The Rape of Proserpina


Bernini Rape of Proserpina 1620-1621

The Rape of Proserpina,
Gian Lorenzo Bernini
White Marble 1622-1623

The Rape of Proserpina is one of Bernini’s most famous works of art and truly represents the artist’s skill with mannerism. When viewing this piece in person in the Galleria Borghese I found myself walking around the sculpture and following the myth of Pluto abducting Proserpina. The myth parallels the myth of Hades and Persephone from Greek culture. As the myth goes Hades swooped down in his chariot and grabbed Persephone and carried her off to the Underworld. Unfortunately Persephone was the daughter of Demeter who is the goddess of the harvest and upon hearing that her daughter had been abducted started to destroy crops and fields searching for her. Zeus intervened after a brief famine and sent Hermes to retrieve Persephone from Hades who grudgingly agreed. Unfortunately Persephone consumed the seeds of a fruit from the Underworld, often a pomegranate, and those who consume the food of the Underworld can not leave. The agreement was that Persephone would inhabit the Earth for six months and the Underworld for the rest of the year. This myth is often connected with explaining the change from summer to winter.

This sculpture doesn’t quite give us the entire myth but does give us the scenes from the first encounter up until they are entering the underworld. The tale doesn’t actually start from the front as seen above, but from the right side where all the viewer sees is some action and stress in the face and posture of a woman. We can assume the attacker is male from the large masculine hand on her thigh. In inspecting her face closely we see Bernini’s master of sculpture  demonstrated in the marble tear running down her face.   Walking in a clockwise motion to the “front” of the sculpture the meat of the story is portrayed. Proserpina is violently resisting this abduction and Pluto merely looks on with an amused expression. One more rotation to the left side and we see a confident male form with no expression of discomfort of strife taking a strong step forward. The location of Pluto’s guard dog, Cerberus the guardian to the entrance of the Underworld, also can be an indicator of the story. Starting in the position of a guard dog with the air of constant vigilance towards any danger to the front. Moving the second segment he takes a middle ground between looking ahead and being behind as a sentry. The final portion of the scene has Cerberus in the rear looking out; guarding what we assume is the Underworld.

This piece was commissioned and funded by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, Bernini’s principle patron but it was gifted to another cardinal shortly after its completion. So the current location in the Galleria Borghese was not the original location. The statue itself was completed in the Baroque period and has aspects of Mannerism. This means that the style is more of a spiral than any other design and is focused around a specific narrative. Bernini does an excellent job of conveying the story while also allowing the viewer room to interpret and think.



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