bernini rape of proserpina
Alessandro Allori, “The Abduction of Proserpine,” 1570 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)
In the 17th century, artists in Italy began embracing an increasingly elaborate style. Known as the Baroque movement, this shift toward an ornate, over-the-top aesthetic is evident in both the art and architecture of the time, with master of materials Gian Lorenzo Bernini at the forefront. In addition to designing St. Peter’s Basilica (one of Italy’s most important monuments), Bernini was a celebrated sculptor, with The Rape of Proserpina among his most treasured creations.
“The Rape of Proserpina” (side view). 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
As with many of Bernini’s early works, it was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, possibly alongside a portrait of Scipione’s uncle Pope Paul V (who had died in 1621). Bernini received at least three payments for the statue, of value of at least 450 Roman scudi. The sculpture was begun in 1621 and completed in 1622. Quite soon after its completion, the statue was given by Scipione to Cardinal Ludovisi in 1622, who transported it to his villa. Purchased by the Italian State, it returned to the Villa Borghese in 1908. 
Most critics have been quick to praise the work. Rudolf Wittkower noted: “representations of such rape scenes depended on Bernini’s new, dynamic conception for the next hundred and fifty years”.  Howard Hibbard makes similar comments noting the realistic effects that Bernini had achieved via carving hard marble, such as the “texture of the skin, the flying ropes of hair, the tears of Persephone and above all the yielding flesh of the girl”.  The choice of incident to depict the story is commonly cited as well: Pluto’s hands encircle the waist of Proserpina just as she throws her arms out in an attempt to escape.  Bernini’s own son and biographer, Domenico, called it “an amazing contrast of tenderness and cruelty”. 
Gian Lorenzo Bernini
The Rape of Persephone
When the masters of the Renaissance revived Classical sculpture, they also revived a fascination in Greek and Roman mythology. That fascination carried over into the Baroque. So, to understand Bernini’s sculpture, we first have to understand the mythology behind it.
Chris has a master’s degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.