Content warning: mentions of assault
I’ve always liked Renaissance art and, in particular, Renaissance sculpture, but it wasn’t until I took an Art History module on the Renaissance in the second year of my degree that I began to consider the darker side of the movement that I loved. With the artistic canon being overpowered by both male artists and male patrons, the presentation of female figures is undeniably skewed to suit the male gaze.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s work, while incredibly beautiful, particularly rubs me up the wrong way. Sculptures such as ‘Apollo and Daphne’ and ‘The Rape of Proserpina’ depict stories from classical mythology where a female is being pursued by a powerful, godly male in a wildly imbalanced power dynamic.
While writers such as Ovid are to blame for the stories themselves, Bernini’s interpretation of the subjects leaves much to be desired. ‘Apollo and Daphne’ depicts the moment in the myth in which Daphne, a nymph so desperate to escape the god’s pursuits, prays to her father for help and is transformed into a laurel tree for eternity. Daphne’s hands sprout into leaves, the foliage matching prettily with her curled hair, her expression contorted into something that could only be described as mild shock. While the composition evokes movement, there is no evidence of struggle, or of her begging to escape. Daphne has been arranged to look pretty, first and foremost, stripped of agency at the hands of the male artist.
‘The Rape of Proserpina’ depicts a similar narrative and is displayed in the adjacent room to ‘Apollo and Daphne’, in the Borghese Gallery in Rome. Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld, grasps onto Proserpina as she attempts to escape from his clutches. While Pluto stands flat-footed, his perfectly defined muscles straining, Proserpina is twisted in his grasp, her limbs curved serpentine in order to demonstrate Bernini’s artistic talent. Like Daphne, her expression does not belie the tragedy and desperation of the situation; mouth parted slightly, eyebrows furrowed just so. Her struggling body is at odds with her expression, once again devoid of any particularly violent reaction.
The standard of sculpture is technically amazing, but when the women featured in these myths are reduced solely to demonstrate the prowess of the artist, it becomes less of an impressive feat and more an uncomfortable erasure of female identity. Because of the overwhelming influence of a male-dominated artistic scene, Renaissance female identity is ultimately commodified, malleable, and reduced to nothing.