Halfway through drafting my novel, Daphne, I visited the Galleria Borghese in Rome. I’d been trying to write about a neurological condition, one that paralyzes its sufferers every time they feel a strong emotion, lightly fictionalizing a real disorder, cataplexy, I’d been fascinated with for years. Literal emotional paralysis – how could I not write about that? I’d done my research, filled notebook after notebook, doc after doc, tried the thing as a bildungsroman, a love story, a murder mystery. But it just was not goddamn clicking. And now here I was, wandering the Galleria, verging on exactly the kind of breakdown you have in the face of so many stupefying masterworks, finally admitting to myself that my sensitive male narrator struggling with his feelings might not be the literary news of the century. And then an old obsession crashed right into a new one.

What did I do when I first saw Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne? Probably I muttered, ‘Holy fuck’, and went slack jawed like the yokel I am. Here was a work – eight-feet tall in pure, flat white marble – of such staggering virtuosity that about all I could do was stand and stare. And when I eventually unstuck my feet and started circling and circling the group, getting it from every possible angle and taking in every impossible detail, I still didn’t know what I thought or felt. It was whomping me with so many feelings, so many of them contradictory, I couldn’t begin to pick it all apart.   

One immediately wonders what sort of person could summon such forces. Back home, I started once again to ponder and research. Quickly I found that Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who loomed so large over seventeenth-century Italian sculpture and architecture, was indeed a man of immense, florid and occasionally savage contradictions. A child prodigy, he was hailed as ‘the Michelangelo of his age’ by twenty-two, a comparison he encouraged and partly modeled himself after as he scrapped, flattered and schemed to keep the commissions rolling in. Infamously, he carved a bust of his mistress, Costanza – an intimate, rather bed-rumpled portrait to preserve her visage for all time – then, when he found his brother had also been rumpling her, paid a servant to slash her face with a razor. After his patron, Pope Urban VIII, exonerated him, Bernini re-upped on piety, but still tried the era’s sensibilities with works like Saint Theresa in Ecstasy, which shows its subject orgasming as an angel prepares to run her through with God’s love, in the form of a golden spear.

All of the salacious biography, however, doesn’t quite prepare you for the flagrant beauty of Bernini’s sculpture, the most obvious reason why gap-mouthed fools like me hunt down as much of it as they can. Still, the first cut was the deepest. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Italy since, and have seen most of Bernini’s important stuff, but Apollo and Daphne remains for me both the most beguiling, and lurid, of his works.

It’s also, of course, a definitive rendering of its source text, Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Apollo has just slain a giant serpent with a bow. He decides to taunt Eros (aka Cupid) for toting similar, if less daunting equipment, and Eros pays him back by pinging him with a golden arrow, driving him mad with lust for the nymph Daphne. Eros then pierces Daphne with an arrow of lead, summoning in her revulsion and terror at the very sight of Apollo. As Ovid tells it, Daphne is a tomboy, ‘rejoicing in the hiding places of the woods’ with her hair in disarray and, despite many suitors, no care for men or marriage. Her father, a river god, wants grandsons, but, as a follower of the virgin Diana, Daphne is saving herself, forever. When Apollo sees her, he launches into a speech enumerating his divine attributes, but Daphne is already gone, leaving ‘his unfinished words with him himself’. As Apollo chases her, Daphne prays to her father, asking him to banish the beauty that’s brought her so much vexing attention. Just as Apollo reaches out to grab her:

A heavy numbness seized her limbs, thin bark closed over her breast, her hair turned into leaves, her arms into branches, her feet so swift a moment ago stuck fast in slow-growing roots, her face was lost in the canopy.

Apollo and Daphne was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who solicited works on both Biblical and classical themes. Whether Bernini read Ovid or not, Apollo and Daphne wasn’t an uncommon subject for Renaissance and Baroque painters, and the sculptor, who always had a competitive streak, clearly leapt at it. He (and his detail-mad assistant Giuliano Finelli) chiseled some true marvels: the exceedingly delicate work where Daphne’s fingers turn to branches and leaves, the seemingly impossible trick of balancing Apollo all on one foot as he lunges for her, the cunning way the bark growing around her left leg cloaks the group’s main support (while also perhaps making the best of a rough patch of marble). And of course there’s Bernini’s signature: facial and body language so comprehensively and kinetically conceived in three dimensions that Ovid’s entire narrative seems contained in this, its culminating moment.

But as sumptuous as Bernini’s technique and visual imagination can be, it’s his emotional imagination that truly stuns. To my amateur eye, most of the Renaissance and Baroque painters who took on Apollo and Daphne with their soft lines and lush textures either make Daphne look mildly vexed by her fate or a little in love with Apollo. Bernini shows us terror – not just in her face but in the way she leaps and twists away from her pursuer, as if Apollo’s very touch were fire. We see, too, her astonishment – her prayer has been answered. But it’s at a dire cost; she’ll never ‘roam the pathless wood’ again. And there’s another layer: Daphne’s head is thrown back, her mouth dropped open, her eyes rolled back, not only in elemental shock and horror but in a more exquisite pain – strikingly like the expression Bernini later gave his comely Saint Teresa. This is the climax of the story in more ways than one.

Apollo and Daphne, then, ravishes in both senses of the word. Every detail is meant to seduce and enthrall. Yet this is the story of a near (or foiled) rape. From Ovid’s pagan to Bernini’s Catholic era, social and legal attitudes toward the assault and violation of women were complex, convoluted and (to put it lightly) problematic. And Western art, of course, is full of depictions of rape. Yes, in many such works – Poussin’s Rape of the Sabine Women, for example – ‘rape’ meant something more like ‘abduction’. But as an art historian friend points out, a baroque viewer might not have been perusing all of those naked and terrified women for mere aesthetic enlightenment. Bernini’s portrayal of the impending assault in Apollo and Daphne upsets us – no one likes to see such anguish. And more troubling still, he makes the tableau neither ugly nor vile but sensuous. To be sure, Ovid’s telling of the myth had its own amores and is full of predator and prey imagery meant to get the blood racing. And other artists of the Baroque era sexualized the subject. But Bernini seems to push the eroticism to new limits: Daphne’s whole body arched like a bow, Apollo’s arm around her waist, the two figures about to intertwine. The sculptor’s moral judgment feels unnervingly ambiguous, while his passions have been given free reign. Maybe Apollo and Daphne truly is at its base, or basest, a rape fantasy seen through the eyes of a very horny man.

Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Bernini turns all of the emotional dials – not just libidinousness – all the way up, all at the same time. Maybe it was the collision and confusion of the nymph’s revulsion, astonishment, terror and ecstasy that compelled him. In Ovid, the tale bounces back and forth between Apollo’s and Daphne’s vantages but lands with Apollo as he stands in admiration of the tree that, in the end, offers up its leaves for his crown (the myth explains why Roman generals wore laurel wreathes during victory parades). Many Renaissance and baroque poets and painters almost entirely privileged the perspective of the god of medicine and music. But Bernini, for all of his lasciviousness, fairly radically shifts the emphasis of the story: open-mouthed Apollo truly is the secondary figure in the group. We’re asked to gaze upon Daphne, yes, but that expression on her face – and the obliterating tumult of feeling it expresses – can’t help but involve us in her plight.

The beauty and bravura of Apollo and Daphne first snared me. But it’s exactly that tumult and perplexity that has kept me entangled with it ever since. Some encounters resonate so long they get all bound up with our own endeavors and obsessions: I can’t help but think that Apollo and Daphne is, on some level, about paralysis. My art historian friend gently reminds me not to strap the post-post-modern, meta-everything goggles on an era that never would’ve seen the world through such a lens. Still, I can’t help wondering if Bernini, in his long, meticulous work, had occasion to ponder (and amplify) the self-reflexive qualities of Apollo and Daphne. His two figures are so uncanny, so palpably real, and their sense of motion so visceral and headlong. Yet, in the moment he captures, Daphne is actually being halted – or rather, rooted – for all time. Bernini was obsessed with pulling life and movement out of inert stone, but here he depicts a woman being robbed of those very things. As in so many of his works, he gives us a transformation, a moment of becoming. But Apollo and Daphne also shows us what it is to be caught between states, forever, and because this is unyielding stone – not paint on canvas or words on a page – the vision is all the more thrilling and unsettling.

For me, all of this resounds deeply with the way we experience emotion. One powerful feeling enlivens or disarms us. Two or three or more all at once – we’re clobbered. And often the only response to such extremity is to shut down, to grind to a halt, to be unable to act, speak, decide. To be unable, indeed, to even move. Daphne prays to her father to save her from Apollo’s pursuit. In one sense, her immobilization is a curse, that awful, irrevocable stroke of fate so common to the myths of antiquity. But Daphne also escapes, finds freedom – abrupt, strange and almost ecstatic – from the agony and exhaustion of being hunted. As viscerally and, yes, as beautifully as could be hoped, Bernini freezes both her terror and her release from that terror. And he freezes us, his helpless viewer, in place, too. I know I’m not the only one to have stood for minutes on end – dumbfounded, stock still – there in the Galleria Borghese.

It wasn’t immediately but rather several months after I first encountered Apollo and Daphne that I decided to make the central character in my novel a woman, not a man. Tackling the cultural trope (inescapable, true or not) that women are more in touch with, and more vulnerable to, their feelings allowed me to find conflict and struggle in even the most everyday scenarios: going to work, being asked for money on the street, meeting someone in a bar. Living with her paralytic condition, my Daphne would have to be a painstaking student of her own feelings. Yet, all too often, she’d find herself bewildered and overrun by them. Like Bernini’s Daphne, she’d find herself yanked and buffeted by forces, external and internal, so powerful that freezing up would be inevitable.

And with the benefit of a feminist education (and many conversations with trusted female readers), I could inhabit a Daphne who fully acts, sees and speaks for herself, who isn’t just the mute, arrow-stung victim of fate. For my Daphne, cataplexy makes paralysis a fact of life. But she also finds in her immobilization not failure or defeat but something restorative, necessary even: a moment to let the riot of feeling quiet, to pause, to judge, and then step forward.

Ovid’s myth ends with Apollo embracing the laurel tree that Daphne has become; he promises he will make her eternally green. But I wanted to uproot Daphne. Or, rather, to let her find a way to uproot herself – without a father to save her, without the need for any Apollo’s astonishment or tribute.


Will Boast is the author of Daphne, available now from Granta Books.

Exquisite Corpse