Neptune and Triton by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Carved between 1622 and 1623, Neptune and Triton was commissioned from sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini by Alessandro Peretti, an Italian Roman Catholic Cardinal Bishop, for the garden of the Villa Montalto in Rome. It was originally the centrepiece of a complex system of fountains and cascades located at the upper end of a large oval fishpond. In the 17th and 18th centuries this impressive sculptural group was one of the most celebrated sights in Rome.

Neptune and Triton, sculpture, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1622 – 23, Italy. Museum no. A.18:1-1950. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bernini's sculpture, which received widespread critical acclaim, depicts the mythological ruler of the seas, Neptune, and his merman son, Triton, both at human life size. The group's dynamic composition may have been inspired by Ovid's account of the Flood in the epic poem Metamorphoses, in which Jupiter vowed in anger to destroy life on Earth, and called Neptune to create a flood; Neptune struck the Earth with his trident and released a deluge. When the destruction was complete, Neptune laid down his trident and called Triton to blow on his conch shell as a signal for the waters to subside.

Neptune and Triton (detail), sculpture, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1622 – 23, Italy. Museum no. A.18:1-1950. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Neptune and Triton – the only one of the artist's large-scale works to be held outside Italy – is characteristic of the Baroque, a style of art that emerged in Rome in the 17th century, and which had by 1700 spread throughout Italy and most of western Europe. Bernini is often credited as one of the founders of this extravagant new aesthetic. In sculptural terms Baroque is characterised by a focus on dynamic figurative groups that are designed to be viewed in the round and in open space. It seems clear that Bernini designed Neptune and Triton with long-range, open viewpoints in mind. For his father-and-son figures he created a bold overall design that could be appreciated at a distance, while also exploiting the bright Italian sunshine of the sculpture garden's location – creating dramatic contrasts of dark and light, with deep and vigorously carved detail.

Neptune and Triton (details), sculpture, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1622 – 23, Italy. Museum no. A.18:1-1950. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Neptune and Triton was carved in just under a year, at a time when Bernini was about 25 years old. In terms of production, the group falls between two equally impressive two-figure sculptures, The Rape of Persephone and Apollo and Daphne (both housed in the Galleria Borghese in Rome), and helps mark the artist's arrival at full maturity as a sculptor. After the death of Alessandro Peretti in 1623, Bernini's career continued to develop under the patronage of another influential friend, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who became Pope Urban VIII in the same year. A prominent patron of the arts, the new Pope encouraged Bernini to study painting and architecture, and appointed him in charge of additions to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Bernini created a series of powerful pieces for the church, including a monumental canopy cast in bronze, and a window-based piece housing a relic of St. Peter's throne. These important commissions helped cement the reputation of Bernini as the foremost sculptor of his day.

Neptune and Triton remained at the Villa Montalto until 1786 when it was sold to the British art dealer Thomas Jenkins. The group was later purchased by the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, and subsequently had two more homes – in Chelsea in London, then in Lincolnshire – before being acquired by the V&A in 1950 with the assistance of the National Art Fund.

Background image: Neptune and Triton, sculpture, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1622 – 23, Italy. Museum no. A.18:1-1950. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London