Greek and Roman Myths You Should Know Before Visiting the Borghese Gallery Collection

When you visit the Borghese Gallery collection, you’ll be surrounded by precious artwork. At every turn, there are paintings and sculptures from ancient and modern times, frescoes on the ceilings and mosaics on the floors. Each piece of furniture is a priceless artifact from another time, and even the villa itself is a beauty to behold.

There’s so much to see that it can be a challenge to take in everything on one visit, especially considering the fact that your visit to the Borghese Gallery collection will be limited to only two hours. For this reason, a little preparation can go a long way. It’s a good idea not only to plan your route and consider which artworks you’re most interested in seeing but also to read a bit beforehand about what inspired these masterpieces.

Whether the artwork dates to ancient Roman times or the relatively modern era of the Renaissance, stories from Greek and Roman mythology often have a strong influence on the subject matter and the characters you will see in the paintings and sculptures of the Borghese Gallery collection.

Particularly in the sculptures of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, you will find many figures that have been plucked from a Greek or Roman myth and given life in the timeless form of marble. Although you don’t need much prior knowledge to admire the delicate curves and intricate details of these marble sculptures, you’ll have a deeper appreciation of their meaning when you know more about the beautiful and often sad tales that inspired them.

With that in mind, here are a couple of Greek and Roman myths you should know before visiting the Borghese Gallery collection.

Apollo and Daphne

Have you ever wondered why laurel leaves symbolize triumph and victory? Do you know why winners of sports, music and poetry competitions have often been crowned with a wreath of laurel leaves? It all goes back to the sad tale of Apollo and Daphne, whose pivotal scene is immortalized in one of Bernini’s most well-known marble sculptures.

When you look at the sculpture, you’ll see a woman in distress with outstretched arms and a man reaching from behind her. If you look more closely, you’ll see that the woman, or more precisely, the mountain nymph named Daphne, is being transformed into a tree. What could’ve led to such a strange event? To make a long story short — it’s better not to get on Cupid’s bad side.

That’s what Apollo — the god of reason, music and poetry — found out the hard way after teasing Cupid for having such a small bow compared to his. As a response, Cupid devised a plan so heartless, so cruel, that it would make the most Machiavellian high school mean girl look like a harmless puppy in comparison. 

First, Cupid shot Apollo with a golden arrow to make him fall in love with the first person he sees. Then, Cupid shot Daphne with a lead arrow to make it impossible for her to fall in love with anyone. You can probably fill in the blanks from here. Boy sees girl. Boy chases girl. Girl asks her river-god father to transform her into a tree to escape the boy’s unwanted advances. A typical teenage romance gone awry.

This is the moment captured in Bernini’s sculpture. Apollo has finally caught Daphne — the object of his affection — after a long chase through the woods, but it’s already too late. Her transformation into a laurel tree has already begun. Although his hand is around her, all it touches is tree bark. He cries out in vain:

“Fairest of maidens, you are lost to me. But at least you shall be my tree. With your leaves, my victors shall wreathe their brows. You shall have your part in all my triumphs. Apollo and his laurel shall be joined together wherever songs are sung and stories told” (Ovid, Metamorphoses I, 555-559).

Apollo’s affinity for laurel leaves is a testament to his unrequited love for Daphne, which, in turn, became a symbol of athletic, academic and cultural achievement. The next time you see a laurel wreath, you can remember this sad turn of events put in motion by Cupid’s vengeful arrows.

When you visit the Borghese Gallery collection, make sure not to miss Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne” now that you know the story behind it. You will find it standing as the centerpiece of Room 3. Pay close attention to the expressions on their faces and the fine details on Daphne’s limbs that reveal her fateful transformation.

The Abduction of Prosperina

The Abduction of Prosperina is another well-known Bernini sculpture, which also captures the climactic moment in a tale of romantic pursuit. However, this Roman myth is darker and more disturbing and is often translated as a rape rather than an abduction.

In this sculpture, you once again have a male and female figure. However, in this case, both are gods. On the left is Pluto, god of the underworld, arriving straight from Hades. On the right is Prosperina, the goddess of fertility and daughter of Jupiter and Ceres — the god of sky and thunder and the goddess of harvests.

As you can imagine, Pluto, being the god of the underworld and all, is not such a nice guy. His pursuit of Prosperina is not driven by love, as in the case of Apollo and Daphne, but rather by the primal instincts of lust and desire. His embrace is not one of melancholic longing but one of force and aggression.

So, what has happened here? This tale is a simple one, actually. Prosperina is out one fine spring day gathering flowers near the shore of Lake Pergusa (which is a real place located in Sicily just outside the city of Enna). Suddenly, out of nowhere, Pluto bursts up from the ground like the meanest and scariest mole you could ever imagine to grab her and take her down into the underworld to make her the world’s unluckiest bride.

This is the moment immortalized in Bernini’s sculpture, which he completed when he was only 23 years old. Put yourself in his shoes and imagine the emotions and physicality he would’ve been attempting to convey with this work. 

Prosperina is shocked and terrified by Pluto’s sudden arrival, which you can see on her face as her arms flail in an attempt to flee from Pluto’s grasp. Note the delicate tear dotting her cheek and how her hand pushes against the side of Pluto’s head.

Holding Prosperina aloft in the air, Pluto stands as an embodiment of grim determination and brute force. All his muscles bulge with the effort of kidnapping Prosperina. The way his fingers press into her side and thigh shows the strength of his grip and is a masterful detail that makes the marble appear almost like flesh rather than stone.

After this moment portrayed in the sculpture, you could say that all hell breaks loose. Ceres is distraught and lashes out with droughts that lead to failing harvests, so Jupiter has to step in and make a deal that Pluto only gets to keep his daughter for half the year. 

According to this Roman myth, this is what causes the seasons to change here on Earth. The autumn and winter are when Prosperina is on her yearly honeymoon in hell with Pluto, whereas spring and summer occur when she’s back home with Ceres. Now you know who to blame when you’re battling the cold and trying to stave off that seasonal depression with a mug of hot cocoa and some fuzzy slippers.

When you visit the Borghese Gallery collection, make sure not to miss Bernini’s “Abduction of Prosperina” standing in Room 4 — The Room of the Emperors — now that you know the story behind it, but please don’t try to pet the dog. That’s Cerberus, the Hound of Hades, and he’s just as mean as his owner.

Final Thoughts

Now that you know the story behind two of Bernini’s most well-known and celebrated sculptures, you can have a deeper understanding of his works when you are finally standing in front of them on your visit to the Borghese Gallery collection.

But what about all the other artworks? Each painting and sculpture that you’ll come across in the Borghese Gallery collection will have a similar story behind it. You can either do plenty of homework and research all the works in the collection, or you could book a guided tour with an expert guide that can recount such tales as you stroll from one masterpiece to another.

Whichever path you choose, be sure to browse the helpful information on our site to discover everything you need to know about the Borghese Gallery collection to make the most of your limited time there.