The Rape of Proserpina (Italian: Ratto di Proserpina) is a large Baroque marble sculptural group by Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, executed between 1621 and 1622. Bernini was only 23 years old at its completion. It depicts the abduction of Proserpina, who is seized and taken to the underworld by the god Pluto. The word "Rape" is the traditional translation of the Latin raptus, "seized" or "carried off", and does not refer specifically to sexual violence.
As with many of Bernini's early works, it was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, possibly alongside a portrait of Scipione's uncle Pope Paul V (who had died in 1621). Bernini received at least three payments for the statue, of value of at least 450 Roman scudi. The sculpture was begun in 1621 and completed in 1622. Quite soon after its completion, the statue was given by Scipione to Cardinal Ludovisi in 1622, who transported it to his villa. Purchased by the Italian State, it returned to the Villa Borghese in 1908.
Most critics have been quick to praise the work. Rudolf Wittkower noted: "representations of such rape scenes depended on Bernini's new, dynamic conception for the next hundred and fifty years". Howard Hibbard makes similar comments noting the realistic effects that Bernini had achieved via carving hard marble, such as the "texture of the skin, the flying ropes of hair, the tears of Persephone and above all the yielding flesh of the girl". The choice of incident to depict the story is commonly cited as well: Pluto's hands encircle the waist of Proserpina just as she throws her arms out in an attempt to escape. Bernini's own son and biographer, Domenico, called it "an amazing contrast of tenderness and cruelty".
However, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Bernini's reputation was at a low ebb, critics found fault with the statue. The eighteenth-century French visitor Jerome de la Lande allegedly wrote: "Pluto's back is broken; his figure extravagant, without character, nobleness of expression, and its outline bad; the female one no better". Another French visitor to the Villa Ludovisi was equally critical, stating: "The head of Pluto is vulgarly gay; his crown and beard give him a ridiculous air, while the muscles are strongly marked and the figure poses. It is not a true divinity, but a decorative god..."
Others have remarked on the twisted contrapposto or figura serpentinata pose of the group. While reminiscent of Mannerism, particularly Giambologna's The Rape of the Sabine Women, Bernini permits the viewer to absorb the scene from one single viewpoint. While other views provide further details, a spectator can see the desperation of Proserpina and the lumbering attempts of Pluto to grab her. This was in contrast to the Mannerist sculpture of Giambologna, which required the spectator to walk around the sculpture to gain a view of each of character's expression.
During the First World War, the sculpture was protected by a box and sandbags to prevent damage.
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