The rape of Proserpina – Gian Lorenzo Bernini


© Web Gallery of Art

I think it is time to talk about one of the greatest sculptor of the 17th century, if not more: Gian Lorenzo Bernini. As a kid, I visited Saint Peter’s and all I remember is the baldachin of Bernini. I found it really ugly and still now I don’t like it. But this didn’t stop me from exploring his art further, and I have to say I now like it a lot. Sculpture or architecture, I always feel something when I look at it.

Before talking about the rape of Proserpina, I think it would be great to learn a bit more about Bernini (1598-1680). He was born in  Florence and left for Rome in 1605/6. Bernini was always talented, and he received sponsorship from the cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of the Pope. Thanks to him, Gian Lorenzo had a very successful career. At only 23, Bernini became the Prince of the Academia di San Luca. The same year, he was made a knight of the Supreme Order of Christ by Gregory XV. His genius was noticed by the Pope Urban VIII and his successors, who asked Bernini to embellish the city of Rome with churches and plazas. His contemporaries nicknamed him “the new Michelangelo” since he had lots of similarities with the master.

This sculpture was made in 1621/2, the year of all the honors. It was order by the cardinal Borghese which explains why it is still in the Galleria Borghese. This group pictures Pluto (the god of the Underworld), Proserpina (or Persephone, Demeter’s daughter) and Cerberus (the three headed dog guarding the Underworld). The dog symbolizes the passage between the Underworld and the world of the living, but here it’s purpose is mostly technical. The dog supports the group, and without it the sculpture would fall down. Bernini depicts the moment when Pluto fell in love with the young Proserpina and abducted her to live with him. This sculpture shows two tensions. First, Proserpina is fighting back with her left hand, but it has little effect on the god. Meanwhile, Pluto keeps pulling her closer to him. Proserpina’s body creates a beautiful curve which emphasizes the opposition with her aggressor, who is in an opposite curve. Proserpina’s curve also offers a great dynamic to the sculpture which characterizes the Baroque. Bernini shows us a conflict between a strong desire and a hopeless fear. The sculptor offers a succession of point of view with the same intensity.

bernini 3

© Web Gallery of Art

Bernini played with the material. He either made the marble smooth (such for Proserpina) or rough (for Pluto or the stand). He also created different shapes, especially for the hair. Proserpina’s are flying in the air while Pluto’s are wild. The lights won’t reflect the same way on it, Bernini knew this and wanted to play with the different kind of light to create more intensity. This group is also very sensual, especially by Pluto’s hand. That’s where you can see  the virtuosity of the artist. The rough hands put pressure on her left size and left tight. The god’s fingers sink and squeeze the delicate and supple flesh of Proserpina. This detail is really impressive. Even though Bernini was working on marble, he managed to show all the flexibility and the youth of the goddess’ skin. He also managed to sculpt tears running from Proserpina’s eyes. Bernini was the first one to realize this kind of detail on marble. This group is one of the artworks which propelled Bernini onto the Roman art scene, but also which got him noticed by Popes.

Bernini 2

© Web Gallery of Art


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