Desiderio and Diletto: Vision, Touch, and the Poetics of Bernini's Apollo and Daphne.

Author:Bolland, Andrea

The gods, that mortal beauty chase,

Still in a tree did end their race.

Apollo hunted Daphne so,

Only that she might laurel grow.

And Pan did after Syrinx speed,

Not as a nymph, but for a reed.

-Andrew Marvell, from "The Garden" [1]

In Filippo Baldinucci's Life of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1682), the marble group of Apollo and Daphne (Fig. 1) is cast as the youthful sculptor's first great public triumph. After invoking the topos that mere words cannot describe the "meraviglie" (marvels) that the sculpture "displayed in every part to the eyes of all," Baldinucci goes on to describe the statue's reception:

[I]mmediately when it was seen to have been finished, there arose such a cry [se ne sparse un tal grido] that all Rome concurred in seeing it as a miracle [tutta Roma concorse a vederla per un miracolo], and the young artist himself (not yet eighteen years old), when he walked through the city, drew after him the eyes of all the people, who gazed upon him and pointed him out to others as a prodigy.... [2]

The grido described by Baldinucci has barely abated in the 375 years since the statue's completion--if anything, the clamor has recently increased with the reopening of the Villa Borghese (for which the Apollo and Daphne was made and where it is still displayed), the cleaning and scientific examination of the statue group, and the quadricentennial of Bernini's birth. All three of these events generated catalogues containing beautiful photographs, probing essays, and bibliographies listing such a quantity of secondary literature that one might reasonably ask if anything remains to be said about the Apollo and Daphne. [3] (Indeed, one might dispute Baldinucci: the work's visual meraviglie seem to compel words rather than inhibit them.) Yet in spite of the ample documentary evidence relating to the statue group's creation, the picture that emerges of its meaning and context is anything but clear. In a series of equally plausible arguments, the Apollo and Daphne is said to celebrate the sense-based pleasures of art (by way of its reference to the paragone debates), [4] or to be about the evils of sensual poetry (by way of the inscription on its base, warning against the bitterness of worldly beauty); [5] it is an erotic artwork, made for a hedonistic patron, [6] or it is a Neoplatonic allegory of the sublimation of sensual lust into art, made for a discerning cardinal;7 it is Marinist and Petrarchan in its imagery, [8] or it is anti-Marinist and anti-Petrarchan in its message. [9]

That these readings can happily coexist in the modern literature (and sometimes even appear as parts of the same argument) testifies to the richness of the story of Apollo and Daphne and to the subtleties of Bernini's statue. Indeed, one might even say that the subject and Bernini's treatment of it not only elicit paradoxical readings but that paradox is at the heart of the group's meaning. Rather than undertaking a radically new reading, this essay will focus on these paradoxical relationships--specifically, the intertwined themes of sensuality and antisensuality and of desire and artifice--that by common consensus seem to lie at the heart of the statue group.

These themes will be placed in a larger Renaissance critical tradition in which a crucial role is played by vision and touch--senses that Bernini uses to great effect in his statue group, and which are central to the literary tradition of the story. In this critical discourse, poetry, painting, and sculpture--sister arts, united by the common end of mimesis--were unequal in ways that hinged on their address to the senses, and on the comparative value assigned to the senses themselves, in their abilities to provoke desire, provide delight, and grant access to knowledge. [10] The Renaissance hierarchy of sense (like that of the arts) was not an absolute one: if vision was often exalted for its immaterial (hence spiritual) nature, it was also the sense most easily fooled, and if touch was the surest of the senses, it could also be maligned for its base association with the sexual act. These criteria were particularly significant, since not only did the three arts hold in common the deceptions of fiction, but al so (as we shall see) Renaissance commentators had located the origins of poetry, sculpture, and painting in mythic stories revolving around erotic desire. The merging of artist and artwork hinted at in Baldinucci's text (the crowd's desire to see the statue gives way to the need to lay eyes on its maker) also takes us back to the intersection of art and myth: if Bernini's own transformation during these watershed years in his career is broadly analogous to that of Daphne (who, after all, emerges from her metamorphosis immortalized), it was the poet-god Apollo who would provide the young sculptor with a template from which to fashion his mythic-artistic identity and recast the poetics of his own art.

Bernini, Scipione Borghese, and Maffeo Barberini

Bernini created the Apollo and Daphne over a three-year period, with some interruptions, beginning in the summer of 1622, when he was twenty-three years old. [11] Commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, it was the third in a series of life-size marble sculptures he ordered from Bernini to adorn his luxurious villa outside the Porta Pinciana, the others being the Aeneas and Anchises (1618-19), the Pluto and Proserpina of 1621-22 (Fig. 2), and the David (1626-24). [12] The group's delivery to the Villa Borghese in the fall of 1625 not only completed that series of impressive statues, it also effectively marked the end of Bernini's large-scale work for the cardinal and signaled a turning point in the lives of both patron and sculptor. [13]

As has often been noted, Scipione Borghese's status plummeted in early 1621, shortly after the death of his uncle Pope Paul V and the subsequent accession of the Bolognese pope Gregory XV (who had not been the cardinal's first choice in the conclave). [14] While Borghese eventually recovered from his fall from grace, his role had changed; he was never again the powerful Cardinal Nephew, responsible for setting the taste of the papal court, as he had been when Bernini began to work for him in the 1610s. [15] We may even view Bernini's Apollo and Daphne as an emblem of that change in fortune: both concretely, in the apparent circumstances of its commission (it replaced Bernini's tour de force Pluto and Proserpina, which Borghese cannily presented to the new papal nephew, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi), and also poetically, in its subject of loss (the immense power held by the cardinal's nephew--like Daphne's human beauty--is ultimately short-lived, and the eager pursuer of each is in the end but a witness to its transformation). [16] Bernini's sculpted metamorphosis also coincides with a period of transition in his own career; in the mid-1620s his principal source of patronage shifted from the Borghese family--which, between Paul V and Scipione, had employed two generations of Berninis--to the newly ascendant Barberini family, which, after the short summer conclave following Gregory XV's death in 1623 could claim its own pope. [17] It could even be said that the change marked for the artist a sort of passage into artistic maturity, a symbolic severing of paternal bonds (it was, after all, Maffeo Barberini--the future Urban VIII--who had first prophesied that the young Bernini would surpass his father, and it was he who took almost immediate advantage when this came to pass). [18]

Gian Lorenzo had apparently known Maffeo Barberini for some time. According to the artist's seventeenth-century biographers, Paul V had placed the young sculptor under the care of then-Cardinal Barberini--a propitious choice to mold the young prodigy's mind, since besides being deeply learned, the cardinal was himself a practitioner of the creative arts--in this case, the art of poetry. [19] In the biographers' accounts, the cardinal is cast as something of a second father figure, teaching the young Bernini the rudiments of literature even as his actual father taught him how to hold a drill. [20] Bernini had begun to execute several works for the Barberini family over the course of the 1610s (often in conjunction with his father, who provided statuary for the Barberini family chapel in S. Andrea della Valle). [21] But if one is to believe the anecdotes of the biographers, Maffeo's interest in the sculptor became especially intense during the period that Bernini was working on the Borghese commissions. [22] I f he studied the young sculptor's abilities during the final years of his cardinalate and his first year as pope, it was only in the summer of 1624--while Bernini was absorbed in working on the Apollo and Daphne [23]--that Barberini rewarded him with a number of large-scale commissions: remodeling the church of S. Bibiana, creating a life-size marble statue of that saint for the church's main altar, and--grandest of all--designing the baldacchino for the crossing of St. Peter's. [24] I reiterate this rather familiar history to underline the fact that the Apollo and Daphne may be placed at crucial turning points in the lives of three men: the artist who carved the work (and for whom it would be the last of the mythological groups that had characterized his youthful artistic production), the worldly cardinal who commissioned it, and finally Maffeo Barberini, who was cardinal when the work was begun and leader of the Roman Catholic world when it was finished. [25]

It is within this nexus that the poetic meaning of the story, and the implications of that meaning, must be placed. Let us begin to locate that meaning by examining the text on which the statue group is most likely based.

The Ovidian Story and the Metamorphosis of Sense

The canonical poetic treatment of the story of Apollo and Daphne--certainly available to Bernini in either Latin or Italian--is found in book 1 of Ovid's Metamorphoses (lines 452-567). [26] The tale...

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