It was very hot in Rome, but I don’t mind heat. I like extreme weather, even when it’s oppressive temperatures and a merciless sun. We ambled along the upper tier of the Colosseum, our feet upon dirt so desiccated by the sun that we felt antiquity itself in the dust that engulfed us, Pigpen-like.
The next day we went to the Villa Borghese, which was new to me. Nestled in a huge park garden, offering some respite from the sun, it houses a mind-blowing collection of art.
Amidst the Caravaggios and Reubens and Raffaellos, what stood out were two life-size sculptures by Bernini: Apollo and Daphne, and The Rape of Persephone.
Classical-style sculpture is not a medium we experience much in modern life. We are somewhat immured to its accomplishments, to the other worldly achievement of Michaelangelo’s pieta—-how did he get the marble body of Christ to drape so poignantly in the lap of the calm Mater Dolorosa?
But the world of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, sculpting genius of 17th century Italia, is of Ovid and the ancient gods, goddesses, and nymphs.
Apollo and Daphne captures the process of Daphne turning into a tree. Apollo had angered Cupid, who maliciously shoots him with an arrow to fall in love with the nymph Daphne, and he shoots her with an arrow that makes her feel repulsed by his advances. As Apollo pursues her, she flees, and begs her father, the river god Peneus, to turn her into a tree rather than be touched by Apollo. It’s a terrible story about the interference of gods, and the dangers of lust, with poor Daphne losing her life.
The brilliance of the statue is that from one angle you just see a woman running from a man; it’s not until you walk around the piece that you see Daphne’s hands are already twigs. It’s a chilling moment to experience.
And then there was The Rape of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of all the fertility of the earth. There are many versions of the myth, as well as Ovid. But basically, Hades, god of the underworld, becomes besotted with Demeter’s daughter and asks Zeus’s permission to carry her off to his kingdom. While Persephone is playing in the fields of Sicily, the ground opens and she is swallowed up.
Here in the Villa Borghese is the violence of a woman being abducted against her will captured in marble that has startling life and motion to it. Particularly Hades’s fingers pressing into her flesh as though it were human, and you can practically hear the horrid three-headed Cererbus barking at her heals.
Bernini’s work raises the question if there can be beauty for such a violent act. Human nature has a need to project violence against women into various art forms-—we see it all the time in the plots of tv shows from Simon & Simon to The Sopranos. But that doesn’t have the layer of beauty and accomplishment of Bernini’s sculptures.
Much to think about as we head for a Roman dinner with friends before flying to Persephone’s Island.