Of all the things I saw during my visit to Rome, nothing moved me more than Bernini’s magnificent sculpture of the Rape of Persephone. Like all my favourite works of art, it drags the viewer into the heart of its dreadful action.
The Rape of Persephone is one of several Bernini works in the Galleria Borghese, originally the Villa Borghese Pinciana which was built by one of Rome’s many rich Cardinals to show off his art collection.
Cardinal Scipione Borghese was a nephew of Pope Paul V and an early patron of Bernini, commissioning several sculptures specifically for his new party villa on the edge of the city.
These include Apollo and Daphne, which depicts the moment of metamorphosis from soft flesh to hard bark as the mythological nymph transforms into a laurel tree to escape her pursuer.
There’s also his David which captures the young hero in the moment before he looses his shot at Goliath. It’s a powerful piece, full of determination and young, attractive male muscle.
While it’s possible to get a sense of the greatness of these sculptures from film, nothing can compare with the wonder of seeing them in the flesh, which seems an appropriate term in the context of this artist.
I had heard it said that no-one before or since had achieved the truly remarkable feat of turning cold marble into warm human flesh quite like Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
His David ripples with tension but what no-one mentioned was the fineness of the details, as evidenced by the slightly frayed rope of the slingshot.
In the Rape of Persephone, similarly, the first wonder is the imprint of Hades’ fingers in the soft flesh of his victim as she struggles to escape his grasp.
That is well documented and lives up to all expectations, as does the crystalline tear on her cheek and the living terror in her eyes.
This is rape in all its horror and no aesthetic appreciation of Bernini’s skill at turning marble into flesh can take away the power of Persephone’s panic and ultimate despair.
As the God of the Underworld struggles to subdue his prize his three-headed dog Cerberus sits at his feet, its central head raised in an open-mouthed howl.
But turning the corner to the back of the work I was startled to find the third head of Cerberus staring straight at me with a baleful eye.
I don’t know much about Art, but my favourite works are the ones which drag you from the comfortable role of innocent bystander and make you complicit in the scene.
With that small detail, Bernini made me a helpless witness to the crime. The dog seemed to challenge me to act, with a promise to destroy me if I tried.
I have seen no image of this sculpture which conveys that sense of intimate involvement.
Like all great art, it truly must be seen to be believed.
Go to Rome. Go to the Villa Borghese where, for a measly 13 euros, you can weep helplessly with Persephone as her spring promise is stolen from the earth and a chill winter descends over all.