Project Description


The king of underworld, Pluto, abducted the daughter of Ceres and Jupiter, Proserpine, while she was picking flowers in Sicily, outside the walls of Enna. On becoming Pluto’s wife, Proserpine was also made queen of the underworld. Her myth, linked to the spring, could also symbolize the renewal of the Borghese family after the death of Paul V, whose bust had been commissioned from the sculpture a few months earlier.

This stunning sculpture exemplifies the best of the baroque and demonstrates Bernini’s ability to handle marble and produce credible figures. Like his other works, the Rape of Persephone is fraught with emotion and tension, achieving a hitherto unseen level of life-like action. Bernini’s pieces can always be recognized by the minute attention to detail, grandiose theatricality, and ornate design.

Bernini chooses to depict the most dramatic, “pregnant” moment in the story; the scene is filled with heart-rending emotion. Bernini is famous for portraying the most poignant moment in a story and for communicating that event in the most dramatic way possible, by means of exuberant movement, emotive facial expressions, and feats of technical mastery.

In The Rape of Persephone the figures twist and strain in opposing directions, testifying to a Mannerist influence; their tense struggle is imbued with an explosive dynamism.

Not only are the figures portrayed in the midst of frenzied movement, but the viewer himself is encouraged to move 360 degrees around the sculpture in order to take it all in.


Pauline Borghese, Napoleon’s sister, is represented as Venus Victrix: in her left hand she is holding the golden apple thanks to which Paris recognized her beauty as being superior to that of the other two goddesses, Juno and Minerva. The story comes from ancient Greece. Paris the Trojan prince judged Venus more beautiful than either of her rivals, Minerva and Juno. In return Venus introduced him to a Greek girl called Helen and the rest of course is the stuff of epic poetry. The expedient of grafting portraits head on to the idealized bodies of the divinities or heroes was common in the art of imperial Rome and was also used in this statue by Canova.

Pauline is shown reclining on a pillowed couch in a pose of studied grace, both concentrated and relaxed. The modeling of the nude body is extraordinarily lifelike, while Canova’s treatment of the surface of the marble captures the soft texture of skin. The tactile quality of the piece is bought out particularly in the way the sitter’s own hands are occupied, the fingers of her right connecting ever so lightly with the nape of her neck, offer a gesture charged with seductive promise. The head is raised slightly suggesting that something or someone has suddenly entered her line of vision.