Bernini's Cinematic Masterpiece

© DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI

New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis finds movie magic in a baroque sculpture.

Several years ago, while exploring the Umbrian town of Bevagna, my husband and I came across a small, unassuming church called Sant’Agostino and entered another world. Founded in 1316, the church tends to be overlooked by guidebooks, but the old priest puttering outside persuaded us to take a peek. Once inside, we were greeted by haunting frescoes that, decades earlier, had been found under layers of paint but, because of limited funds, were never wholly restored. As he walked us through his church and back into time, the priest explained how the frescoes helped illiterate parishioners learn the Bible, comparing them to comic strips. They also looked like film frames.

It is often said that cinema was born in 1895, the year Louis and Auguste Lumière, using a contraption called a Cinématographe, projected a short film of workers leaving their Lyon factory. In truth, the movies didn’t so much erupt into the world as emerge, coaxed into existence partly by our ancient, seemingly eternal desire to represent motion. You can see that yearning in the caves at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, in France, where beautiful overlapping images of horses, perhaps over 30,000 years old, foreshadow the serial photographs of a trotting horse taken in 1872 by Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge is routinely referred to as the father of the motion picture, but he is merely one of the art’s innumerable relations.

The painters who made those frescoed comics played a role in cinema’s creation as did the 17th-century Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He is perhaps best known as the architect of St. Peter’s Square, but I prefer his more intimate work, like his statue Apollo and Daphne, in the Borghese Gallery in Rome. Completed in 1625, it depicts the myth of Apollo and Daphne after each has been pierced by Cupid’s arrow. Shot by one that compels love, Apollo falls for Daphne on first seeing her. She, in turn, has been shot with an arrow that repels love and so flees Apollo, crying out for her father, Peneus, a river god, to destroy her beauty. He complies by transforming her into a laurel tree, a metamorphosis that Bernini captures at the very moment when twigs sprout from her fingers and her body turns to bark.

I don’t know how many times I walked around this sculpture the first time I saw it. It takes time to reconcile the work’s brute materiality—it was wrenched largely from a single slab of Carrara marble—with the filigreed detail of Bernini’s art. The delicacy of the foliage is as mesmerizing as the sight of Apollo’s left hand resting on Daphne’s belly, which—as his thumb presses flesh and his fingers touch bark—reveals that he has caught up to her too late. Mostly I noticed that from Daphne’s spiraling torso to Apollo’s billowing cloak, which curves out behind him suspended in stone, everything flows. Here is marble transformed not just into figures but also into movement.

The story flows, too. Apollo and Daphne was originally placed close to a wall in the Borghese Gallery with Apollo’s back to the entrance, perhaps at Bernini’s request or that of his patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese. The sculpture now sits in the room’s center, a position that reveals both the narrative arc of Daphne’s transformation and the depth of Bernini’s genius. It is only when you circle the statue that you can see a story that begins with Apollo’s untroubled face, continues with Daphne violently twisting away from him, and concludes with roots growing out of her perfect toes. Each part of this story seems frozen in time, yet as you walk around the work, the parts also begin to merge together—much like the frames in an old-fashioned strip of celluloid film.

I don’t look for movies every time I slip into a church or gallery, even if the connections are there in artworks that, like motion pictures, are imbued with the desire to represent movement and tell stories with time and space. One art historian argues that Bernini’s statues demand to be near walls because “the split second of time captured in the marble demands a single, clear point of view.” But I wonder. By the time Bernini created Apollo and Daphne, Copernicus’s theory that the planets rotate around the sun was well-known. There’s no evidence that Bernini chose Apollo—also known as the sun god—to force us to orbit the statue, thereby tweaking religious orthodoxies. But it’s amusing to think he did.