The Rape of Proserpina (1621-1622) “inaugurated a new era in the history of European sculpture” according to art historian Rudolf Wittkower. Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the nephew to Pope Paul V, commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini to create the sculpture to decorate in his massive Villa Borghese. Personally, this sculpture is one of my all-time favorites.
Pluto, god of the underworld, violently drags Proserpina to Hades in order to make her the Queen of the Underwold. At only 23 years old, Bermini carved a sculpture so realistic that photographs of Pluto’s hands are often mistaken for real life. Veins and tendons strain as Pluto’s fingers dig in to Proserpina’s skin. Tears drip down her face while Pluto’s three-headed dog, Cerberus, snaps at her feet.
Today, the Rape of Proserpina can be seen in the Galleria Borghese, the museum created out of the extravagant private collection of Cardinal Borghese. The opulence of the room containing the sculpture initially makes focusing difficult. Fellow tourists push and stick their camera-phones in the air, threatening to knock you in to one of the marble busts lining the room.
In an empty room, the movements of Pluto and Proserpina violently explode in to space. The push-and-pull of their bodies strain the air. After a while of watching, you have to wonder what Borghese must have felt like when he rounded a corner, headed to breakfast, with this marvel in his sitting room. Could he ever walk by the work without pausing? Definitely not.
Bonus: Me, with Pauline Bonaparte by Antonio Canova