Bernini’s most dramatically lifelike marble sculpture
In the seventeenth century, artists in Italy started to adopt a more intricate style. This shift toward an ornate, over-the-top aesthetic is visible in both art and architecture of the time, with master of components Gian Lorenzo Bernini at the forefront. Bernini was a celebrated sculptor who, in addition to creating St. Peter’s Basilica (one of Italy’s most famous sites), created The Rape of Proserpina.
This marble statue, created in the early seventeenth century, exemplifies several of Bernini’s strengths, which include his mastery of anatomy and ability to evoke both dynamism and drama. While the architect’s accomplishments keep going to be lauded today, the work’s unsavoury subject matter has cast a contentious shadow over it—despite remaining a quintessential highlight of both the Baroque era and of marble statue in general.
The Rapture of Proserpina by Bernini
Between 1621 and 1622, Bernini finished The Rapture of Prosperina. Despite being only 23 years old at the time, the Naples-born artist was already achieving success as a budding artist. While he would not finish his architecture and design masterpiece, St. Peter’s Basilica, for another 40 years, he had already established himself as a celebrated creator in the early 1620s with four masterpieces: David; Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius; Apollo and Daphne; and, of course, The Rape of Proserpina.
The nearly 7.5-foot-tall sculpture is sculpted from Carrara marble, a Tuscany-derived substance that was traditionally used by ancient Roman construction workers and, more lately, by Mannerism and Renaissance artists. Bernini’s craft benefited from the softness of this high-quality marble, as he “prided himself on becoming able to give marble the looks of flesh.”
This interest in converting rock into skin is particularly apparent in The Rape of Proserpina, a work meant to depict a spectacular abduction (the term “rape” means the act of kidnapping in the title). Bernini’s attention to detail and interest in realism is evident in the work’s anatomical details, which were “pushed to the point of grazing the physical boundaries of stone.” As Pluto’s (the sculpture’s male subject) hand grasps Proserpina’s (the female figure’s) thigh, his trying to grasp fingers show up to sink into her apparently soft skin. Equally, as if he’s trying to overpower her, the muscles in his bent legs and tense arms protrude, whereas her flowing hair and twisting drapery recommend motion.
The Rape of Proserpina, like many of Bernini’s previous works, was appointed by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, an avid art collector and dedicated patron of both Bernini and fellow Baroque artist Caravaggio. Following the High Renaissance, people were still involved in resurrecting a Classical style of art, such as subjects influenced by Greek and Roman mythology.
Pluto and Proserpina’s Myth
This item depicts a scene from the myth of Pluto and Proserpina (also recognised as Proserpine), a story found in both Metamorphoses by Ovid, a 1st century CE Roman poet, and De raptu Proserpinae, a story written 400 years later by the Latin writer Claudian.
Proserpina, the daughter of Jupiter (Zeus in Greek mythology) and Ceres, the Roman goddess of agricultural production, is kidnapped in this story. Proserpina was tried to attack while collecting firewood by an enamoured Pluto, the god of the dead, who burst from the ground in a chariot drawn by four black horses. Ceres was too late to hear her daughter scream as she was being tried to drag into the underworld.
Nevertheless, “once she realised Pluto had kidnapped Proserpine,” the Getty says, “she became enraged and ended up causing the earth to dry up and the harvests to fail.” Jupiter observed from above that the earth was desolate and dead. He decided to get involved, and ultimately an agreement was reached: Proserpine would spend half of the year with her mom and the other half with Pluto in the underworld.”
Legacy and Modern Understandings
Given the bleak essence of this story, it’s no shock that Bernini’s statue has sparked controversy over the centuries. Bernini’s depiction of such an unsavoury scene was mostly met with admiration briefly after its completion (the artist’s son and biographer named it “an incredible comparison of gentleness and cruelty”), but going to celebrate a scene portraying a violent abduction can be problematic in today’s context.
For instance, Thomas Campbell, the director of the Fine Arts Galleries of San Francisco, recently praised the piece’s “convincing, hypnotic, even truly inspirational” components. “And yet…” he continued, “I am now starting to struggle to recalibrate my opinions on this work because a subject that I used to respect almost as an academic assumption for virtuoso sculpture—after all, abduction scenes are common in Renaissance and Baroque art—seems much less academic 2 years after the start of the ‘Me Too’ motion.”
Today, debates over potentially contentious works of art—and even artists—are taking centre stage. Nevertheless, in the case of The Rape of Proserpina, contextualising the subject matter both through a contemporary and traditional lens means allowing us to enjoy the artistry while trying to remain critical of the illustrated content.