Pluto and Proserpina by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1621-1622) - Galleria Borghese, Rome
(Also known as The Rape of Proserpina)
No sculpture better portrays Bernini’s mastering of marble.
In this violent and dynamic sculpture, Pluto, the Ruler of Hades (the Land of the Dead), is shown abducting the beautiful Proserpina (the daughter of Zeus and Demeter).
The sinister grin on Pluto’s face as he hoists up Proserpina is disturbing. His hands dig into her flesh with a sexual aggression that is unnerving. Proserpina, on the other hand, is terrified and absolutely repulsed by her captor. She arches her body away from Pluto and pushes his forehead away with her left palm. She is so repulsed that even her fingers curl away from Pluto to avoid laying her full hand upon him. Her head violently tilts backwards, and her mouth is open in anguish. If you look closely, you will notice two tears on her left cheek; she is completely overcome with fear. Her terror is evident all over her body, down to her tensed toes. Bernini has imbued her with so much intense emotion that it is hard not to feel distress on her behalf.
Bernini has captured a split second in time as attested by Proserpina’s billowing hair and Pluto’s unstable body. His knees are bent, the muscles of his legs are flexed, and he rests all his weight on his left leg. His unstable body accentuates the conflicting forces of desire shown in this sculpture that violently pull and push the two figures towards and away from each other. The three heads of Cerberus (Pluto’s three headed dog that guards Hades) each look in different directions, thus accentuating the movement and instability of this work of art. Its dynamism is part of what makes this sculpture Baroque in style.
I am in complete awe of how Bernini has manipulated the marble block from which this sculpture was carved. The way that Pluto’s fingers dig into Persephone’s soft human flesh seems to render the solidness of marble virtually non-existent. Pluto’s musculature is so convincing, it brings the mythology to life.