This is the sculpture that secured the young Bernini international fame for its breathtaking beauty, innovative composition, and technical virtuosity.
Like the Rape of Persephone, in Apollo and Daphne Bernini depicts the most dramatic scene in the story. In a virtuoso feat of craftsmanship Bernini shows Daphne in the process of becoming a tree, with bark creeping over her legs and leaves and branches sprouting out of her fingers.
One element of Bernini's sculpture that makes him markedly different from preceding artists is the way he manages to catch an utterly transient moment in the immobile medium of stone. His figures often seem to be in the midst of speaking or screaming, and the viewer feels as if he had intruded upon an intimate moment.
The narrative element is emphasized unusually heavily for a sculpture. While pieces of sculpture were traditionally designed to be seen from one particular angle (an optimal viewpoint), no such viewpoint exists here; the viewer has to walk all the way around the sculpture for the maximum effect.
When approaching the sculpture from behind, Daphne's body is obscured by Apollo, and only bits of the tree are visible, but as the viewer walks around, he discovers Daphne's body. Many art historians describe this cinematic optical effect as being like the actual metamorphosis was taking place before the viewer's eyes, like a kind of movie in stone.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25, Carrara marble, 243 cm high (Galleria Borghese, Rome)
A conversation with Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker