Irresistible lust meets the immovable object

Antonio Pollaiuolo: 'Apollo and Daphne', c1470-80, The National Gallery, London



It's one of the great myths of desire and its frustration. It comes from Ovid's long poem Metamorphoses. The god Apollo is maddened with love for the virginal nymph Daphne, and runs after her. As he's about to grab her, she calls out to her father, a river god, to save her. At once she takes root, and is transformed into a laurel tree. In Ovid, the incident isn't particularly funny. In this little early Renaissance picture, it is.

Irresistible lust meets immovable object. The comedy is in the abruptness of the stop and the incongruousness of the change. There's no gradual, organic transformation. The fleeing nymph raises her arms in alarm and appeal, and they go WOOMP! TREE! with a flourish like a conjurer's bouquet. A woman waving her arms in a gesture of "help!" is turned instantly into a monstrous plant.

You just have these two blocks of foliage, a pair of full-grown hedges, each one as large as her body, sprouting straight from her shoulders, filling the picture frame. It's more of a splice than a metamorphosis. It comes with a jolt. In mid-action the running, waving woman is massively encumbered and immobilised.

She is literally divided between motion and stasis: one of her legs on the wing, the other firmly planted in the ground. Apollo, the super lover, pursuing at a lusty speed, hits her like a lamppost.

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