There are two things anyone interested in visiting the Galleria Borghese should know. First of all, it is risky to show up without a reservation. Strictly speaking, pre-booking is not compulsory, but this is a popular museum and there is a fair chance that no more tickets are available if you just show up. If you make a reservation, you are given a two-hour timeslot. Arrive in time to collect your ticket, otherwise it might be sold to someone else. If you have paid in advance and are late, you will be denied entry and not get a refund.
The second thing you need to know is that the Galleria Borghese has about the weirdest policy as regards photography in all of Italy. It is a state museum. In 2009, when I first visited the Galleria, photography was still prohibited inside. However, under recent legislation, photography should be allowed in all state museums, provided that you do not use flash. But if you Google the words “photography allowed Galleria Borghese” you will still find recent cases of visitors who were asked to check their cameras and cell phones before entering the museum. Indeed, signs inside the museum indicate that such items, as well as coats and bags, must be checked. But when I asked at the ticket desk, I was told that photography was allowed, just without the use of flash. I then tried to check my coat, but was told that I had to keep it with me. Perhaps the cloakroom is just too small. And perhaps photography is prohibited only if there are exhibitions featuring objects on loan from foreign museums. In any case, I had plenty of opportunity to take lots of pictures, and these will adorn this post.
The Galleria Borghese is located in a palazzo on the eastern edge of the Villa Borghese, then the Borghese family estate, now a huge public park of some six square kilometres. The palazzo was built at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The driving force behind this project was cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633), a man who had actually been born Scipione Caffarelli. His mother was Ortensia Borghese, a younger sister of Camillo Borghese (1550-1621), who would be elected Pope Paulus V in 1605. Scipione was 27 years old at the time of his uncle’s election, and was almost instantly made a cardinal by him. The position of cardinal-nephew – cardinale nipote in Italian – was an official one and it gave the young Scipione great power and influence. In honour of his uncle, he renamed himself Scipione Borghese.
As a cardinal, Scipione Borghese was very active in the field of restoring churches. He for instance had the church of San Crisogono in Trastevere renovated and was also responsible for completing a reconstruction of the church of San Gregorio Magno on the Caelian Hill, adding the current Baroque facade. In both cases, the cardinal employed the services of his favourite architect Giovanni Battista Soria (1581-1651). But it was not Soria who designed the Villa Borghese complex and built the Borghese palazzo there. It is plausible that Scipione Borghese himself actively contributed to the design, but the first architect he commissioned was Flaminio Ponzio. Ponzio was working on or had just completed the famous Cappella Paolina in the Santa Maria Maggiore for his uncle the Pope, so he was the right man for the job. Unfortunately, the architect died in 1613 and work on the palazzo had to be continued by Giovanni Vasanzio (ca. 1550-1621). The name sounds incredibly Italian, but the new architect was actually a Dutchman from Utrecht named Jan van Santen who had italicised his name. The palazzo is usually called the Casino Borghese or the Palazzetto, and it should be distinguished from the Palazzo Borghese elsewhere in Rome (near the river Tiber).
The Villa Borghese complex was acquired by the Italian state in 1901 for 3,6 million lire. The park was subsequently donated to the Roman municipal authorities in 1903, while the Casino remained state property. Nowadays, the Villa Borghese is a lovely public park and a fine place to go for a stroll under the huge trees. The Casino was turned into one of Rome’s finest museums, the Galleria Borghese. The core of the museum’s extensive collection is made up cardinal Scipione Borghese’s private collection. The cardinal was a patron of the arts and an avid collector. He greatly admired the painter Caravaggio (1571-1610) and commissioned many important works from the young and very talented sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). But he also acquired works of art by more dubious means, by using and abusing his position of cardinal-nephew (see below). Scipione Borghese had also claimed the ancient statue of the Sleeping Hermaphroditus after it had been dug up at the construction site of the church of Santa Maria della Vittorio (the cardinal subsequently sponsored the church in return). Scipione had a keen interest in antiquities as well.
The collection of sculptures: Sleeping Hermaphroditus and Venus Victrix
Unfortunately visitors will not be able to see the original Sleeping Hermaphroditus anymore. Another member of the Borghese family, Camillo Borghese, 6th Prince of Sulmona (1775-1832), was forced by Napoleon to sell it to the French state, along with 343 other pieces of art from the Borghese collection. This is the reason we now find the Sleeping Hermaphroditus at the Louvre in Paris. It is actually a Roman copy of an original Greek sculpture in bronze dating back to ca. 150 BCE. Gian Lorenzo Bernini was commissioned to sculpt a mattress for the Roman copy, which also ended up in Paris. The Galleria Borghese still has a Sleeping Hermaphroditus on display, which is also a copy, or perhaps even a copy of the copy (to add to the confusion, the Museo Nazionale Romano also has a copy; note that all of these copies are ancient).
The aforementioned Camillo Borghese was married to Pauline Bonaparte (1780-1825), the French emperor’s younger sister. The Galleria Borghese has a famous reclining statue of her which was made by the great artist Antonio Canova (1757-1822), a Neo-classicist sculptor from Venice. It is known as the Venus Victrix. Pauline was depicted as a sensual Venus (Aphrodite in Greek) and several anecdotes with regard to the creation process have survived, none of which can be confirmed or refuted. One story claims that Canova originally wanted to sculpt Pauline as a fully dressed Diana (Artemis in Greek)). Pauline, however, objected, as Diana was a chaste goddess who wanted to protect her virginity at all costs. Napoleon’s sister, on the other hand, preferred to live the life of a butterfly (sources hostile to her claim she later contracted syphilis because of her promiscuity). A sculpture of her as Venus offered her a chance to pose nude for Canova.
When asked whether she was nervous having to take of her clothes in front of a man, Pauline is said to have responded that Canova was no danger to her at all (the sculptor was rumoured to be homosexual). In another version of this story, she is said to have remarked that posing naked was no problem at all, “as the studio is heated”. Whether or not these stories are true does not matter much, as Canova sculpted a beautiful statue of Pauline, reclining on a couch. She is holding a golden apple in her left hand, the apple that the Trojan hero Paris awarded to Aphrodite/Venus, an event that would ultimately lead to the Trojan War. When the statue was completed, Pauline’s husband Camillo was not willing to show it to anyone and kept it behind locked doors.
The collection of sculptures: Bernini
No matter how famous Canova’s sculpture of Pauline Borghese is, the Galleria Borghese is best known for its large collection of statues by Bernini. Saying that there are “statues by Bernini in this museum” is like saying that there are “paintings at the Uffizi”. The whole Galleria Borghese simply breathes Bernini, the greatest Baroque sculptor and architect of the entire seventeenth century. And he was an accomplished painter too, with the Galleria possessing several of his works, mostly self-portraits.
The Galleria Borghese has four larger-than-life statues by Bernini, all of which were commissioned by Scipione Borghese and all of which were sculpted when Bernini was just in his early twenties. The oldest of the set of four is Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius, made in 1618-1619. Bernini would have been about twenty years old when he started work on this statue, which features the Trojan hero Aeneas, his father Anchises and his infant son Ascanius, also known as Iulus. When Troy was burning after the Greeks had captured it, Aeneas fled the city, carrying his paralysed father on his shoulders. The sculpted Anchises has the household gods or penates with him. After many adventures, Aeneas would land in Italy, where his son would found the town of Alba Longa. Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, were from the royal family of this town, and hence Aeneas was seen as the ancestor of the Romans. Members of the patrician gens Iulia clan – whose most famous scion was Gaius Julius Caesar – claimed to be descendants of Iulus. Since the goddess Venus was the boy’s mother, they claimed to be descended from her as well (Caesar built a temple for Venus Genetrix for his own forum).
The second statue is that depicting the Rape of Proserpina (1621-1622). Proserpina is the Greek equivalent of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter (Ceres in Latin), who was abducted by the god of the underworld, Hades or Pluto, who wanted a wife. Demeter, goddess of agriculture and fertility, was grief-stricken by the loss of her daughter and refused to let the crops grow. The entire earth quickly withered, as plants and animals started to die. To avert a disaster, the supreme god Zeus sent Hermes to the underworld, who managed to negotiate a compromise with Hades: Persephone would be allowed to return to the world above for part of the year, but she had to come back to her husband and stay with him during the other months. Thus the seasons came into being. Bernini managed to sculpt the young goddess with a tear on her face. He also added the three-headed hellhound Kerberos to the sculpture group.
The third and fourth statues were made more or less simultaneously. Bernini started work on Apollo and Daphne around the year 1622, but took a break after about a year to work on his David, which was completed in 1624. He then went back to Apollo and Daphne and finished the statue in 1625. Bernini’s David is interesting because its head is presumably the sculptor’s self-portrait. The young artist sculpted the biblical hero preparing his sling with a rock, just before he is about to strike the gigantic Philistine warrior Goliath. David is almost naked, having refused the armour that King Saul had offered him (the armour is depicted as well). The statue may have been influenced by the so-called Borghese Gladiator, another one of the statues that Camillo Borghese was pressured into selling to France.
Apollo and Daphne may be one of Bernini’s most famous sculptures, perhaps his most famous one. It is based on a story from Ovidius’ Metamorphoses. In the story, the wily god of love Cupido made Apollo, a sun god, but also god of music and art, fall in love with a beautiful nymph named Daphne. The problem was that he had also struck her heart with a lead arrow, causing her to find him repulsive. When Apollo tried to seduce her, she ran away from him. But Apollo was quicker, and when he had almost caught her, she implored her father, the river god Peneus, to help her. Peneus then turned his daughter into a laurel tree (Daphne actually means ‘laurel’). Bernini depicted Daphne at the moment of her transformation, her metamorphosis: roots are beginning to grow from her feet, branches and leaves from her hands. Her body will ultimately be covered in tree bark.
Apollo and Daphne was Bernini’s final commission from Scipione Borghese. Pope Paulus V had died in 1621, which involved Scipione losing his position of cardinal-nephew. He was still wealthy and powerful, but not as powerful as Bernini’s new patron, Pope Urbanus VIII (1623-1644). Urbanus – born Maffeo Barberini – employed Bernini as an architect for his family palazzo and as a sculptor to create two busts of him, both now in the Galleria Borghese. When the Pope died in 1644, Bernini not only lost his patron, he also failed to win a new one. Urbanus’ successor Innoncentius X (1644-1655) ignored him for the simple reason that he had hated Urbanus, and therefore hated anyone who had been associated with Urbanus, including artists like Bernini.
These were difficult times for the sculptor. He had also been blamed – wrongly, it seems – for problems with a rather silly project, ordered by Urbanus and involving the addition of towers to the facade of Saint Peter’s Basilica. The towers were way too high and heavy, caused cracks in the facade and had to be taken down again. Bernini was said to have begun his sculpture of Truth unveiled by Time to vindicate himself: in time, the truth about the towers would be revealed and his innocence would be proven. Unfortunately for Bernini, he only got round to finishing the figure of Truth. Time is nowhere to be seen.
The collection of paintings
If Scipione Borghese were alive today, I do not think he and I would become friends. The cardinal and his uncle the Pope had a nasty reputation as art snatchers. Two examples may illustrate this. The painter Giuseppe Cesari (1568-1640) was known to his contemporaries as the Cavaliere d’Arpino. Pope Clemens VIII (1592-1605) had been his most important patron, and Cesari himself had for a few months employed as an aide the young painter Caravaggio, who was then in his early twenties. Probably in this way, Cesari came to possess a couple of early Caravaggios, among them the Sick Bacchus (a self-portrait) and Boy with a Basket of Fruit. Pope Paulus V had Cesari’s entire collection of over 100 paintings confiscated and gave these to his nephew. The pretext seems to have been that the Cavaliere d’Arpino had failed to pay his taxes (or had been in possession of illegal weapons).
Pope Paulus V also helped his nephew to obtain a painting of the Deposition by Raphael (1483-1520). In this case, the painting was basically stolen from a church in Perugia. The painting had been commissioned by the Baglioni family. During a violent family feud, one Grifonetto Baglioni had been murdered by relatives in 1500. To commemorate him, his mother Atalanta had hired Raphael to paint an altarpiece for the family chapel in the church of San Francesco al Prato. Raphael completed the work in 1507 and signed it RAPHAEL URBINAS MDVII in the bottom left corner. Scipione Borghese had a gang of thugs remove the painting from the chapel in 1608. The people of Perugia were furious, but Scipione’s uncle the Pope managed to soothe them by commissioning one of more copies of the painting. His nephew was allowed to keep the original, which is now one of the top pieces in the Galleria Borghese.
The collection of paintings in the Galleria Borghese is immense. Apart from the aforementioned works by Caravaggio and Raphael, we can admire works by Flemish, Dutch and German painters such as Rubens, Gerard van Honthorst and Lucas Cranach the Elder, but also by Italian masters like Titian, Perugino (Raphael’s master), Giovanni Bellini and Il Garofalo (see Ferrara: Palazzo dei Diamanti for more information on him). I even spotted a tondo by Sandro Botticelli. This made my day, as Botticelli is one of my favourite artists, although in this case, the work was probably largely executed by assistants in his studio. And that, my friends, is the reason why Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (1514) takes home the prize for being my favourite painting in the Galleria Borghese.