Galleria Borghese

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Magic in Marble (and more)

Galleria Borghese is a garden villa which was commissioned in 1613 by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, an avid art collector, to house his impressive collection of Roman, Renaissance, and Baroque art. The Borghese family were a wealthy Italian noble and papal family. Camillo Borghese was elected Pope Paul V in 1605, and he named his nephew Scipione Borghese a Cardinal. This enabled Scipione to accumulate significant wealth through papal fees and taxes, and he invested much of it into growing the family art collection which is now on display within Galleria Borghese.

You must pre-book to visit the gallery, and visits are allocated to 2 hour time slots. Happily we scored a bonus by booking the last time slot of the day (at 7pm). As the gallery closes at 10, this gave us an extra hour, and since most people left after 2 hours or so, so we practically had it to ourselves at the end.

Scipione Borghese built the Villa Borghese as a country villa for elaborate parties, surrounded by gardens and vineyards. Even without the art it is a stunning building, with ornate decorations in every room. Apart from the featured pieces in each room, there are also many other sculptures and paintings to enjoy. There was so much to see in every room it was hard to know what to look at first. Between the sumptuous decor, ancient marbles, baroque sculptures & paintings, floor mosaics & trompe l’oeil ceilings it was a feast for the senses. 2 hours is not long enough to do it justice.

It is interesting that a family of cardinals and popes would display so many works with secular and sensual themes. But the Borgheses felt that all forms of human expression, including pagan myths and physical passion, glorified God. Every room contained jaw-dropping art works and we enjoyed every minute of our visit. Scipione Borghese was a patron of the Baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini and the museum showcases several of his works that can be admired up-close.

Here are some of our favourites, but there are too many to mention more than a very few here. 

The Rape of Proserpina

The Rape of Proserpina, by Bernini is a depiction from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which shows the moment that Proserpina, the daughter of Ceres and Jupiter, is abducted by Pluto, king of the underworld. The remarkable statue, which dates from 1621-22, was completed when Bernini was just 23 years old and is famed for the way in which the artist achieved texture and a sense of movement in the marble. I still remember seeing this when I was 15 and being mesmerised by the way the flesh of her thigh looks so soft.

David

Bernini’s David shows David’s strength, determination and every detail of his strained muscles and popping veins. This contrasts with the more idealised Davids of the Renaissance. The depiction of his facial expressions and twisted body show incredible mastery.

Apollo & Daphne

Apollo & Daphne (also by Bernini) depicts a mythological story. Apollo – made stupid by Cupid’s arrow of love – chases after Daphne, who has been turned off by the “arrow of disgust.” Just as he’s about to catch her, she calls to her father to save her. Magically, her fingers begin to sprout leaves, her toes become roots, her skin turns to bark, and she transforms into a tree.

Venus Victrix

Venus Victrix by Canova (not Bernini) was quite scandalous at the time. It portrays young Paulina Borghese, the sister of Napoleon. Nude portraits, especially of those of high rank, were unusual. When asked how she could pose for the sculptor wearing so little, she reputedly replied that there was a stove in the studio that kept her warm.

Paintings

Apart from the sculptures that this gallery is famous for, upstairs there’s a display of paintings collected by Scipione. It’s worth popping up to check them out, but with only 2 hours, you definitely want to spend most of your time with the sculptures. Here’s a sampling to give you a taste. 

It was a long but very satisfying day! Before visiting the Borghese Gallery we spent a fascinating morning at the National Museum of Rome, and the afternoon at the Baths of Diocletian. I wouldn’t normally recommend packing quite that much into a day, but we enjoyed every minute of it.

  • Since travelling is off everyone’s agenda at the moment due to Covid-19, this seems like a good opportunity to update the blog from several past trips that were sadly neglected. So, no, we’re not in Italy now, but it’s nice to reminisce.

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