Description and Analysis of Lorenzo Bernini’s Marble Sculpture “The Rape of Proserpina”
Italian sculpture has always been distinguished by its sophistication and uniqueness. But seventeenth-century artists began to use an increasingly sophisticated style in their work.
This was also the approach taken by the master of statues, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The flamboyant and excessive aesthetics in his artworks clearly expressed the Baroque movement.
As an architect and urban planner, he designed secular buildings, churches, chapels, and public squares, as well as massive works combining architecture and sculpture, especially elaborate public fountains and funerary monuments.
Bernini became a famous sculptor not only for designing St. Peter’s Basilica, as one of Italy’s most important monuments in the center of the Vatican. He also became famous for his masterpiece creation, “The Rape of Proserpina”(Ratto di Proserpina).
Bernini’s “The rape of Proserpina” was created at the beginning of the 17th century. The marble work of art illustrates the full palette of Bernini’s talent, including his masterful command of anatomy and his ability to evoke dramatic and contradictory emotions. Although his masterpiece today draws only praise for the sculptor, the original subject did not mark the work’s fame. From an art perspective, though, despite the concept and idea, Bernini’s sculpture is still an example of the Baroque era and its marble execution. But who kidnaps Proserpine? You can find out the answer to this question below from ancient Greek mythology.
Lorenzo Bernini’s “The Rape of Prosperina”
The legendary sculptor of the Roman baroque completed his efforts on statue “The Rape of Prosperina” or “The rape of Persephone” sometime between 1621 and 1622. At the time, the creator from Naples was only 23 years old, yet he had already achieved success as a novice artist. Despite the fact that his grandiose architectural masterpiece, St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, he not complete until 40 years later, by the early 1620s the artist had already become a famous sculptor who created no less important creations:
- “Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius”
- “Apollo and Daphne”
- And, of course, the sculpture “The Rape of Proserpina”
Bernini received no less than 450 Roman scudi for the statue. Soon after its completion, Scipione gave the statue to Cardinal Ludovisi in 1622, who moved it to his villa. Later purchased by the Italian state, it returned to Villa Borghese in 1908.
Characteristics and Features of the Gian Lorenzo Bernini Sculpture
The piece is approximately 7.5 feet tall and is carved from Carrara marble. The material was mined in Tuscany and was historically used by Roman builders and, in later times, by Mannerist and Renaissance artists.
The softness of such high-quality marble contributed to Bernini’s successful craft. The artist was incredibly proud of the fact that he could interact with such a complex material and give marble a human appearance with all its details.
The author’s interest in turning such a stone into human skin is particularly evident in the sculpture “The Rape of Proserpina”. This work is intended to vividly depict the dramatic abduction of a girl. The characters of the sculpture have easily readable emotions and expressive faces. Proserpine tries to avoid Pluto’s excessive erotic rage, and Pluto’s body is quite powerful and muscular. In addition, his masculinity is emphasized by his thick beard and wild hair.
Bernini himself said that the marble in his hands became like plastic wax, so that all his designs succeeded. If you look at the sculpture, you realize that the author was right. Proserpine is depicted as miniature compared to Pluto. But if you look closely, everything has certain proportions, and proportionality is felt in all the details.
Bernini’s attention to fine sculpture detail and interest in realism is well evident in the anatomical details of the artwork. When the hand of the male subject of the sculpture, Bernini’s Pluto, grasps the thigh of the delicate woman Persephone, his tenacious fingers seem to sink into the soft, velvet skin. Tensing to overpower her, the muscles of the man’s bent legs and tense arms protrude, and their flowing and wriggling hair and drapery suggest active movement. Proserpine’s sincere resistance can be seen in all of her movements. Her face is tear-stained and there is despair in her eyes.
Like many of Bernini’s other magnificent early works, “The Rape of Proserpina” was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese. He was at one time an avid art collector and a devoted admirer of both Bernini and his Baroque colleague Caravaggio.
In the wave of the High Renaissance, people continued to be interested in the revival of the classical approach to art, including subjects inspired by ancient Greek and Roman mythology. And this stunning Bernini’s “Rape of persephone” sculpture had just that mythological meaning.
The Myth or Legend of Pluto and Proserpina
This artist’s work depicts a moment from the myth of Pluto and Proserpina (Persephone), which appears both in the 1st century Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses and in a work written 400 years later by the Latin writer Claudianus, De raptu Proserpinae.
This legend centers around the abduction of the Roman goddess Proserpina, who was the daughter of Jupiter or Zeus, if that in Greek mythology, and Ceres, who was the Roman goddess of agriculture. While gathering wildflowers, Proserpina was viciously attacked by the enchanted Pluto, god of the dead, who burst forth from the earth in his chariot drawn by four large black horses. Ceres heard the cries of her daughter, who was being dragged into the underworld, but unfortunately she was too late and could not save her. Ceres searched all over the earth for her daughter.
However, when she realized that Pluto(Hades) had kidnapped her daughter Proserpina (Persephone) , she became enraged and caused a complete desiccation of the earth and a crop failure. Jupiter saw from heaven that the earth was barren and dead and decided to intervene. Eventually a compromise agreement was made: Proserpina spent half the year with her mother on earth and half the year in the underworld with Pluto.
According to another legend, Ceres is so sad when Proserpine is in the underworld that she takes her gifts from the world and winter sets in. In the spring, when Proserpine is reunited with her mother, Ceres makes everything grow again.
Modern Interpretations and Cultural Heritage
Given the whole grim and horrifying nature of this story, it is not surprising that Bernini’s Persephone and Hades statue has been criticized for centuries on end. But after Bernini completed his work with such an unpleasant scene, his son appreciated the masterpiece and called it an amazing contrast of tenderness and cruelty.
For our generation, however, praising such a scene depicting a violent abduction can be problematic and difficult to explain.
The director of the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts, Thomas Campbell, is one of those who praised the compelling, hypnotizing and even inspiring elements and gusts of the rape of Persephone work. Still, he tried to reconsider his thoughts on the work because the theme for virtuoso famous Bernini sculpture – the abduction scene often found in Renaissance and Baroque art –seems far less academic in the modern world. Today, discussions about potentially problematic artworks of art and even artists come out unabated. However, in the case of Gian Lorenzo Bernini “The rape of Persephone”, a detailed analysis of the subject and viewing the sculpture through a classical and contemporary lens allows viewers to appreciate the multifaceted artistry while remaining critical of the work of art.
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