Thursday, September 22, 2005

Bernini's Sculptures in the Villa Borghese

Nicole Day-Bazhaw
Honors in Rome - Summer 2005

I. Introduction

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, as Rome began to make its artistic transition from the late Renaissance to early Baroque, the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini was just starting to make his mark in the art world. The talents of this budding prodigy did not go unnoticed by Scipione Caffarelli Borghese, and it was his patronage that set Bernini’s career on a firm foundation.
Bernini Self Portrait

Scipione Borghese was a man who attained great wealth and power due to his greed and the good fortune of having a powerful uncle. His education itself was financed by that uncle, Camillo Borghese. The relationship between Scipione and Camillo proved to be invaluable. In 1605, Camillo Borghese was elected to the papal throne as Paul V. Using his position he was able to ordain his nephew as a priest within the year. Ten days later, he appointed Scipione cardinal. At this time the official post of Cardinal Nephew had not yet been abolished, and with it came the responsibilities of managing the internal and external affairs of the Papal States. The Cardinal benefited further from the papal nepotism when his uncle placed the management of both the papal and Borghese family finances into his care. Scipione Borghese exploited his authority as Cardinal Nephew and amassed great fortunes for the Borghese family. Papal_Library/PaulV/PaulV.html
Bust of Pope Paul V
Bust completed by Bernini in 1618.

In contrast to his uncle, Scipione Borghese was an ambitious connoisseur of art. Pope Paul V was not interested in the experimental techniques and novel designs of the art world; rather he focused on urban embellishment and works of engineering or private commissions for himself and his family. He did, however, indirectly support Rome’s rising Baroque sculptor, Bernini, through his supportive connection with his nephew.

Bernini was born in 1598 in Naples and moved with his family to Rome in 1605. His talents were fostered at a young age by his father, Pietro Bernini, who was also a gifted sculptor. Pietro Bernini taught his young son the fundamentals of sculpture and introduced him to artists such as Annibale Carracci who helped further his education. Additionally his work in Santa Maria Maggiore for Pope Paul V provided the connection to the Borghese family that revealed his son’s talents to Scipione Borghese. When he was approximately sixteen years of age, Bernini completed his first commission for the Borghese family, the Goat Almalthea. Following soon after, he sculpted a bust of the pope which seemed to secure Scipione Borghese’s opinion of him and resulted in six years of patronage from the Cardinal. Bernini completed several more sculptures of much greater magnitude than the first two commissioned for the family, for display in Scipione Borghese’s grand villa. The villa itself, designed by architects Flaminio Ponzio and Giovanni Vasanzio, was built mainly to house and display the Cardinal’s extensive art collection. This was a very appropriate setting for the early works of one of Rome’s greatest sculptors of the seventeenth century. Galleria_Borghese_by_Mike_Reed.jpg
Villa Borghese

II. Description

Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius Fleeing Troy (c. 1618-1619)

The first of Bernini’s life size sculptures commissioned for Scipione depicts the man Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome, fleeing Troy while carrying his father on his shoulders with his young son, Ascanius, following close behind. The robust man balances his aging father on his left shoulder, stabilizing him with both hands while his gaze is fixed on the ground ahead, as if carefully watching his steps. The old man steadies himself on his son with one hand while the other hand grasps a family relic above his son’s head. Ascanius is close to his father’s legs with a look of fear in his eyes. Bernini’s father was a Mannerist sculptor, and this influence can be seen in his son’s sculpture. The three generations are arranged in a precarious vertical composition. The group of three figures is centered on a small pedestal, from which Aeneas almost seems to be slipping, which enhances the spiraling movement of the bodies. Both of these characteristics follow in Mannerist tradition. The sculpture is not entirely Mannerist, however; Bernini conveys much more movement in the figures. The action of muscles and tendons can be seen against the skin, and the veins bulge. The skin of the old man is distinctively different from that of his son, as can be seen in the sagging skin and more pronounced veins. These features were not found in Mannerism; rather they were products of Bernini’s own genius and his ability to mold marble as if it were clay. As Howard Hibbard states: “[Bernini] was out of sympathy with the aesthetic aims of Mannerism but was as yet unable to abandon its principles.” The composition was decidedly Mannerism, but the features of the figures themselves were not. This was a transitional piece for Bernini, in which he shed his last attachment with Mannerism from his early training and began creating works in his new realistic style. sculptur/1610/aeneas.jpg
Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius Fleeing Troy
Bernini (c. 1618-1619)

Pluto and Persephone (c. 1621-1622)
The next sculpture in the series commissioned for Scipione begins the three great Bernini works of the Villa in which Bernini achieved his new style. The work shows the maiden Persephone being abducted by the god of the underworld, Pluto, and being taken to Hades, past the three headed dog Cerberus who guards its borders. Pluto’s fingers press into her flesh as he holds her to his chest while she pushes at his head in her struggle to escape. The turbulent emotion in this scene pours from the marble. Rudolf Wittkower states: “Bernini interpreted this old rape-theme as a conflict between brutal lust and desperate anguish, emphasizing the contrasting feelings of the two figures by various compositional subtleties…” Persephone’s body twists away from her captor and her face is frozen mid cry with tears running down her cheek. Bernini’s intricate details show movement and struggle with her hair in tendrils flying back from her shoulders. Pluto’s face is slightly distorted as Persephone’s hand pushes at its side. His expression reflects bemusement at her futile struggle, as he is obviously triumphant in his goal- indicated by the presence of ferocious Cerberus as his feet. The three heads of the beast snarl, bearing their precisely carved teeth, with such detail from the swirls of fur on their body to their claws that it looks as if it might come alive. Bernini was a master at being able to convey emotions through marble. Each nuance of the piece contributes to the feelings it portrays: from Persephone’s tears to the way Pluto’s fingers sink into his captive’s flesh. This work was the first of a monumental trio. sculptur/1620/proserpi.jpg
Pluto and Persephone
Bernini (c. 1621-1622)

Apollo and Daphne (c. 1622-1625)
Bernini based the subject of his next work on the Ovidian tale of the god Apollo and nymph Daphne. Daphne is being pursued in a chase by a love sick Apollo, and just as she is running out of strength she cries out to her father, the river god, to change her form which has caused this problem. The nymph is then transformed into a laurel tree, saving her from her pursuer. Bernini depicts the scene in which Apollo has just caught up to Daphne and reaches his arm around her waist. At the instant that she feels his touch, her body starts transforming into a tree. Apollo observes this transfiguration, and in his expression, one can see his momentary elation being broken by the shock of seeing the subject of his love turning into a tree. His elation itself is false, as his hand only grasps the bark covering her torso. Her fingers sprout intricate leaves as her arms are thrown up in her last effort to escape. Even her body begins to be encased in bark as her toes sprout roots into the ground. The expression carved by Bernini on her face shows her fear of the pursuer who has finally caught up to her. At the same time she seems unaware of her transformation that has Apollo so astounded. Bernini masterfully captures this moment in time. Daphne’s hair is whipped around, even as it begins to sprout leaves, showing her sudden halt from flight at her metamorphosis and capture by Apollo. Even the drapery around the figures is flung around them and trailing out in the space behind them, showing the speed of the chase. Apollo’s right hand steadies him as he runs and reaches out to capture his love. Bernini takes a scene traditionally depicted through literature and painting, and successfully captures the psyches of the characters, as well as the elaborate physical details of each, all to convey this snapshot in mythology. 1301/images/IN412Bern.jpg
Apollo and Daphne
Bernini (c. 1622-1625)

David (c. 1623-1624)
Though technically this sculpture was completed before the Apollo and Daphne was finished, it was the last to be commissioned in the trio of Bernini’s monumental Borghese works. It is also typically regarded as the final work because it is considered to be the most psychologically advanced of the three statues. This sculpture depicts the biblical character, David, summoning his strength while aiming his slingshot at the giant, Goliath. David’s adversary, however, is not sculpted in this piece, but his stance and intense gaze suggest its presence, prompting the viewer to imagine the towering Goliath. Bernini modeled the facial expression of the David after watching his own expressions in a mirror. Sheer concentration is expertly demonstrated through the tense facial muscles, clenched mouth, flaring nostrils and knitted brow. The figure’s stance is wide, with his toes gripping the ground as he prepares for his shot. A shield and harp at his feet, David’s entire body is twisted to his right, counterbalanced by the turn of his head and position of his arms to face his adversary. Bernini masterfully conveys a scene of great tension and psychological implications through the David, successfully securing proof of his talent at a young age. sculptur/1620/david.jpg
Bernini (c. 1623-1624)

III. Function

The Villa Borghese was built primarily to showcase the extensive collection of art that Scipione Borghese had acquired. The villa itself had little living space. It served to entertain and impress guests by means of the magnificent pieces of art it housed. The Cardinal, as a powerful politician, certainly must have used his villa to impress or gain influence among his peers and colleagues. Indeed, Pluto and Persephone did not even remain in the villa for long because Scipione Borghese gave it to the nephew of the new pope, Pope Gregory XV, to regain favor after the death of his own uncle. This, however, was only a facet of the impact of the villa and the art it contained.
Joy Kenseth (p.196)
Ground Floor of the Villa Borghese
(A) Original location of David; (B) Original location of Apollo and Daphne and proposed intended location of Pluto and Persephone

Bernini was an ambitious man, and he realized the potential of his great talents. According to Bruce Boucher, Bernini’s works in the Villa Borghese “pitted him against Michelangelo and Giambologna, the greatest sculptors of the previous century.” Bernini’s ambition drove him to compete with the talents of the masters, and he could not have picked a better place to showcase his beginning works than the Cardinal’s villa. Not only did Scipione Borghese entertain his own private guests at the villa, but also it became a popular place for foreign visitors and Roman citizens to marvel at and discuss the wonders of Bernini’s new works and the rest of the collection. As Genevieve Warwick states, “Both [artist and patron] understood that the role of the villa was to attract an educated international audience.” This role helped spread word both of Bernini’s talents and of Scipione’s wealth and fine taste.

The villa itself is compact, consisting of twenty rooms across two floors, making it possible to view the entire collection in two hours. Originally, the first floor housed primarily sculptures, while the second was devoted to paintings. Bernini’s main trio of works thus resided on the first floor. Today they are located in the center of three separate rooms, which provides quite a different effect than was intended by the artist. With the present positioning, the viewing of the sculpture is not under any control, and it is possible to view it in the round in any manner desired. Early guides written for visitors of the villa certify that originally, each of the works was placed up against a wall. Many artists argue that this placement supports the idea that Bernini intended there to be one dominant view of each sculpture. However, due to the fact that there has not been a unanimous decision on a particular dominant view for each sculpture among art historians, it seems that Bernini may have had something else in mind.

Pluto and Persephone was, as mentioned previously, given away as a gift. To fill its place in the villa, Apollo and Daphne was commissioned as its replacement. Thus the original position of the latter can be assumed as the original place for the former as well. As seen in the diagram of the ground floor of the Villa Borghese, there are two entrances to the room in which Apollo and Daphne was located. Both of which place the viewer entering in such a way that they would be facing Apollo’s back. This was obviously not the intended dominant view of the statue, yet it was enough to intrigue the viewer to follow around the figure and see the rest of the sculpture. With the statue placed against the wall, this left a 180-degree viewing range of the work. Beginning at the entrance of the room, the viewer first sees the figure of Apollo running. Following along and approaching the front of the sculpture, the viewer now sees the object of Apollo’s pursuit, Daphne. The viewer’s eyes can then follow up Daphne’s figure to the frozen cry on her face and see her fingers transforming into leaves. Once the viewer has reached the last portion of the statue, the metamorphosis of the nymph is fully visible and one can see Daphne’s form becoming encased in bark and her toes sprouting roots. In this way, Bernini creates a narrative view of the Ovidian tale he has sculpted. Had Pluto and Persephone been in this position as originally intended, a similar narrative tale would have unfolded to the viewer. First one would see the strong form of Pluto, then the maiden he has in his clutches, and finally her tears and Cerberus at their feet welcoming them to Hades.

Bernini again uses the 180-degree narrative viewing strategy with David. In this instance, the original positioning of the statue in the Villa Borghese, as the diagram shows, places David against a wall in a room in which there are two entrances. Each entrance places the viewer to see the right side of the statue first. As in Apollo and Daphne, this is not the intended dominate view, but a view that is engaging and invokes curiosity to continue to move along the statue. The right side of David does not show any specific action, but once the viewer progresses around to the front, the figure is clearly seen sighting the imaginary Goliath. Continuing further to the final side of the statue, David’s sling is seen with the rock aimed at his adversary and a facial expression of extreme concentration. The narrative Bernini projects with David is more of a psychological story, one that shows the development of the character’s mental process in regards to his impending action. This is in contrast to the narrative of Apollo and Daphne, which is derived from a poem by Ovid and is more literally a story.

VI. Patron

The broad goals Scipione Borghese intended to achieve through Bernini’s work in his villa have been previously discussed. The subject matter of each statue, however, had its own agenda that supported the patron. The magnificence of each work housed in the Cardinal’s impressive villa was not all that helped support the positive image that he hoped to project; each of Bernini’s sculptures, in fact, served Scipione Borghese in their own unique way.
Portrait Bust of Scipione Borghese
Bernini (c. 1932)

The first major work, Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius Fleeing Troy, done by Bernini is a scene from the legendary founding of Rome. This in itself seems to show the love the Cardinal had for his city, but there was another personal side to it. According to Boucher, the image of the man, Aeneas, carrying his aging father was “representing, by use of allegory, Cardinal Borghese’s piety and support for his uncle in the affairs of state.” In Rome during this time period, the pope was an extremely powerful figure, and it was very beneficial for any citizen to show the strength of their allegiance. Even as Pope Paul V’s nephew, Scipione Borghese was not exempt from the need to use this strategy.

Since Apollo and Daphne was commissioned in place of Pluto and Persephone, both sculptures share similar purposes. After Pope Paul V died, the pope who succeeded his uncle was not in great favor with Scipione Borghese, and it seems this feeling was mutual. The Cardinal, however, was a political man, and his power had previously come from the pope. With the loss of his title as Cardinal Nephew, he lost his important role in the papal court. To regain Pope Gregory XV’s good graces, he gave his nephew the recently completed Pluto and Persephone as a sort of peace offering. The replacement commissioned was similar: both consisted of a male in pursuit of a female. This time, however, instead of a triumphant god with his catch, Apollo lost his prize as she was transformed into a tree. The similarity can be noted between Scipione Borghese’s loss of power as Cardinal Nephew and the transformation of his role in the papal court.

The final statue, David, contains a bit more subtle connection to Scipione Borghese. The Borghese family symbol is an eagle and a dragon, both to be found in various forms throughout the villa. At David’s feet, the harp that he was to play after his victory is decorated with an eagle’s head, a direct reference to the Borghese family. This connects the Borghese family to a symbol of victory, a connection by which Scipione Borghese would have been flattered. Additionally, the biblical story of David and Goliath tells the tale of a small force defeating a larger one. It is a story that the Borghese family would be proud to portray as the church triumphing over pagans.

V. Conclusion

Bernini’s works for Scipione Borghese began the Baroque style of sculpture. As Boucher states: “…a sculptural equivalent [of the Baroque movement] only emerged with Bernini’s early works during the second decade of the new century.” It wasn’t only Bernini’s talents that began this movement, for merely creating the works was not sufficient. Rather, his work had to be readily available and well known, and the Villa Borghese provided the opportunity for both. According to Caterina Volpi, “…[the Villa Borghese was] a showcase for the marvels in his [Scipione Borghese] collection that the more innovative aspects of Roman artistic culture on the threshold of the baroque era were able to find expression, thanks to the patronage of its owner…” Establishing the foundation for this artistic movement opened the door for many artists to follow and expand upon.

Today there are many visitors still attend the Villa Borghese to view the magnificent art within. Bernini’s talents make the figures in the statues come alive, and the viewer feels as if they are a part of the scene themselves; whether they feel as if they are actually hearing Persephone cry, experiencing Daphne’s horror or looking over their shoulder for the imaginary Goliath for which David aims his sling. One doesn’t need to be entirely familiar with the stories behind the statues, for it is their realism and artistic mastery that truly connects them with generations of humanity.

VI. Personal Observations

Throughout my research, the element I found most intriguing was the sheer talent that Bernini possessed. This fact didn’t really hit home for me until I was standing in the Villa Borghese and seeing his sculptures through my own eyes, not those of a professional photographer. I had read all about Bernini being a prodigy, and heard of his great talents from others, but nothing quite prepared me for actually seeing his works of art. Researching in books and seeing pictures on the internet convinced me of his capabilities, but truly understanding his skill was only possible when seeing his sculptures in reality. To stand in the presence of such great works, knowing the background behind them- just how quickly they were finished and at such a young age- was overwhelming. It is almost incomprehensible to fathom how Bernini was able to take a piece of marble and turn it into the work that I’m staring at in awe; to be able to make the figures seem as if they were once living and breathing until he transformed them into marble in an instant. For me, it wasn’t facts or figures that I will bring away with me from this project, but the experience of being in the presence of the work of a true prodigy.

VII. Bibliography

Baldinucci, Filippo. The Life of Bernini. Trans. Catherine Enggass. London: Pennsylvania UP, 1966.

Bolland, Andrea. “Desiderio and Diletto: Vision, Touch, and the Poetics of Bernini's Apollo and Daphne.” The Art Bulletin. 82.2 (June 2000): 309-330.

Boucher, Bruce. Italian Baroque Sculpture. New York: Thames, 1998.

Conconi, Maria, et al. Art and Archaeology of Rome: From Ancient Times to the Baroque. Ed. Andrea Augenti. New York: Scala, 2000.

Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. Baltimore: Penguin, 1965.

Kenseth, Joy. “Bernini’s Borghese Sculptures: Another View.” The Art Bulletin. 63.2 (June 1981): 191-210.

Warwick, Genevieve. “Speaking Statues: Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne at the Villa Borghese.” Art History. 27.3 (June 2004): 353-381.

Wittkower, Rudolf. Art and Architecture in Italy: 1600 to 1750. Baltimore: Penguin, 1972.

Wittkower, Rudolf. Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque. New York: Phaidon, 1997.