Daily Dose of Europe: Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne

In a palace in Rome’s leafy Borghese Gardens stands this dramatic statue, displayed in the very room Bernini sculpted it for.

The coronavirus can derail our travel plans…but it can’t stop our travel dreams. And I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. One of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. And I’m currently featuring 10 of my favorites — including this one.

When you visit the Borghese Gallery in person, the statue reveals itself exactly as Bernini intended. Starting from behind, you see only a man’s backside. But as you begin circling around the side, you realize it’s the god Apollo, running at full speed, his cloak whipping behind him. He’s chasing after a beautiful woman, the nymph Daphne. Apollo is starry-eyed, having been struck by Cupid’s arrow, making him crazy in love with Daphne. But Daphne’s running away, horrified. Apollo is catching up — he reaches out to grab her by the hip. Desperate, Daphne calls out to her father, a river god, to save her.

It’s only when you circle around to the front that Bernini reveals the story’s surprise ending. Magically, Daphne is saved from Apollo’s embrace by turning into a tree. In good Baroque fashion, Bernini captures the dramatic split second when the terrified nymph’s fingers begin to sprout leaves, her toes become roots, and Apollo is in for one rude surprise.

This striking statue by the twenty-something Bernini was a tour de force of sculpting. He was a master of marble, carving supple flesh out of hard stone: you can see Daphne’s love handles, and Apollo’s fingers press in as if it were real skin. Bernini used only the finest Carrara marble — renowned for its softness and creamy, ivory hue. Bernini chipped away to reveal the most delicate of features — the statue is almost more air than stone. Apollo’s back leg defies gravity. The exquisitely carved marble leaves at the top ring like crystal when struck.

The statue is just one of a handful of works Bernini did for the luxury-loving cardinal who owned the Villa Borghese. This palace-in-a-garden was a showcase for his fine art while wining and dining the VIPs of his age. It was a multimedia, multi-era extravaganza of great art: Baroque frescoes on the ceiling, Greek statues lining the walls, Roman mosaics on the floor…and Bernini’s statues in the center.

With his chisel, young Bernini — who virtually invented the Baroque style — was establishing some of its early features: He makes this supernatural event seem realistic. He captures the scene at its most dramatic, emotional moment. The figures move and twist in unusual poses. Apollo’s cape billows behind him. It’s not just a statue you stand and look at. It’s interactive — you have to walk around it to fully experience it. With Apollo and Daphne, Bernini turned a static sculpture into a charged scene — a piece of theater-in-the-round.

This art moment — a sampling of what we try to incorporate in our tours — is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Bernini.