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The Greatest Statue of the High Renaissance from Bernini: The Rape of Persephone

Updated on June 26, 2012
Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Gian Lorenzo Bernini | Source

This piece was written while on a study abroad program for the University of Dallas in Rome, Italy. A visit was paid to the Galleria Borghese in Rome in order to dutifully examine all the intimate details of the masterpiece.

Rape of Proserpine (head on view)
Rape of Proserpine (head on view) | Source

Bernini, The Rape of Proserpine (Pluto & Persephone)

17th Century (1621), marble, High Renaissance; The god of the Underworld, Pluto, is abducting Persephone and carrying her back into his domain.

Theme: Futility of Resistance?

This magnificent sculpture looks as if Bernini carved and shaped certain pieces apart from others. For example, sometimes a bust of an individual would be carved and prepared without a head. When the time came, the head would be completed and then simply added to the initial piece. Amazingly enough, this is not the case here with Bernini. His artwork looks additive, but it is actually only subtractive. The Rape of Proserpine is mostly, if not completely, organic. The bodies of Pluto, Persephone, and Cerberus look incredibly realistic and natural. A good counterexample of this organic feeling can be seen in the Aeneas and Anchises sculpture of Bernini. One can look at the sculpture and feel that it was clearly carved from a single block of marble; it has that geometric feeling to it. The Rape of Proserpine on the other hand does not come off like this. Bernini clearly improved his skills between the two sculptures.

Rape of Proserpine (looking up)
Rape of Proserpine (looking up) | Source

Angles

This is a very vertical and curvilinear piece of work. Sculptures like the Dying Gaul are very horizontal while the David is diagonal and angular. Pluto has Persephone up on his hip and she is extending her right arm upward, while the dog Cerberus is beneath the two. This whole set up encourages the viewer to walk around the sculpture and look up. However, there is an interesting horizontal effect presented in the arms of Pluto and Persephone. As Pluto’s right arm comes across grabbing Persephone, her left arm is above Pluto’s pushing him away. This effect can be seen when standing directly in front of the sculpture. In addition, when viewed from the front, Persephone’s right leg follows a nice diagonal line with the tilted head of Pluto.

Material

Although the whole piece is a marble white, there is still some translucency on the artwork. Pluto’s feet give off a different hew than the rest of his body. The body of Cerberus seems like a different material due to its texture and the way the light reflects off of it.

Rape of Proserpine (side view)
Rape of Proserpine (side view) | Source
Rape of Proserpine (Hades' Fingers)
Rape of Proserpine (Hades' Fingers) | Source

Lighting

The cool and warm areas depend on where the light hits the sculpture. For instance, if the light hits the sculpture from the front, then the warm areas will be the faces of Pluto and Persephone. If the light comes from behind you and you are standing on the right side of the sculpture, the hands of Pluto create this ominous and essential viewpoint of the whole sculpture. His hands and Persephone’s leg are lit up while the rest of Persephone’s body is of a low value.

Rape of Proserpine (Cerberus)
Rape of Proserpine (Cerberus) | Source

Texture

The texture in this piece is actual. Bernini took his time sculpting the fleshy bodies of Pluto and Persephone and the rough, hairy body of Cerberus. It looks as if Cerberus is made out of a different material than the rest of the artwork. Bernini does this in order to make the entire sculpture more realistic and believable. The hair actually looks like hair. The veins and bones seen in the feet and hands of Pluto tell us that Bernini expected people to view his artwork up close and marvel at his attention to detail. The smallest nuances bring the entire sculpture to life. A sculpture with very little detail, such as any of the Kouros pieces, shows how serious Bernini took his work.

Perspective

There seems to be some hierarchical perspective because Pluto is larger than Persephone, and yet that could just be something Bernini intended because after all, the god of the Underworld would understandably be larger than a woman. There is diminution in scale when one sees Cerberus, who is simply an indicator of the entrance to the Underworld and a support for the sculpture itself. Overlapping can be seen from any point of view and foreshortening when standing directly in front of the piece.

Rape of Proserpine (side view)
Rape of Proserpine (side view) | Source

An 'Additive' Piece of Work

The Rape of Proserpine looks additive in some instances, but is in fact subtractive. Bernini carved this all from one slab of marble. This is definitely a step up from his earlier work, the Aeneas and Anchises.

Symmetry

The sculpture is pretty well balanced and symmetrical. The smaller bodies of Persephone and Cerberus on the right offset the large body of Pluto on the left. As Pluto is sort of pulling Persephone onto his left hip, there is a negative space left behind in this imaginative moment of action. Cerberus is there to balance out this forward movement and bring literal and visual balance to the artwork.

Rape of Proserpine (slight right)
Rape of Proserpine (slight right) | Source

Shapes

An often-repeated shape in this sculpture would be a smooth, rounded edge. For example, the shoulders, knees, and hips of both characters are very curvilinear. Another shape would be the flowing, intricate hair. The right arm of Pluto and the left arm of Persephone form a horizontal unity. While Persephone looks to her left, Pluto looks to his right.

Variety

There is a great deal of variety in this work. For instance, one can see horizontal, vertical, curvilinear, and diagonal lines all present at the same time. Horizontal arms, vertical bodies, curvilinear shoulders and knees, and diagonal legs all come together seamlessly.

Sense of Motion

This piece of work has a great sense of motion unlike most other sculptures. The twisting, contorting bodies with the wind-swept hair make the marble sculpture look like a picture captured in time. My eye moves initially from the faces of Pluto and Persephone to their arms and hand movements. After noticing the indentations of Pluto’s hand on Persephone’s leg and abdomen, I follow the sculpture downwards towards the feet and dog, Cerberus. This is all accomplished through the diagonal legs of Persephone and angular stance of Pluto. This sculpture cannot be viewed from just one angle. Each perspective offers the viewer something different to look at and think about.

Rape of Proserpine (another slight right)
Rape of Proserpine (another slight right) | Source

Focal Point

The focal point of the sculpture is obviously the two bodies of Pluto and Persephone. The heads could have even been incomplete, and the viewer would still get a sense of the action. It is clear to see that the bigger, more muscular Pluto is taking Persephone, the smaller, smoother woman against her will. The eyes are immediately drawn to the resistance of Persephone and the realistic detail on the bodies. Bernini could have made the sculpture impersonal and avoided personalities entirely. Indeed, he captured that moment of resistance and any character would have been sufficient.

My Personal Feelings on the Piece

The Rape of Proserpine, sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, is unlike anything I have ever seen before. The amount of time required to create this beautiful work of art is astounding! It is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. For example, Bernini perfectly captured the kinetic moment of resistance that one would expect in this type of situation. Persephone’s flailing right arm, her rigid left arm shoving Pluto away, and her windswept hair all contribute to the action. It is also important to notice the twisting torque action of Persephone’s body; she is hopelessly putting all of her energy into fighting off Pluto. One of the most amazing aspects of the sculpture is the detail Bernini put into the fingers of Pluto. He has her in a very natural hold, which is only further emphasized through the imprints he leaves on her body. One can see the pressure of the fingers on her thigh and abdomen, something truly difficult to achieve with stone. It is as if this rigid piece of marble was actually flesh and bone and I could poke it myself and see the indentation on the body. Both characters are engaging in natural postures and reactions. Persephone is utterly helpless while Pluto remains unflinching. Something hardly anyone would notice would be the tears upon her face. It is beautiful to see such a minor, but powerful, nuance included in the sculpture. When moving around the artwork, one can notice the feet of Persephone, which are petite and smooth with all the wrinkles and qualities to be expected on a feminine foot. Conversely, the large feet of Pluto are portrayed with veins and bones clearly visible.

The genius of Bernini can be further demonstrated on the face of Pluto. For instance, Persephone distorts the left side of his face. After all, she is desperately resisting and his eye and temple are being stretched as a result. The intricacy of his hair is also noteworthy. It looks like the hair is actually just a wig, indeed some additive marble. But it is not. Bernini’s work looks additive, but it is in fact subtractive. The musculature of Pluto is also easily identifiable. The veins in his arms popping out and the abdominal muscles constricting in order to control Persephone are some good examples. Bernini spent a lot of his time studying the human anatomy so that he could pull off said aspects. A little detail to keep in mind would be Pluto’s left leg. The weight of Persephone is hinted at when his left leg stresses more under the weight than the right leg. His stance also indicates the realism Bernini strove for. Pluto’s feet are not close together, which would be unrealistic in carrying a person. His wide, quasi-contrapposto stance allows us to accept the abduction as legitimate. This artwork is just begging to be explored and seen from all sides. The dog Cerberus is different from the rest of the work in that it looks hairy and rough as opposed to the bodies of Pluto and Persephone, which are smooth and fleshy. It is also quite stable with little movement. Although, Cerberus is in a moment of action as we see him barking when his master passes by with his prize. I feel as if I am a witness to this tragedy. With the way that I was placed underneath the sculpture looking up at the moment of passage into Hades, I imagined myself as a damned soul in Hades already. I was witnessing another travesty that I could not prevent. This work conjures up images of futility and despair. After all, Persephone is up against the god of the Underworld and her tears and resistance do nothing for her at this point.

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  • bethperry profile image

    Beth Perry 2 years ago from Tennesee

    Baroque, Renaissance, whatever..it is one of my favorite sculptures. I've always found the story of Persephone and Hades fascinating, and this work of art is testament to the artistic heights humans can reach when they love their medium.

    Voted up!

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    duckbyter 4 years ago

    I used a photo of a detail from this sculpture as my YouTube avatar; it was flagged as "inappropriate".

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    elisot 4 years ago

    This is your professor. Please correct your paper. This statue was NOT MADE DURING THE HIGH RENAISSANCE. As I taught in the class you attended: the High Renaissance ends somewhere around 1520 with the death of Raphael. THIS IS A BAROQUE SCULPTURE!!!!! The Baroque period begins ca. 1600. Nice analysis, but I noted the incorrect periodization when I corrected your paper and you should change the period on this online entry. BERNINI IS A BAROQUE ARTIST! :) (NOT RENAISSANCE)