RAPE OF PERSEPHONE – Bernini 1621
It is almost unbelievable to think that Gian Lorenzo Bernini, when he was going to make one of his most celebrated masterpieces, the Ratto di Proserpina, was only twenty-three years old: yet, despite his very young age, he was already an established sculptor, and he had already had a chance to work for the powerful patron who had commissioned him from the very famous Borghese Gallery group. The task was given to him by Cardinal Scipione Borghese (Rome, 1577 – 1633), one of the most prominent men in Rome, at the time Camerlengo of the Sacred College, after having been Pope’s Secretary of State for sixteen years as well as a refined collector, always searching for the best works of contemporary artists. In 1606, the cardinal had begun construction work on his villa, which is known as Villa Borghese Pinciana and is now home to the Borghese Gallery, and it was obviously necessary to decorate it in the most appropriate manner: the first works by the very young Bernini had attracted the attention of the most demanding collectors, so much so that Scipione Borghese, already in 1618 (the artist was then only twenty years old), hired him with the express purpose of creating sculptural groups to be included in the new villa. The Rape of Proserpina was the second of the four bourgeois groups, and Bernini began working on it a few months after completing the first, the Enea, Anchise and Ascanio, completed in 1619. In fact, a document dating back to that year dates back to attests the delivery of a large block of marble to the workshop of Pietro Bernini (Sesto Fiorentino, 1562 – Rome, 1629), father of Gian Lorenzo: it is presumably the one from which the Rape of Proserpina, which was begun in the summer of 1621.
Scipione Borghese had been very satisfied with the first group, and had therefore decided to continue his collaboration with Bernini, commissioning a further sculpture of a mythological subject, once again taken from Latin literature. If, therefore, for Enea, Anchise and Ascanio the literary reference was Virgil with his Aeneid, for the new group the subject came from the Metamorphoses of Ovid. It is one of the most famous fables of Greek-Roman mythology: Proserpina (or, in Greek, Persephone) was the beautiful daughter of Ceres (Demeter), goddess of the harvest. Pluton (Hades), the god of the underworld, fell in love with her and wanted to make her his own. So, while the young woman was intent on picking flowers from a meadow, the lord of the underworld kidnapped her, taking her with him into the bowels of the earth, and leaving his mother, desperate, to wander for nine days and nine nights looking for her. After having known, on the tenth day, the fate of his daughter, Jupiter (Zeus), the king of Olympus, tried to make his brother Pluto return Proserpina to his mother. However, the girl had already eaten pomegranate grains, the food of the dead: for this reason, she could not definitively return to the world of the living. However, Jupiter managed to “mediate” an agreement, making it possible for Proserpina to return to earth for six months a year. For the remaining six, instead, it would have remained with Pluto, of which it would have become a bride, in the afterlife. The ancients used this myth to explain the changing of the seasons: Proserpina’s arrival on earth corresponded to the beautiful season, while her descent into the underworld gave rise to autumn and winter.
This is the story of the moment of the kidnapping in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, here in the translation of Mario Ramous: “Proserpina / enjoyed amusing violets or candid lilies, filled them with childish zeal for the baskets and strips / of the dress, competing with her companions whoever caught the most, / when in a flash Pluto saw it, he fell in love with it and kidnapped it: / that passion was so hasty. The goddess / terrified invoked her mother and her companions, but more her mother; and since he had torn the lower edge of the robe, it loosened and the flowers gathered fell to the ground: / so great was the whiteness of that young woman, that in her heart / virgin even the loss of flowers caused her pain. / The kidnapper threw the chariot, inciting the horses, / calling them by name, waving the bridles on their necks / and on the manes by the dark color of the rust; / passed quickly on the deep lake, on the ponds of the Palìci / which exhale sulfur and boil from the cracks in the seabed, / and there, where the Bacchìadi, originating in Corinth which is mirrored / in two seas, erected their walls between two inlets. / Between the sources Cìane and Aretusa Pisea there is a stretch of sea, / which narrows, enclosed as it is between two narrow tongues of earth: / here, very famous among the nymphs of Sicily, / lived Cìane and took her name from her even that lagoon. / From the waves emerged the nymph up to her life, / recognized the goddess: “You will not go far,” he said; Cerere’s son-in-law cannot be, if she does not consent: you had to ask for it, do not kidnap it. If I am allowed to compare large and small, I too was from Anapi beloved, / but I was his bride after I was prayed for, not terrified. ” / So he said, and spreading his arms he tried / to stop them. The son of Saturn no longer restrained his anger: / stirring up the terrible horses, he brandished with all his vigor / arm the royal scepter and the immergence in the depths / of the eddies: at that blow a gap until Tartarus opened into the earth / and the chariot sank into the chasm disappearing from view “.
Bernini represents the culminating moment of the story, the most agitated and violent: the moment of the kidnapping. Hades, proud, powerful and muscular, has grabbed the girl, who tries to escape and free herself from the close grip of the god of the underworld: the hand that sinks into Proserpina’s thigh, with her fingers exerting their pressure on the young woman’s flesh, it is perhaps one of the most famous and celebrated details in the whole history of art. She squirms, kicks, tries to lift herself with her legs to find an escape route, her hands flutter, one strikes Hades’s bearded face. His greedy and vaguely ecstatic expression betrays a slight movement of fatigue: if one only read his eyes, perhaps one might think that Ceres’ daughter may be able to break free, sooner or later. But, looking at the rest of the body, it is clear that Proserpina’s enterprise is rather difficult, if not impossible: the god is in fact well planted on the very sturdy legs, the left is steadily pointed forward to act as a pivot, and the right instead it is further back to balance the position, so that Hades does not lose balance. The torso, sculpted and well-defined muscles, bends backwards to work dorsal and abdominal, called to support the arms that tighten in a circle to make the grip more effective: with his left hand, Ade surrounds Proserpina’s back in so that she cannot fall backwards to free herself and, at the same time, so as to hold her close enough to make her more vulnerable, while with her right hand she performs the same movement surrounding her legs, so as to limit her movements. The only hope, for her, is to lean forward: Bernini catches her, in fact, while she tries a movement pushing herself with her shoulders and helping herself with her arm. The attempt, however, is vain: also because, moreover, Ade brought Cerberus with him, the monstrous three-headed dog, guardian of the underworld, ready to block Proserpina from behind and, moving the three heads in three different directions, careful to verify that no one comes to hinder Ade’s plans. Thus, she can do nothing but launch a cry that reveals, at the same time, the shame for having been stripped naked (we note in fact the veil that slips from her body revealing her soft forms: a faithful transposition of the detail of Ovid’s story ), the terror for the violence that is undergoing, the discouragement in realizing that nobody can help it.
On this extraordinary sculpture, one of the vertices of the history of world art, hundreds of pages have been spent: many have been the scholars who have tried to render, relying on the mere evocative power of the pen, the strength of the incomparable Berninian virtuosity. Ursula Schlegel has described the progress of the kidnapping with good efficacy: “The Pluto wanted by Bernini comes from behind, to seize Proserpina unaware, and grabs it and blocks it with both arms while its scepter naturally falls to the ground in this action. With his right arm he surrounds his legs at thigh height, holding her tightly to the waist with his left. And in this the gown of the goddess, compressed, partly deviates from the body by fluttering above the right shoulder, and partly falls between her and the left arm of Pluto in many folds of folds behind the back of the goddess and between her legs. Proserpina’s terror cannot be given a more convincing form: turning the torso backwards, the goddess presses her left arm firmly in front of Pluto’s eyes and against her left eyebrow, pushing her back and throwing her right arm upwards, like a cry, while at his legs every movement is prevented by the force of Pluto ”. Luigi Grassi has left us an interesting summary of the contrast between the expression of Pluto and that of Proserpine: “the mask of Pluto is more external and almost carnival-like, in marked contrast with the soft and sensuous tenderness of Proserpina, rich in pictorial effects, effective in that rhetoric of the plant that expresses, above all in the face, a search now more enthralled by the affections “. One of Bernini’s greatest scholars, Maurizio Fagiolo from the Arco, has devoted attention to the figure of Cerberus, who would also rise to a symbolic role: “a unique invention is that Cerberus on which the sculptural group rests: the three heads of the mythical monster they also want to indicate the complex dynamic construction of the group, the three directions of space “.
Anna Coliva has instead produced essays on the technical characteristics of the Berninian group, and by reading her words, one can in a certain sense intuit how Bernini has reached the summit of virtuosity that was closed to all his contemporaries: “in the Rape of Proserpina, the never equaled soft effect and the sensual subtlety of marble in the leg of the girl under Pluto’s fingers is due to the uniform rough appearance with which the whole ‘skin’ of the woman is treated, which increases the naturalistic effect of the meat; this softness is even more enhanced by contrast with the other surfaces worked by different instruments: the effect of the fabric is treated with a rasp; the hair of Cerberus and the ground in gradina, the chisel-like hair, with the help, at times, of the drill “. The marvel of the Rape of Proserpina was also the subject of the attention of Cesare Brandi, who during his art history lessons addressed an invitation to his students, to understand where the power of the young Bernini’s work originated: “if you think of proportions greater from the true and extreme finiteness of the surfaces, considering the commitment to which Bernini submitted. Still in this work the mannerist attack is evident, but integrated by classic examples. Classical culture is visibilissina in the way in which it organized the three figures, which give rise to a spiral which, however, is much less accentuated and regularized than is the case, for example, in the Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna. In the Rape of the Sabine women it is very clear that the spiral on which the group is built does not tend to expand the internal spatiality of the group, and the limbs that come out are extrapolations in the same way as the statues placed in the niches from which an arm comes out, a leg and the head itself; that is, they are mentally included and reabsorbed in the niches, thus the Giambologna group is reabsorbed into the generative spiral of the group itself ”. With regard to the necessary comparison with the Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna (Douai, 1529 – Florence, 1608), Brandi’s words echoed those of André Chastel: “it is enough to compare Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina with Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women, of half a century before, to realize how Bernini expands the limits of the block in all directions, he opens the composition in all directions, rejects the dispersion of attention to which the Mannerist sculpture gave, and returns to the principle of the unity of point of view and, therefore, action ”.
Many have in fact discussed for a long time about the models that Bernini may have made up to devise his masterpiece. The first references are to be found in classical art: still Fagiolo dell’Arco emphasized how the classic fable abounded in escape scenes, kidnappings and assorted violence that had to provide a vast repertoire to the young Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Many have therefore suggested that, for the face of Proserpina (of which, moreover, there is also a fragment of terracotta preserved at the Museum of Art in Cleveland: it is thought to be a preliminary study of the figure), the sculptor may have been inspired by the face of one of the Niobidi of the famous group now preserved in the Uffizi, but at the time of Bernini kept in the garden of Villa Medici in Rome: the set of sculptures, datable between the first century before Christ and the first after Christ, had been discovered in 1583 and purchased shortly after by Cardinal Ferdinando de ‘Medici (who later became Grand Duke of Tuscany), who immediately placed it in the garden of the villa (it was instead transferred to Florence in 1770, and from 1781 the statues are in the Uffizi). A classic reference could also be found for the head of Pluto: in particular, the artist may have drawn inspiration from the Centaur ridden by Love, a Roman marble now in the Louvre but at the time in the extraordinary collection of Scipione Borghese. Moreover, it would also be a symbolic parallel, since Pluto himself was blinded by the insane love for Proserpine when he kidnapped her. The scholar Matthias Winner has mainly related the hairstyles of the centaur and Pluto, noting how the latter looks like a lion’s mane: it would be a further symbolic expedient to suggest the idea of the “solar lion”, an allegory of the sun in the six months of winter.
Still, it is necessary to underline the relations of the Rape of Proserpina with the Mannerist sculpture. We have already mentioned how Bernini may have looked at the Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna: however, Bernini succeeded in updating and innovating in a disruptive and revolutionary way that very high model. The first innovation concerns, as already anticipated, the return to the privileged point of view: if the work of Giambologna had been thought to be observed from different positions, Bernini, on the contrary, wants to make the subject observe the group frontally, standing in front of the two characters so as to capture, at the same time, the expressions of the protagonists (Cerberus included: the frontal view causes one of the heads to protrude behind Proserpina’s left foot) and their agitated movement. Not only: thanks to his ability to work marble, Bernini succeeded in instilling in the material a fullness that makes it come alive, as Alessandro Angelini explained: “to the frigid tension of anatomies carved by Giambologna, Bernini contrasts effects of a new , fleshy, sensuality. In the soft side of Proserpina, on which Pluto sinks his sturdy fingers, we find Gian Lorenzo’s first researches to obtain the effect of soft marble as if it were wax. The velvety head of the girl, the ruffled beard of Pluto, moved by the wind and the soft agitation of the two heads, seem to merge with the surrounding air “. Angelini found in Pieter Paul Rubens (Siegen, 1577 – Antwerp, 1640) a precedent, and in particular in the Susanna and the elders that the Flemish painter probably made for Scipione Borghese himself.
In addition to Giambologna, it was also identified by many as a previous mannerist precedent, less known: it is a small bronze, dating from around 1587, by Pietro Simoni, known as Pietro da Barga, which depicts the Rape of Proserpina and which is now preserved at the Bargello National Museum in Florence. It seems that the invention of Pluto’s seizure of Proserpina as he shakes his legs and goes forward with his arms, and more below Cerbero, blocks every escape route: and in turn, Pietro da Barga had resumed an idea by Vincenzo de ‘Rossi, who twenty years earlier had created a Rape of Proserpina, today at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where it almost seems that Pluto holds the young woman, who seems to us, sitting on her arms more that agitated. In a 1985 article, the aforementioned Matthias Winner had wondered why Bernini had looked at an artist like Pietro Simoni, who was an excellent sculptor, but was not among the most prominent of his time. To answer, Winner had leafed through the Giuntina edition (1568) of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives, opened by a letter from the historian Giovanni Battista Adriani (Florence, 1511 – 1579) in which it is said that the great Greek sculptor Praxiteles “had a major master “And had created, among other works, a” robbery of Proserpina “. According to Winner, Pietro da Barga’s bronze can “be interpreted as a humanistic reconstruction of the lost bronze group of Praxiteles”, and consequently Bernini, who knew both Vasari and Pietro da Barga, probably wanted to propose his own attempt to revive the sculpture of Praxiteles.
PAULINE BONAPARTE – Canova 1805
Pauline Borghese, Napoleon’s sister, is represented as Venus Victrix: in her left hand she is holding the golden apple thanks to which Paris recognized her beauty as being superior to that of the other two goddesses, Juno and Minerva. The story comes from ancient Greece. Paris the Trojan prince judged Venus more beautiful than either of her rivals, Minerva and Juno. In return Venus introduced him to a Greek girl called Helen and the rest of course is the stuff of epic poetry. The expedient of grafting portraits head on to the idealized bodies of the divinities or heroes was common in the art of imperial Rome and was also used in this statue by Canova.
Pauline is shown reclining on a pillowed couch in a pose of studied grace, both concentrated and relaxed. The modeling of the nude body is extraordinarily lifelike, while Canova’s treatment of the surface of the marble captures the soft texture of skin. The tactile quality of the piece is bought out particularly in the way the sitter’s own hands are occupied, the fingers of her right connecting ever so lightly with the nape of her neck, offer a gesture charged with seductive promise. The head is raised slightly suggesting that something or someone has suddenly entered her line of vision.