything if she’ll just stop running and check into a Motel 6 with him for a few hours. Unfortunately, she isn’t interested, but he’s gaining on her and in no mood to take no for an answer. Her windswept hair emphasizes the speed with which she’s trying to escape Apollo’s grasp.


If she’d been wearing appropriate clothing she might have had a pocket to store pepper spray, but lacking protection she continues to run for her life, or at least her virginity. When he’s close enough for her to feel his hot breath on the back of her neck she prays to the other gods for intervention. Her prayers are answered, but the gods are often puckish; her salvation, if you can call it that, occurs in the blink of an eye when Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree just as the astonished Apollo reaches out to grab her.


Why is this work of art amazing? Because it does something no other sculpture has attempted to do; like a magician, the artist pulls off an astonishing metamorphosis—a sumptuous woman being transformed into a tree before our very eyes. We share Apollo’s disbelief as her fingers sprout leaves, bark encases her torso and her toes become roots—a split second of mythological time carved in stone. Spielberg might have used all the special effects at his disposal to pull this off, but Bernini does it with a hammer and chisel.


As Ovid tells it, an aroused Apollo initiated this chase due to an excess of wood in his bat, but by turning into a tree it’s Daphne who might soon need termite protection.









If you have a moment I encourage you to Google Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne to more fully appreciate this masterpiece.





Those Greek gods were pretty crazy--and always hot to trot. That's a great representation of that story.
By: PT Dilloway on January 8, 2014
I've not heard the story before, but after you explained it, I can see it in his work. Great story....amazing sculptor. S
By: Scott Cody Park on January 8, 2014
I've seen this statue, and the explanation from our elderly guide was no where near as accurate or entertaining as yours.
By: Shelly on January 8, 2014
Of all the arts, sculpture is my favorite!! Do you remember the deodorant commercial years ago where the camera pulled in for a close up the armpit of an exquisite statue & the announcer would say, "In the mature man & mature woman..."? It drove me crazy--I boycotted them!!
By: fishducky on January 8, 2014
Fantastic synopsis of the story. I've not studied this sculpture before, but the next time I'm in Rome I'll be wishing you were there to explain it all to me!
By: The Broad on January 8, 2014
I love all your penis metaphors. "Excess wood in the bat" is just plain awesome. I think the greek gods are better than the Christian god. They are unapologetically bad-mannered and ill-tempered so it makes sense when you explain the death of a child in the pettiest way (this in contrast to the Christian explanation of "god just needed another angel...")
By: Michael Offutt on January 8, 2014
excess wood in the bat and termite protection....oh my gawd I am truly laughing my .... off! You have the Irish gift with words!
By: on January 8, 2014
You're right - it's clever, innovative, and exciting. I wouldn't have appreciated it as much if you hadn't explained it -- so thank you!
By: Lexa Cain on January 8, 2014
Wow.....just your description is quite stimulating! Ha ha! Very interesting look at meaning that I might have otherwise missed.
By: Carrie on January 8, 2014
An amazing work, thank you for sharing it.
By: mimi on January 8, 2014
I must agree, this shows what would be an absolute instant in time, I actually look at HIS expression, I don't think he's registered that he, um, ain't gettin' any... It is a marvel of art! Cat
By: Cat on January 8, 2014
I love your hilarious explanation of the whole scenario! Good thing Bernini lived in Rome during the 17th America, nowadays, his art would not have a chance. Not enough sheets to cover all that nudity!
By: Pixel Peeper on January 8, 2014
Beautiful, yes. Although I can't help but think a good seamstress could have made a killing back then, what with all the wardrobe malfunctions...
By: Val on January 8, 2014
i think it's the fingers that get me. there's a delicacy in the transformation there.
By: lime on January 8, 2014
Thanks for your description of this statue. It certainly does show action and emotion.
By: red on January 8, 2014
I think you could broaden your writing to include seductive pieces. You just might garner additional admirers. The gods are looking down at thee... with more than Ovid could ever offer.
By: Daniel LaFrance on January 8, 2014
Your story greatly improves the art. I would have definitely signed up for your course.
By: Cranky on January 8, 2014
I always thought this stuff boring but with your spin on it, it's actually interesting. Thanks for that!
By: Bouncin Barb on January 8, 2014
that's a great story Stephen. very interesting. i will google
By: Fran on January 8, 2014
What a most interesting post, you do indeed have a great knowledge of art and thank you for sharing it.
By: John on January 9, 2014
Fascinating story - you are a gold-mine of information!
By: Bryan Jones on January 9, 2014
I could easily stare at a minute portion of that for a lengthy amount of time. I see the magnificence you're referring too. I would also like to note that your image of Ovid is quite spectacular ("must have spent most of his life with a throbbing erection under his toga"). xoRobyn
By: Robyn Engel on January 9, 2014
Well, it's like I always say...if it ain't Baroque, don't fix it.
By: Al Penwasser on January 9, 2014
That's so beautiful. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on January 9, 2014
Oh, but if I could only transform a tree into Jennifer Aniston! I enjoyed this post, Stephen, and especially your description of Bernini as "the Steven Spielberg of the seventeenth century"! Bravo, Bravo!! :)
By: Michael Manning on January 9, 2014
I think the statue is beautiful and I wasn't familiar with either the story or the art. What a tragic story.. The over-sexed pursuer should of been the one turned into something. Not the victim. Seems to me the other gods were sexists.
By: Cheryl P. on January 10, 2014

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