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Boy with a Dragon

Gian Lorenzo Berniniabout 1617

The J. Paul Getty Museum

The J. Paul Getty Museum

When he was less than twenty years old, Gian Lorenzo Bernini carved this marble boy with a dragon for the palace of Maffeo Barberini, later Pope Urban VIII. Even at this young age, Bernini was such a skilled marble sculptor that he could differentiate the textures of pudgy flesh, soft hair, waves of water, and dragon scales. A hole in the dragon's mouth shows that the sculpture was used as a fountain. The infant Hercules, who demonstrated his divine strength even as an infant by slaying poisonous serpents, appears here as a mischievous boy who smiles, sits on the dragon, and breaks its jaw with his bare hands. Common in Hellenistic statuary, the theme of Hercules and the serpent was revived in sculpture of the early 1600s. Bernini probably based the composition of his work on an antique work, but contemporary concerns also played a role. He may have represented the serpent as a dragon because his patron, Barberini, wished to convey a satirical message about another important Roman patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, whose family coat of arms included a dragon.

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