Bernini and ovid: Expanding the concept of metamorphosis

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Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) was influenced by a number of contemporary and ancient sources—including Ovid's Metamorphoses—and inspired by the very concept of changing forms. Two examples of the sculptor's early mythological works considered are the Apollo and Daphne, the most comprehensive demonstration of Ovid's influence in theme and concept, and the Neptune and Triton, in which we can observe perhaps the most subtle metamorphosis created by Bernini. From the front view the fleeting suggestion of an entire dolphin can be seen, with Neptune's foot forming the tail and the swirling end of his cloak suggesting the head. The spontaneous and unexpected appearance of this dolphin is Ovidian in concept, and the defiance of logic witnessed when a leg and a flying cloth suddenly form a leaping dolphin is likened thematically to the Metamorphoses, which recounts example after example of improbable happenings and appearances.

In its original form, this paper was presented at the Fourth Meeting of the International Society for the Classical Tradition (ISCT) in Tübingen, Germany, July 29–August 2, 1998. I initially explored the topic in a paper titled “Ovid Metamorphosed: The Challenge of the Metamorphoses for Italian Artists of the Fifteenth to Seventeenth Centuries.” This paper was given at the Western Pennsylvania Symposium on World Literatures (dedicated to Ovid) at Duquesne University on April 8, 1997 in collaboration with David G. Wilkins, Professor of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh.