Student Model: Writing About Art

September 14, 1993

Bernini's Apollo and Daphne

by Teresa De Armaoud

I had walked all over Rome. My body sagged, my tennis shoe laces flopped, so I walked into a local museum, bent down, tied my shoes, and then looked up and froze. I loved the life-size sculpture that I saw because I love ballet and this human-like scuplture looked like a pair of classical ballet dancers. Swan Lake came to mind and I immediately pictured Apollo, a God as an adagio (this is the Ballet name for the man who supports the woman in lifts) and Daphne, a nymph as a long-limbed ballerina--the swan. Their facial expressions seemed fresh, full of passion and their open limbs looked warm as through they were alive. The hellenistic flow of garb, leaves, hair and body motion created a sense of slow motion for Apollo and Daphne as though they were both devoid of atmospheric stress, preserved in a chase. I remembered the Greek myth in which Daphne escaped Apollo's sexual pursuit by changing into a permanent laurel bush.

The museum was foreign as were my new presciption and sunglasses which projected an amber tint that lit the feet of Apollo and Daphne. My eyes perused, from a profile view, this mass of polished marble. Its base reminded me of the slippery marble found in the rocky beaches in the Greek Islands. However, this particular marble slab moved up into a right-angled jagged edge; the edge became a fused wooden trunk of laurel leaves, roots, and Daphne's left foot. Daphne's transformation from skin to wood looked life-like. The contrast between harsh wood and tender flesh was molded in such a way that showed Daphne's leg losing human contour. Her left leg appeared like a large piece of cool stationary bark unlike, in comparison, her right leg, which dangled and seemed warm, pliable, and soft. Daphne's right buttock was pressed firmly against the wood which had begun to wrap itself around the left half of her torso, pressing her flesh from woman into wood.

Her arched body, was in the shape of a backward "c" and seemed suspended in mid-air whie her Grecian face was turned toward her right shoulder. From my view, only her right breast was exposed and her right arm was aimed for the ceiling; she looked like an Amazon (these were single-breasted, female warriors in Greek myth) leading her troops into battle. I walked around the sculpture and noticed that both of her arms reached from her left side up to the sky as though she were pleading with Zeus to help her escape Apollo. Mother Earth had answered her plea and brought her fertile daughter back to the roots of the earth; now she was able to protect and nurture her daughter as she did her trees.

Daphne's coiled, thick windblown hair flew up between her opened arms, and then intertwined with her outstretched fingertips, which had changed from limbs of flesh into limbs of bark and leaves of laurel. I stared at her face--this revealed a mixture of fear and a quick glance back, perhaps it was a farewell to mortal human life. Her eyes, shaped like precious gems, also glanced back, to Apollo in curiosity. I looked at her oval opened mouth, and there I saw she breathed a simultaneous breath of pain at losing Apollo (who she half-desired) and of happiness at finding sanctuary, peace, in the act of becoming part of silent nature.

Apollo, on the other hand, seemed arrogant; he was accustomed to getting whatever he wanted, including any nymph that took his fancy, including Daphne. She was his possession even before he reached out for her. I thought of a child playing a game of "tag," determined to touch something that was his--Daphne. Apollo's legs were positioned similar to that of a runner; his left foot was kicked off the ground behind his right stationary foot. His defined muscles were firmly etched in supporting bulk, and therefore differentiated from Daphne's muscles, which were defined by a soft contour which suggested passivity, feminine supine flesh. The laurel leaves covered his right big toe. He was draped in a Grecian toga which was wrapped around his left arm and shoulder. The toga swirled around from behind his back, and ran vertically across his mid-drift to cover his groin. The laurel, leafy twigs which protruded out from Daphne's right calf covered Apollo's groin like the fig leaves which cover Adam and Eve in the Christian myth.

His chest and stomach were well defined and a crease ran down from his Adam's apple to his navel. Apollo's right hand was opened, palm down, and with the slight twist of his body, it look as if his hand was prepared to throw a disc or, better yet, to grab a ripe apple from healthy tree--the apple in this case Daphne.

Apollo, smug in his vain nature, known for his skills of prophecy looked gently toward Daphne at this moment, but I could see the determination, and profound desire. He did not see he would lose. He had not predicted this. Again I thought of a child; his face was curiously like one; it had that child-like quality a woman may see when she looks into a man's eyes as he attempts to seduce her. It's almost as if a memory of his when he looked at his mother and asked for affection from her begins to work in him as, an adult, he turns to a woman. Dapne knew that if she looked into Apollo's eyes, she would yield, become his mother, his lover, and all he wanted of her would be his; he would control her and she lose the automony whch she cherished. Sturdy, curly Grecian hair framed his face which was sensitive and his eyes spoke to her like the music of lyres which the rhythms of the sculpture as a whole seemed to repeat. I saw Apollo's Roman nose and tender lips and thought that his face was serene and expectant. Both were determined to gain their own ends--he wanted to gain her, she wanted to escape.

I found that the point of beauty and truth (Keats) in Bernini's sculpture, of Apollo and Daphne, rested in the moment of physical impact when Apollo's left hand touched Daphne's womb of flesh as it was turning into the wood of the laurel bush. This touch to me symbolized the character and sensuality of both man and woman. Nature's interference seemed to balance them as equals, which in nature they would not have been (the man being physically the stronger). Apollo's hubris (excessive pride) was punished and he lost Dapne. Daphne's frigidity and fear were punished and she became a laurel tree. Greek myth is not forgiving.

But I thought of the Roman poet, Ovid, too, where he wrote that Apollo loved more Daphne for more than her physical beauty, and he had "placed his hand where he had hoped" to dwell, and "felt the heart" he wanted "still beating under the bark" after she turned into the laural and "[he] kissed the wood" (Ovid 20). Daphne had loved Apollo more than she realized and approved of the honor Apollo then bestowed on her: "Let the laurel adorn, henceforth my hair, my lyre, my quiver:/Let Roman victors in the long procession, wear laurel wreaths for tiumph and ovation." The laurel, says Ovid, stirred, and "seemed to consent, to be saying Yes" (20).

With a last glance, I returned to the original Greek myths and imagined that Apollo and Daphne looked as though they had just seen Medusa, and she had returned their stares by turning them into stone. They were now frozen in their youth, immortal in their myth, ageless in their beauty.

Works Cited

Ovid. Metamorphoses, translated by Rolfe Humphries. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1955.
Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Updated: 12 October 1998.