How my liberal arts education ruined my love of Bernini
When I was first exposed to Bernini’s work in my high school Art History class, I immediately understood why this guy is considered one of the best sculptors. Ever.
Have you seen his Apollo and Daphne? The variety of texture that he is able to create with just marble is amazing.
And his Rape of Persephone—it isn’t stone. No, they are actual people with actual flesh. You just have to see it to believe it. Such works of art leave you in complete awe of Bernini’s sculptural prowess. (Note that he was only 23 when he sculpted the Persephone. 23!).
I wish I could keep gushing about Bernini’s sculptures, but then I read Ovid’s Metamorphoses for Lit Hum, and notably, that story about Apollo and Daphne. Which reminded me that the story is basically Apollo’s attempt to rape Daphne.
So one of my favorite sculptures ever is about rape. Great.
I can say that the exact moment when my relationship with Bernini was altered for forever and for the worse was when my Lit Hum professor pointed out that even after Daphne is changed into a tree, “Apollo is still trying to rape her.” And when it dawned on me that Apollo and Daphne is about rape, I came to realize that the Rape of Persephone is about rape too. (I know it’s pretty obvious from the title.)
I’m not going to deny it, I needed to be slapped in the face like this. But it’s still weird. How as a woman can I say, “Yes, I love that sculpture about rape”? It’s ridiculous. It would basically imply that I condone rape as long as it can generate aesthetic beauty.
Which makes me feel pretty personally betrayed by Bernini. Yes, Bernini, I know you’ve been dead for forever. You probably can’t feel my hatred. But that doesn’t mean I have anything less to say: How did you make me forget that your sculptures were about rape? Rape of all things? You couldn’t have carved a particularly exquisite sculpture of ponies or puppies? Everyone likes those.
But that’s just the thing. Everyone likes (insert fluffy, cute animal of choice). And carving a sculpture on a subject that everyone likes would not be enough of a challenge for Bernini. The guy was talented. He could do anything. And he knew it. (I like to think of Bernini as the 17th-century version of Justin Timberlake in terms of his range of skills.) His prowess in sculpture-making is so good that he made me forget the subject matter, no matter how obviously it was about rape. Bernini’s skill enchanted me and I fell for it. Damn it, Bernini, why do you have to be so good?
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