Today, Apollo and Daphne remains in the Borghese Palace, and scholars continue to debate its message. As Bolland noted, arguments range widely. Perhaps Bernini created the sculpture as an allegory to celebrate the dizzying power of art, or to warn against the dangers of sensual poetry. Others posit that it was meant to sublimate carnal desire, or conversely to pleasure the hedonistic Borghese. Works from Bernini from the same period, like the sculptor’s virtuosic Pluto and Proserpina (1621-22), harbor similar questions—and also use violence as a troubling allegorial and artistic vehicle. Like Apollo and Daphne, this piece depicts the savage, sexual hunt of a goddess by a god. Bernini expresses Proserpina’s pain and sorrow, as Pluto clutches at her tender skin, in the form of an agonized expression and single tear.
Indeed, no matter what Bernini’s intention, Apollo and Daphne’s unique ability to convey emotional and physical strain is irrefutable. And today, the sculptor’s masterwork reads as a powerful, disquieting depiction of unwanted pursuit and predation.