The Pleasure of Details – Part 3

This is the last exploration of details at the Borghese Gallery. I hope our way of looking together has produced ease and familiarity with the splendid art that lives there. As I write these posts, observing the photographs quietly, thinking of words exact enough to reduce the gap between what I see and what I say, I feel I am reactivating an underused muscle and find new energy and focus. As daylight stays with us longer, and hopefulness becomes less delusional, I want to ready myself. When the time comes, I want to shed the fatigue and malaise of this past year to embrace and celebrate everything around me. Yes, even now that many areas in Italy are back in total lockdown.

And Art always helps. It consoles us in darkness and amplifies our joy.

My intention this time, as we conclude, is to show you how much ground we have covered. To use the tools we have acquired here, and will always be available to us as we go forward. This post will be more about recognizing, confirming, and refining, so I hope cups of tea and wine glasses are close at hand.  Andiamo, let’s meet Bernini again.

Apollo and  Daphne (1622-1625)

Last time, we saw Aeneas and his remaining family advance slowly and sorrowfully, and Pluto forcefully lift Proserpina off the ground as she tries desperately to pull away.

Here, we witness a rapid chase halting brusquely, and a transformation from one state of being to another. The first two statues invited us to move around them; here we are invited to find a single, ideal point of view and stand still. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let us begin with the story. Once again, the subject matter is a Greek myth, as recounted by the Latin poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses.  Apollo, the god of the sun, music, poetry, and many other things as well, was struck by Cupid’s golden arrow of love. As a result, he became enamoured with the nymph Daphne, the daughter of a river god, who had promised her life and chastity to the goddess of the moon. Daphne, on the other hand, was struck by the lead arrow of disdain, resisted Apollo’s advances, and was forced to flee him. The gods of classical myth are absolute brutes and know nothing of consent, we are well aware of this, so Apollo chased Daphne until she realized she would not get away. She invoked the help of her father, the river god, who transformed her into a laurel tree. Apollo realized his desire had been thwarted (but at what cost for Daphne!), and decided that one day, when Rome would rise to prominence, the leaves of the laurel tree would adorn the heads of victorious generals. The term “poet laureate” and the expression “to rest on one’s laurels”, also derive from this.

 Let us focus on the artistic challenge of representing swift movement through space – the chase – and the transformation of Daphne from nymph (a nature deity with the appearance of a young woman) to tree, in marble. As always, I invite you to move closer to show you that now our eyes know what to look for and how to “read” this work of art.  In his rich and varied professional life, Bernini would also become a man of the theatre. He was both a playwright and a stage director, and here he already stages and directs the event. He doesn’t want us to walk freely around the statue, he intends us to stand in a specific spot to view this story as he specifically intended. Apollo and Daphne was displayed at the center of this room at a later date. It was originally placed against a wall, close to a doorway, elsewhere. Yet we can find the right spot here, this is the angle Bernini wants us to see:

This time we are asked to stand still, and yet the movement implied in the freeze frame of the statue itself is more extreme and complex than anything we have seen so far. We picture Apollo and Daphne running. We are sharply aware of Daphne’s panic (sometimes I imagine the pounding of her heartbeat next to mine) as the distance reduces. His left arm goes around her to block her and pull her close, and in that instant, she turns into a laurel tree and escapes him at the cost of losing her very nature of young female deity. We look at her, our feelings are all for her, we wish to sustain and help her, but we realize the metamorphosis is occurring in front of our eyes. She is no longer a nymph but not yet a tree. This is the moment Bernini captures, the in-between of her transformation. The instant that contains the before and after, as she passes from one to the other. Her fingers sprout leaves that seem to tremble in the wind, her body becomes enveloped by bark, her toes turn into roots.

The chase is over. Apollo has caught up with Daphne and lost her in the same moment. Consider what our eyes are catching and processing. Let us break away from the ideal point of view and walk around the statue:

Here are some familiar elements that we find again:

  • Do you recognize the marks of the claw chisel on the bark and the contrast with the perfect sheen of Daphne’s skin? We have encountered this rough texture before, with the fur of the three-headed dog Cerberus.
  • We know how Bernini uses projecting limbs to suggest dynamism. Apollo’s leg clearly indicates a running stance and reminds me of photographic stills of track and field athletes – I think of how heavy the marble leg must be and marvel at how nothing seems to support it. The two stones near the heel of the other, supporting leg, suggest gravel and clouds of dust lifting as they run, heightening the drama.
  • We know how Bernini evokes an imaginary wind, and the way it blows back her hair reminds us of Proserpina’s, but Daphne’s hair is looser and more abundant, as it is about to morph into leaves and branches. We know how the wind moulds fabric into swirls to express movement but also emotion. Here the arc formed by Apollo’s billowing cloak is carved so skilfully that in some points we see light shining through it.
  • The inner life of the characters. Apollo has a hesitant half smile of frozen surprise. He thought he would have his way and realizes he has not. Daphne’s mouth is open to loudly voice her distress. We can hear her. This seems an extreme version of the parted lips of the cardinal Borghese in Part 1 of this story. The cardinal urbanely answered a courtier or guest, seemingly without a care in the world. Everything Daphne is feeling is extreme and revealed in that facial expression: the fear and revulsion for Apollo, fear and uncertainty of what is happening to her very being.

All of this in white marble. A tour de force, magnificent and even exquisite in form and harrowing in content. I sincerely believe we are intellectually and emotionally equipped to contemplate both as we proceed to the last chapter in our story in stone.

As we leave this room, we look up to the ceiling and notice a rendering of the same myth in painting. I will never forget my mother’s comment the last time we came here together: “Franz, that doesn’t look like a nymph turning into a tree, it’s more like a nymph stuck in a tree trunk with leaves in her hands!”. I agree with my mom. In the contest between sculpture and painting in fabricating believable illusions (we discussed this in Part 1), in this room, sculpture brings it home, the laurel crown of triumph goes to Bernini!

David (1623-1624)

Bernini is now 25 – 26 years old. He interrupted work on Apollo and Daphne to make this, a turning point in his career. We go from classical mythology and literature to the Bible. From a group to a single figure, David. Bernini may have made this statue in only seven months. Once again, there is one ideal point of view for this, let’s find it and view it together from there, as Bernini wants us to. This piece was also not intended to be walked around, it was placed against a wall and the back was left rough as no one would ever see it. We must stand in front of it.

Again, we know what to look for, we are aware of the artist’s intention. This is not Michelangelo’s Renaissance David, thinking, contemplating, getting ready to strike. This is Bernini’s Baroque David, a man of action, shown as he is just about to strike. Bernini pulls us away from the luxury and elegance of the Cardinal Borghese’s villa, into the dust and tumult of the battlefield. We feel the tension, we understand how much is at stake. Our eyes are drawn to the young shepherd-hero’s face: the intensity of his gaze, the way he bites his lip– who had ever seen that before? – his strikingly handsome features.

Documents tell us this is a self-portrait of Bernini himself as he worked on David’s face, on this statue. A mirror was held up to him and he practiced facial expressions to get it right (don’t you wish you had been there to watch him makes faces in the mirror?), and thus represented his own challenge as well: carving this work of art.

We indulge in details, as has become our habit. The rope of the sling is rough, the stone projectile also has texture but it is not the same.

David’s body is twisted as it gathers power, it implies the moment of release and we can almost see the stone shoot over our heads, as it hits Goliath on the forehead. We evoke his giant form collapsing behind us, we almost hear the heavy thud as it hits the ground, and David triumphs.

I first learned to love Bernini’s work through visits to this Museum with my mother, and thanks to the very first book I read about him, Bernini, by American art historian Howard Hibbard (1928-1984). Professor Hibbard enabled me to look at Baroque with intense enjoyment by what he said about this statue in particular. He claimed Bernini’s David modifies, “activates” the space around it, so that there end up being three “dimensions of space”: 1) the space occupied by the marble statue itself, which is real and tangible; 2) the imaginary space created by the determined concentration on David’s face and the tension in his pose. It is in this imaginary, implied space that we feel Goliath’s presence looming behind us, we are fully aware of it as if it were real; and 3) our space, our own presence. Nothing here works without it. I fell in love with the idea of being part of the art’s reason to be. It allowed me to let go of all feelings of intimidation, to step over a threshold and be swept away by art and its power to make our lives fuller and richer. And here I am, 25 years later, reliving that life-changing moment with you.

As we leave the museum, and walk back into the Roman afternoon and then back to wherever we truly are, I realize we have looked at these statues with our eyes, as we observed their details closely, and with our hearts, as we participated in the stories they told us and defined our response to them. And finally, with our minds, as we pondered what they revealed of times long past and our own.

When I am asked what it means, specifically, to experience art in a museum, this is what I mean. To engage with everything that we are in the moment – looking, feeling, reflecting, weaving a connection. And to walk away enriched by that connection with full awareness that it will live on inside us, far beyond the time we actually spent there. And it will come back to us, as we continue on our journey in life, in many different ways – as memory, echo, epiphany, elevation, inspiration….

There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours. To the cognition of the brain must be added the experience of the soul.

Arnold Bennett (1867-1931)

Next time we might pop back in the Borghese one last time for a couple of “post credit scenes” like the ones in superhero movies, something light and brief (I want to challenge myself!). We will we explore other areas as Italy emerges from its new lockdown and hopefully we start making real progress.

7 responses

  1. Dear Francesca, I wrote here last week in appreciation of your keen sense of description. Again, I write, this time to say I will send these posts to a blind musician friend. I have conversed with him on the subject of how a blind person distinguishes one country from another and how he consumes works of art. He is a Renaissance Man. I think this post, maybe the others, is vivid enough for him to grasp what his eyes cannot see. Which all comes around to what you mention about absorbing art with all your being, more than just what your eyes behold. Thank you.

  2. Oh, Francesca! I am so grateful to have found your blog as you mentioned in your episode on Rick Steves’ Monday Night Travels. I was fortunate enough to travel on his Best of Italy tour in 2019 and meet you in Rome. You write as eloquently as you speak! Seeing you on the Rick Steves episode was like finding an old friend and now I can enjoy you regularly through your blog. I migliori auguri a te and grazie!!

  3. Francesca, I wish I could express how beautifully written this is. These two are my favorite Bernini sculptures. And now, you have elevated my appreciation of this art to another level. Grazie mille.

  4. Francesca—thank you so much for sharing your writings with us. Somehow, you have perfected the ability to breathe life into art and history in a way that does not seem possible.
    I am not sure that I can imagine what virtual reality will someday be like but, I am convinced that you have already surpassed it with your masterpieces. You light up our eyes, our hearts and our minds with your brilliant style. Grazie mille!

  5. Francesca—thank you so much for sharing your writings with us. Somehow, you have perfected the ability to breathe life into art and history in a way that does not seem possible.
    I am not sure that I can imagine what virtual reality will someday be like but, I am convinced that you have already surpassed it with your masterpieces. You light up our eyes, our hearts and our minds with your brilliant style. Your writings and photographs complement each other perfectly. Thank you!

  6. Thank you so much for the tour of the Borghese Galley with a lovely and interesting up close view and comment. I was there many years ago and we loved the David statue. In fact I have a small replica. Your blog is always a wonderful escape from every day life. I hope to go back to Rome someday soon. Stay safe.

  7. I loved the way you so deftly and imaginatively characterized the “experience” of visiting an art museum. My heart knows that what you wrote is true, true, and true again. And if there is a Bernini statue I could readily call my “favorite,” it would be Apollo and Daphne. There is so much more than meets the eye here, and you bring it all out perfectly!

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