The tour-de-force sculpture of The Rape of Proserpina by Gian Lorenzo Bernini was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the fabulously wealthy nephew of Pope Paul V (r. 1605-21), and executed between 1621 and 1622. Bernini (1598-1680) was just twenty-three years old when he completed it.
The sculpture depicts the abduction of Proserpina (Greek: Persephone) by Pluto (Hades), god of the the Underworld. Proserpina was the daughter of Jupiter (Zeus) and Ceres (Demeter), the goddess of agriculture.
While out one day picking flowers, Proserpina was seized by Pluto, who suddenly burst from the earth. Ceres heard her daughter scream as she was being dragged into the underworld. In response to the abduction, Ceres caused the earth to dry up and the harvests to fail. Jupiter saw that the earth was barren and dead and decided to intervene. He struck a deal with Pluto: Proserpina would spend half the year on earth and half in the underworld. Thus every spring the earth welcomes her return with a carpet of flowers.
The realism of the sculpture, which is on permanent display in the Galleria Borghese, is astonishing. In pushing against Pluto's face Proserpina's left hand creases his skin, while his fingers sink into her flesh. We see her tears as she turns her head away from her captor.
At the base of the sculpture sits Cerebus, the three-headed dog, who is the guardian of Hades.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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