The Rape of Proserpina

The Rape of Proserpina

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, “The Rape of Proserpina,” 1622, Marble. Commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy. Image Credit: Columbia University

This sculpture was commissioned by Cardinal Borghese of the Catholic Church and is still located in the Galleria Borghese—the room for which it was commissioned—in Rome, Italy. It depicts the Roman mythological story of the abduction and subsequent rape of Proserpina by the god, Pluto.

The Rape of Proserpina Side View

“The Rape of Proserpina” (side view). Image Credit: Wikipedia

This depiction captures the scene at the climax of the moment; Pluto is lifting Proserpina into the air, and she is visibly fighting back. This snapshot in time contains a considerable amount of life-like detail. These details, like the expression of fear on Proserpina’s face or the sense of overwhelming force created by the muscular form of Pluto, inform the viewer and tell an entire story with a single moment in time. This dynamic representation, a trait developed by the Baroque masters,7 creates a vivid and believable representation of this myth.

The contorted, serpentine configurations of the figures’ bodies expand upon this dynamism; they invite the viewer to move around the sculpture, view it from every side, and become a part of the dynamic story. By forcing the audience to actively view the piece, Bernini ensures that the viewer’s experience of the sculpture is expanded and dynamic in its own right.

The Rape of Proserpina Leg Indention

“The Rape of Proserpina” (detail). Image Credit: Wikipedia

The intricate, lifelike details with which Bernini imbued the sculpture further this story and give it an emotional depth that connects with the viewer. The way Proserpina’s hand presses into and distorts Pluto’s face, and the impression that Pluto’s hand makes in Proserpina’s leg, serve to tell the story. These details inform us of the unwanted advances, as well as the sexual nature of the scene. The fact that the bodies are partially clothed, their genitalia hidden, only adds to the sensuality of this moment. The story is told through a corporeal representation that reaches to the core passions of every human being. The emphasis on the visceral is a common expository technique in Baroque sculpture.7

While this event is not from Christian beliefs, it still carries with it the same ideals that permeated this time period. The emphasis on the sensuous, bodily experiences, as portrayed through the dynamic poses and the detailed contact between the figures, is characteristic of Counter-Reformation and Baroque thought.

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