Swooning

Nicholas Penny

  • Bernini and the Unity of the Visual Arts by Irving Lavin
    Oxford, 255 pp, £45.00, October 1980, ISBN 0 19 520184 1

Bernini’s sculpture of Daphne turning into a laurel tree at the touch of Apollo – completed for Cardinal Borghese’s villa on the Pincio in 1625 – has always excited wonder for the way such lightly-balanced and elaborate figures, such thin leaves, such fine, fluttering drapery and light, flying hair, were ever extracted from the marble block. The sculptor’s taste was as remarkable as his technique. Roots extend from the nymph’s toes and leaves from her fingers, and bark creeps up her legs, but because her limbs are not yet branches she is human enough to be beautiful and for us to share her terror and surprise. Apollo does not grab but touches his intended victim with reverence. In another group of the same period Bernini ensures that Pluto, although behaving in a beastly way, somehow retains the majesty of a god. In an earlier work he even convinces us that Aeneas would have carried his father from Troy in what is (if you try it out) an absurdly precarious position because in that way the old man does not look ridiculous – which he would have done if carried piggy-back, or slung over his son’s shoulder.

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