Galleria Borghese

Hand over foot

When in Rome (sorry), a visit to Galleria Borghese is never wrong, although I’ve made a habit of neglecting it during my previous visits. Just outside the city wall, tucked away in a sea of greenery, the villa hides amongst the trees. If the lure of sculptures by Bernini excites you, or paintings by Carravaggio enthralls you, Galleria Borghese’s got you covered.

This is, by far, the most expensive and the most restrictive museum I’ve ever been to, considering that the entrance fee of twenty euros only allows you access to the gallery for two hours and you have to wait for your turn to enter.


The main reason for my visit to Galleria Borghese were the Bernini sculptures, and in particular The Rape of Persephone. There are two reasons for this choosing. The first being that of its esthetics. Everyone is very keen on pointing to the hand of Hades (or Pluto) grabbing Persephone by her thigh. Although this is beautifully rendered, this is not the main attraction of the show. Just below the grabbing hand is a foot with so much expression, were it cut off, it would do just as well on its own.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was a mere 23 years old when he completed this statue. A feet (pun intended) that will make even the most ambitious person feel a bit guilty of procrastionation. As photographing was not allowed I made a drawing to illustrate the point (above). Those toes, each folded over the next one until the big toe completes the movement – wow! The foot is captured at its maximum contortion with such attention to motion you’re just waiting for it to contract. It doesn’t though. It’s a statue.


Bernini’s Persephone. Photo linked from Wikipedia: © Alvesgaspar / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0.


According to the story, Pluto, the ruler of the underworld, during one of his rare visits to the upper regios, saw a girl picking spring flowers with her companions. He desired and seized her and carried her off to his nether kingdom, where she ruled as his spouse, though permitted to return to her grieving mother Demeter (or Ceres) during the months of spring and summer.

E.H. Gombridge – The Story of Art

The second reason for my choosing being that of the subject matter. It tells the story of a greek myth where the fertility and vegetation goddess Persephone (Proserpina in Roman mythology), daughter of Zeus and Demeter, is taken to the underworld by Hades (also called Pluto) against her will, thus the title. The myth is of great archaeological value as it keeps popping up in various excavations. The recent excavation of the Kasta tomb shows the same story embedded in the floor of the tomb, as can be seen in the video below.

The most significant version, however, is the Persephone of Vergina  (pictured below). Discovered in 1977 in Vergina (Aigai), todays Greece then Macedonia, during an excavation of what is believed to be the grave of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.

An early depiction of The Rape of Persephone found in Vergina, Greece. Photo from Wikipedia: © Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Clocking in at around the 3rd century BC this is an action painting to be reckoned with; a study of movement that is shared by both the Greek painting and Bernini’s statue – nothing is idle. The painting shows a remarkable foreshortening of the chariots wheel. One of the earliest example of a foreshortening we know of in fresco painting. The lack of surviving paintings from this time is nothing short of a Greek tragedy. It leaves a gap from the flattened silhouettes of Egyptians to the acrobats of Knossos to this illusion of depth and space. It’s a huge leap in artistic representation, giving volume to a flat surface and the next best thing to an actual three dimensional statue of Persephone.


In the example with Bernini’s Perspehone we follow connections to Greece and find one of the worlds most important paintings that is rarely spoken of outside academia. The connections to the ancient Greece are not only represented in the subjectmatter but also in the style. Bernini must have been inspired by the Laocoön, a Greek statue unearthed in his home town a century earlier. Again, everyone is keen on pointing to Michelangelo, but surely the resemblance between Bernini’s Persephone and the Laocoön is there to be found. Divided by roughly two millenia, the Laocoön would be the highest artistic achievement a young Italian sculptor could aspire to emulate. Even the force of the struggle has a resemblance in the Laocoön, and the physiognomy of the male body is just spooky. As if Bernini saw it and said, ”I can do that”, then went home and did it.

Laocoön and his sons

Laocoön and his sons, also known as the Laocoön Group. Marble, copy after an Hellenistic original from ca. 200 BC. Found in the Baths of Trajan, 1506.
Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2009), linked from Wikipedia

Links through time

Wisdom is not a knowledge of many things, but the perception of the underlying unity of seemingly unrelated facts.

John Burnet

There is something deeply satisfying when a connection is made that’s not presented to you. Like a detective drawing conclusions. You never want to be given a solved puzzle. You want to do it for yourself, and from the effort get paid with that ”aha” feeling.

Archaeology can be of great assistance in aiding us in making connections when considered in the presentation of the past. The presentation must contain the keys, but you’re better of not knowing what they keep. If you’d know what’s in the safe you might not be as curious to open it. The award is finding out for yourself. Everything is connected and it’s up to the presentation to provide the suitable keys, or pieces to the puzzle (a lot of analogies going on right now), never the solution.

The myth of Persephone keeps popping up in the archaeological record and we have most likely not seen the last of her. I’m for one is very keen on learning more about the implication of the myth ending up in momentous tombs. Is it simply because Persephone is the queen of the underworld and the dead; is it because of the resurrection element where she is allowed to resurface parts of the year; or is it that these resurrections, symbolising the shifting seasons, stand for change … who knows? I don’t. If you do, I’d love a clue in the comments below! 

Edit: According to the most brilliant book, Art & Archaeology of the Greek World, by Richard T. Neer, it’s all about the after life.

The Power of Art
By: Simon Schama
Trivia: The Bernini episode earned Schama an Emmy in 2007.
Published by: BBC
The Story of Art
Author: E.H. Gombridge
Published by: Phaidon
Unesco World Heritage Listing
Of: Aigai
The Museum of Aigai