BERNINI, Gian Lorenzo
(b. 1598, Napoli, d. 1680, Roma)

The Rape of Proserpina

Marble. height 295 cm
Galleria Borghese, Rome

The large marble group of Pluto and Proserpina shows Pluto, powerful god of the underworld, abducting Proserpina, daughter of Ceres (Greek Demeter), the goddess of harvest and fertility. By interceding with Jupiter, her mother obtains permission for her daughter to return to earth for half the year and then spend the other half in Hades. Thus every spring the earth welcomes her with a carpet of flowers.

The group was executed between 1621 and 1622. Cardinal Scipione gave it to Cardinal Ludovisi in 1622, and it remained in his villa until 1908, when it was purchased by the Italian state and returned to the Borghese Collection.

In this group Bernini develops the twisting pose reminiscent of Mannerism, combined with an impression of vital energy (in pushing against Pluto's face Proserpina's hand creases his skin and his fingers sink into the flesh of his victim). Seen from the left, the group shows Pluto taking a fast and powerful stride and grasping Proserpina, from the front he appears triumphantly bearing his trophy in his arms; from the right one sees Proserpina's tears as she prays to heaven, the wind blowing her hair, as the guardian of Hades, the three-headed dog, barks. Various moments of the story are thus summed up in a single sculpture.

This group has often been said to strongly resemble ancient sculpture such as the Niobe (then in the Villa Medici), as regards Proserpina's face, while Pluto's stance is reminiscent of the Pedagogue (now in the Uffizi) and also the Hercules Killing Hydra, which was found in 1620 and restored by Algardi (now in the Capitoline Museums). Bernini, like Rubens, focussed on the tactile quality of his surfaces.