Bernini's Apollo and Daphne: A Tragic Tale of Unrequited Love
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
Apollo and Daphne (1622-1625), by Gian Lorenzo Bernini… (Galleria Borghese, Rome)
This sculptural tour de force depicts the tragic mythological story of Apollo and Daphne recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Apollo, the God of music and poetry, one day insults Cupid (the God of love). So, as a form of revenge, Cupid fashions two arrows – one made of gold and the other of lead. He pierces Apollo with the gold arrow, causing him to fall head over heels in love with the nymph Daphne; he also pierces Daphne with the arrow of lead, causing her to fiercely repulse Apollo. As a result, Daphne hastily flees from all of Apollo’s advances. When he finally manages to catch up to Daphne (with the help of Cupid), Daphne calls to her father Ladon (a River God), beseeching him to help her escape. He does so by turning her into a laurel tree the moment that Apollo reaches her.
Bernini has depicted the very moment in which Daphne transforms before Apollo’s eyes.
Look at the bark that grows upwards from the earth, and that becomes Daphne herself. Her fingers are morphing into branches and leaves, and her toes are becoming roots.
Bernini, in the typical Baroque fashion, has captured two figures in motion, in a startling scene of literal transformation. Daphne’s open mouth, suggests that she is in the process of crying out to her father. Her expression is also eerily frozen and rather blank, suggesting that she has already lost her humanity and is now merely a tree.
Apollo’s expression of surprise and his tense right hand implies that he is only just realizing the tragedy that is happening before his very eyes.
Notice that Apollo’s left hand touches Daphne’s stomach which has already turned to bark; he never managed, and will never manage, to touch his beloved’s flesh. Indeed, the laurel leaves that have suddenly grown between them, keep the two figures eternally separated.
It is hard to believe that Apollo’s whirling drapery, the thin and almost translucent laurel leaves, and Daphne’s thick billowing hair are all carved from solid marble. Bernini truly was a master at mastering the material.
‘Apollo loved her still. He placed his hand Where he had hoped and felt the heart still beating Under the bark; and he embraced the branches As if they were still limbs, and kissed the wood, And the wood shrank from his kisses, and the god Exclaimed: “Since you can never be my bride, My tree at least you shall be! Let the laurel Adorn, henceforth, my hair, my lyre, my quiver. Let Roman victors, in the long procession, Wear laurel wreaths for triumph and ovation. Beside Augustus’ portals let the laurel Guard and watch over the oak, and as my head Is always youthful, let the laurels always Be green and shining!” He said no more. The laurel, Stirring, seemed to consent, to be saying Yes.' - Ovid, Metamorphoses