Action Figures + #MeToo in Art from 17thc Italy

Action Figures + #MeToo in Art from 17thc Italy
It may be surprising to know that action figures didn’t begin with Superman. I’ll discuss what I believe to be their origin and a goddess in Greek mythology who would certainly have been part of the #MeToo conversation.

"Action Figures" by definition are: toy figures often known for "exciting action or extraordinary powers."

The term was first coined by Mattel toys in 1960s-1970s to market their GI Joe figure to boys.

An example of an idiom - an 'action figure' toy or doll doesn’t really create movement on its own – the owner does.

During the late 16thc – early 17thc, artists would certainly study classical Greek & Roman art as always - stiff portraits of politicians and gods.

Instead of following the artistic style of the Renaissance - depicting a person or event before or after the fact – Baroque art (which began in Italy) depicted people during the act itself – creating movement and evoking emotions on the part of the observer. The Bible and mythology were common themes.

Italian Baroque art produced painters and sculptors eager to usher in a new era in the history of European art.

For example, Michelangelo’s "David" (1501) is a majestic sculpture showing the youthful David 'before' his battle with the giant Goliath – holding a stone in one hand and a sling in the other. We all cheer for David, the underdog.

Renaissance sculptor Donatello’s "David" (1430-1440), cast in bronze, is considered the most important sculpture of the early Renaissance – the first free-standing 'unclothed figure' since antiquity. It shows David 'after' his triumphant battle.

Italian Baroque artist and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini produced some extraordinary works of art that can be seen in the Vatican, Rome: the floating sculpture "Ecstasy of Saint Teresa" (1651), and St. Peter’s Baldacchino – a spiral gilded bronze canopy over the tomb of St. Peter’s.

A debate on agony vs ecstasy will certainly ensue after taking on a closer examination of "Saint Teresa."

Art historians are in agreeance about Bernini’s genius in his marble sculptures: "Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius" (1619), "The Rape of Proserpina" (1621-1622), "Apollo and Daphne" (1622-1625), and "David" (1623-1624). These are truly the original 'action figures' with twisted torso and clenched flesh.

No one preceding Bernini could capture such motion and emotion in cold marble.

In Greek mythology, as the story goes, Cupid (god of love) was mocked by the god and warrior Apollo. Cupid (Eros) shot Apollo with a gold arrow that would cause a passionate love for the nymph (and minor goddess) Daphne. Then Cupid shot Daphne with a lead arrow which caused her to hate Apollo.

Apollo chased Daphne (with Cupid’s assistance) until she could no longer tolerate his advances. [Daphne could have been part of the #MeToo movement in the 17thc]

She asked her father Peneus (god of the river) to help her escape. He turned her into a laurel tree. It is said the leaves of the Bay laurel tree do not decay.

Bernini brilliantly shows the moment Apollo grabs Daphne’s hip – but she has begun to transform her limbs into branches.

Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio was known as "the most famous painter in Rome" in the early 1600s.

His biblical scene in "The Calling of Saint Matthew" (1599-1600) shares the moment Jesus inspires Matthew to become one of his followers – as seen with the beam of light and Jesus’ pointed finger.

In my opinion, the subjects of both Bernini and Caravaggio were the precursors of today’s 'action figures'.

You can own the book, "Bernini (Penguin Art & Architecture) by Professor of Art History Howard Hibbard, available here from

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