“The Rape of Proserpina”: A Discussion in ‘Detail’ [Ankush Goutam Ghosh, UGIII, 16]


My introduction to the name of ‘Bernini’ came on a train journey, long enough to need the assistance of a novel that I had conveniently forgot to carry. The usual persistence of my 15 year-old self eventually allowed my strict guardian to shell out four hundred rupee notes to allow a random selection of Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons” to be added to my reading list (the selection of the author was carefully based on the controversy surrounding his previous novel “The Da Vinci Code” which incurred the wrath of my school, which is a minority institution within the Catholic Church). At the stroke of midnight, when the train was about to cross the Orissa border, the character of Vittoria remarked, “I found out who the unknown Illuminati sculptor was… It was Bernini. The Bernini.” Back then, I could not fathom the cause of a look of amazement on Robert Langdon’s face. Half-a-decade later, the comprehension of the character’s shock is not difficult to ascertain.

A Brief History

To quote from the popular Wikipedia page, “Gian Lorenzo Bernini (also Gianlorenzo or Giovanni Lorenzo; 7 December 1598 – 28 November 1680) was an Italian sculptor and architect who worked principally in Rome. A major figure in the world of architecture, he was the leading sculptor of his age, credited with creating the Baroque style of sculpture. As one scholar has commented, ‘what Shakespeare is to drama, Bernini may be to sculpture: the first pan-European sculptor whose name is instantaneously identifiable with a particular manner and vision, and whose influence was inordinately powerful…’ In addition, he was a painter (mostly small canvases in oil) and a man of the theater: he wrote, directed and acted in plays (mostly Carnival satires), also designing stage sets and theatrical machinery, as well as a wide variety of decorative art objects including lamps, tables, mirrors, and even coaches. As architect and city planner, he designed both secular buildings and churches and chapels, as well as massive works combining both architecture and sculpture, especially elaborate public fountains and funerary monuments and a whole series of temporary structures (in stucco and wood) for funerals and festivals.

Bernini possessed the ability to depict dramatic narratives with characters showing intense psychological states, but also to organize large-scale sculptural works which convey a magnificent grandeur. His skill in manipulating marble ensured that he would be considered a worthy successor of Michelangelo , far outshining other sculptors of his generation, including his rival, Alessandro Algardi His talent extended beyond the confines of sculpture to a consideration of the setting in which it would be situated; his ability to synthesize sculpture, painting, and architecture into a coherent conceptual and visual whole has been termed by the art historian Irving Lavin the “unity of the visual arts”. A deeply religious man, working in Counter Reformation Rome, Bernini used light as an important metaphorical device in his religious settings, often using hidden light sources that could intensify the focus of religious worship or enhance the dramatic moment of a sculptural narrative.

Bernini was also a leading figure in the emergence of Roman Baroque Architecture along with his contemporaries, the architect Francesco Borromini and the painter and architect Pietro da Cortana. Early in their careers they had all worked at the same time at the Palazzo Barberini, initially under Carlo Maderno and, following his death, under Bernini. Later on, however, they were in competition for commissions, and fierce rivalries developed, particularly between Bernini and Borromini. Despite the arguably greater architectural inventiveness of Borromini and Cortona, Bernini’s artistic pre-eminence, particularly during the reigns of popes Urban VIII (1623–44) and Alexander VII (1655–65), meant he was able to secure the most important commissions in the Rome of his day, the various massive embellishment projects of the newly finished St. Peter’s Basilica, completed under Pope Paul V with the addition of Maderno’s nave and facade and finally re-consecrated by Pope Urban VIII on November 18, 1626, after 150 years of planning and building. Bernini’s design of the Piazza San Pietro in front of the Basilica is one of his most innovative and successful architectural designs. Within the basilica he is also responsible for the Baldacchino, the decoration of the four piers under the cupola, the Cathedra Petri (Throne of St. Peter) in the apse, the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in the right nave, and the decoration (floor, walls and arches) of the new nave.

Bernini and other artists fell from favor in later neoclassical criticism of the Baroque. It is only from the late nineteenth century that art historical scholarship, in seeking an understanding of artistic output in the cultural context in which it was produced, has come to recognize Bernini’s achievements and restore his artistic reputation. The art historian Howard Hibbard concludes that, during the seventeenth century, “there were no sculptors or architects comparable to Bernini”.

Throughout his long life, Bernini was an enormously fertile and productive artist, but at no time was he more intensely occupied with purely sculptural projects than during the years of roughly 1618 to 1625. Among the large-scale marble sculptures which Bernini produced at that time– Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius, Neptune and Triton, Pluto and Proserpina, David, and Appollo and Daphne-can be found not only the masterpieces of his early maturity but the emergence of a style which was to dominate European sculpture for more than a hundred
years. Bernini, due to his proximity to international networks of patronage, was familiar with the Flemish painting. The pillars in the paintings show the influence of classical architecture and there is a sense of suppressed violence. It expresses emotions through the movement of the body.

The Rape of Proserpina

The Rape of Proserpina


The Rape of Proserpina (or Persephone) was constructed by Bernini between 1621 and 1622. He was only 23 years old at the time of completion.
In Greek mythology, Persephone (also known as Proserpina) was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter (goddess of agriculture) and was queen of the Underworld. One day while the young maiden was picking flowers, Hades, god of the underworld, kidnapped Persephone and carried her back to the underworld to be his wife.
Demeter begged Zeus to command the release of her daughter, and Persephone was told that she would be released from the underworld, as long as she didn’t consume any food while she was there. But when she thought no one was looking, Persephone went into the garden and ate six pomegranate seeds. She was thus doomed to spend six months of the year with Hades, while for the other six months she could return to Earth to see her mother. The myth holds that the months Persephone spends in the underworld leave the earth cold, dark, and wintry, but when she returns, spring and summer accompany her.
Modern readers should note that in Bernini’s time the word“rape” signified “kidnapping”; thus, the sculpture thus represents the kidnapping of Persephone.

The Commission:
Cardinal Scipione Borghese commissioned The Rape of Persephone from the 23-year-old Bernini in 1621, giving it to Cardinal Ludovisi in 1622. In 1908, the Italian state purchased the work and relocated it to the Galleria Borghese.

An Analysis

This stunning sculpture exemplifies the best of the baroque and demonstrates Bernini’s ability to handle marble and produce credible figures. Like his other works, the Rape of Persephone is fraught with emotion and tension, achieving a hitherto unseen level of life-like action. Bernini’s pieces can always be recognized by the minute attention to detail, grandiose theatricality, and ornate design.
Bernini chooses to depict the most dramatic, “pregnant” moment in the story; the scene is filled with heart-rending emotion. Bernini is famous for portraying the most poignant moment in a story and for communicating that event in the most dramatic way possible, by means of exuberant movement, emotive facial expressions, and feats of technical mastery.
In “The Rape of Persephone”, the figures twist and strain in opposing directions, testifying to a Mannerist influence; their tense struggle is imbued with an explosive dynamism.
Not only are the figures portrayed in the midst of frenzied movement, but the viewer himself is encouraged to move 360 degrees around the sculpture in order to take it all in.
Although his figures are always somewhat idealized, like a perfected version of reality, Bernini manages to bestow them with individualized features and imbue them with human emotion, and never neglects the careful details that help to bring his sculptures to life.

The Dedication to Detail

In the essay ‘A Terra-Cotta Model for Bernini’s Proserpina’, Henry Hawley comments, ” By thus controlling the relationship between his work and the spectator, Bernini was able to intensify the dramatic and emotional impact of his sculpture, an impact which could not have been obtained by gesture and facial expression alone. It is precisely  the relationship between his work and the spectator, Bernini was able to intensify the dramatic and emotional impact of his sculpture, an impact which could not have been obtained by gesture and facial expression alone… Since both antique and modern sources upon which Bernini may have drawn in the development of the facial type represented in Proserpina were freely available to him, it is impossible to determine to what degree he was dependent upon each. In any case, the face of Proserpina is clearly Bernini’s own creation, regardless of its sources and simi larities to the work of his contemporaries. Among his idealized representations of women, the face of Proserpina is perhaps closest to antique precedents. is clearly Bernini’s own creation, regardless of its sources and simi larities to the work of his contemporaries. Once developed, the type, which she represents remains an important part of Bernini’s repertoire of forms for a decade though it underwent a gradual evolution toward a more personal idea of beauty.”

A further point, in the analysis of the structure with reference to the terracotta head, Hawley gives due credit to Bernini for emulating the same effect, or emotion, without the clear assistance of the ancillary additives. He says, “If its existence can only be explained by rather complex inductive reasoning, the skill and assurance of the model ing of the Head of Proserpina indicate that it was made by the hand of a sculptor of exceptional technical accomplishment, who enjoyed a profound understanding of the means of plastic representation of forms. Even in this fragment of a few inches in height, Bernini was able to
convey both the nature of Proserpina’s physical being and the anguish of her mind. Certainly the recognition of these qualities caused this head to be preserved. With or without the facts of its genesis and historical importance, it is a memorable work of art.”

Influence of Galileo: Effect of gravity on tear
Attention to Detail
The Terracotta model of the Head of Proserpina

The Influence of Galileo

Reverting to the Dan Brown novel, which clearly enlists Bernini as one of the greatest infiltration of Illuminati and confers the title of “il maestro ignoto—the unknown master”, the association with Galileo can be hardly missed. In the essay entitled ‘The Influence of Galileo on Bernini’s Saint Mary Magdalen and Saint Jerome’, Harriet Feigenbaum Chamberlain argues, “Though the balance of the Magdalen and Jerome is visually less audacious than in some earlier works, it is so subtly and cleverly handled that we wonder whether Bernini’s sculptured forms were influenced by a theoretical principle. Bernini could have known such a principle, namely, Galileo’s new theories of gravity. Galileo’s new theory of balance would have been of special value to Bernini, enabling him to achieve charged psychological effects by balancing masses of stone in a seemingly precarious manner. It is especially applicable when creating illusions with odd and asymmetrically shaped weights. Before demonstrating the special relevance and applicability of Galileo’s theory, it must be shown that the principles it contained were definitely available to Bernini.”
In the course of the discussion, we come to realize that Galileo was interested primarily in using his theories to solve practical problems. He confirmed the validity of these theories with mathematical proof and experiment. Because of his fame, Galileo was frequently invited to explain his ideas and to participate with architects and engineers in the solution of some of the major technical problems of the time. The persona of Bernini was sure to have been influenced by the genius of Galileo and interesting facts such as “Pope Urban VIII, Bernini’s great patron, was also a friend of Galileo’s until the latter’s trial” help to cement the belief. It is improbable that Bernini would not have encountered Galileo’s theories on the center of gravity in solids when we consider the vastness of some of his projects and the variety of people employed to work on them, engineers and architects as well as sculptors and craftsmen.

In a variety of criticisms, that have been duly allotted to the respective structure,  the key note of “life-like” can be credited to the scientific achievements of Galileo. To quote from Chamberlain’s essay, “On applying Galileo’s theory Bernini would have realized first that the location of the center of gravity of a marble block may be determined by either of two methods, simple calculation or suspension of the block (more practically, suspension of a model of proportionate dimensions)… It would seem appropriate at this point to offer some proof that Bernini was really able to put the new theories of gravity into practice.”
Clearly, the pictures (attached) give ample proof of Bernini’s conscious distribution of weight in a fashion that its center of gravity would be unscathed.


  1.  Artble, The Rape Of Proserpina, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rape_of_Proserpina
  2. Brown, Dan. Angels & Demons. New York,
  3. Feigenbaum Chamberlain, Harriet. “The Influence of Galileo on Bernini’s Saint Mary Magdalen and Saint Jerome” The Art Bulletin,
    Vol. 59, No. 1 (Mar., 1977), pp. 71-84.
  4. Hawley, Henry. “A Terra-Cotta Model for Bernini’s Proserpina”,  The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art,
    Vol. 58, No. 4 (April, 1971).
  5. Wikipedia, The Rape of Proserpina, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rape_of_Proserpina

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