The sculpture “Apollo and Daphne” was crafted by the famous Italian sculpture Bernini. Commissioned by the Borghese family it marks the last work Bernini did for the family. The subject of the sculpture may seem a bit odd when considering it was carved for Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Yet in order to gain a deeper understanding of the meaning by the sculpture, one must first understand the myth that inspired it.
Bernini crafted this marble masterpiece around the mythical tale of, you guessed it, Apollo and Daphne. The myth of Apollo and Daphne begins with an exchange of words between Apollo and Cupid. Apollo, seeing that Cupid is playing with a bow and arrow, mocks the child for playing with a soldier’s weapon. Cupid, however, quickly devises a plan to exact revenge upon Apollo. First Cupid takes out a leaden arrow and shoots the nymph Daphne with it. This arrow affects Daphne by making her despise love and turn towards other pursuits. Then Cupid grabs out a golden arrow, the effects of which cause the victim to be engulfed in love, and shoots Apollo with it. Thus the pattern is set for the weaving of this tragic tale. At the exact moment Apollo’s gaze lands upon Daphne he is inflamed in love. The god then decides to pursue Daphne, who attempts to run away from Apollo. Yet, through another devious intervention Cupid hastens Apollo onto his prize. Daphne then sensing that she is about to be caught cries out to her father asking for her beauty to be taken away. Daphne’s father obliges and turns his daughter into a tree at the exact moment that Apollo reaches out to grab hold of the nymph. So Cupid’s revenge was complete, but Apollo still in love decides to make that tree his own. Apollo proclaims that he shall always display the laurel branches in his hair and quiver. Now that the background story has been told, one can begin to see the reasoning behind the sculpture.
What Bernini captured in his sculpture was the exact moment of metamorphoses. Bernini carved Apollo as reaching out to claim his desire. Yet Apollo’s face betrays his surprising realization of the nymph’s metamorphoses as his feet tread upon the newly formed roots. Daphne, on the other hand, is sculpted midway through her transformation into a tree. Her toes are becoming roots, her body bark, her fingers branches, and her hair leaves. Daphne’s body is slightly contorted to allow her head to look back on her lustful pursuer. Bernini displays most of the metamorphoses on the right side of Daphne, however, in order to allow the viewer to gain the whole tale as they circle the sculpture. From the back of the sculpture one only views Apollo chasing after this nymph. Continuing in a counter-clockwise direction the next scene is in the moment when Apollo is just about to grab hold of Daphne. Then in the front the viewer is confronted by a shocked Daphne looking back in fear at her pursuer. To finish out the story in the last scene one sees tragic end of the tale as Daphne is engulfed by a laurel tree. Yet the meaning behind this sculpture still remains enshrouded in mystery.
There are two different meanings behind Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne.” First for Bernini this sculpture could have revealed Bernini’s own transformation into a respected artist of his time. Bernini began work on this sculpture at the young age of 24, at the exact time his popularity was beginning to grow. As for the patron who commissioned this work, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the meaning can be read inscribed into the base of the sculpture. The couplet inscribed here reads, “Those who love to pursue fleeting forms of pleasure, in the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands,” (Pope Urban VIII). Finally the meaning behind the “Apollo and Daphne” becomes clear.