Villa Borghese

Garden of Villa BorgheseWhen Paul V Borghese became Pope in 1605, Rome was still reeling from the shock of the Protestant Reformation and its architects were simply copying Renaissance models.

By the end of Paul's unusually long 16-year Papacy, the new exuberant spirit of Roman Baroque had been launched, largely due to the largesse of the nephew on whom he squandered Papal favors.

Cardinal Scipione Borghese did for Rome what the Medicis had done for Florence a century earlier.

Villa Borghese was the show place for this 17C artistic flowering - but foreign visitors must remember that for the Italians the word Villa refers to a country estate, not just its main house, which frequently is called "Casino" (whether or not it is the scene of gambling).

The Cardinal imported Jacob More from Edinburgh to landscape this vast area which goes from the Porta Pinciana down to the ancient Porta Flaminio, now including the Pincio gardens overlooking Piazza del Popolo, round to the Viale delle Belle Arti and up to the Zoo in Parioli.

Four miles in circumference this English-style park, Rome's greenbelt, contains statues, lakes, great trees, vistas and even a water clock.

Don't miss the Baroque bird cage pavilion, with twin domes in wire netting, in the garden to the left of the Museum's entrance. The bird cages are now empty.

In the Spring, Piazza di Siena (named after the Borghese hometown) is the spectacular scene for international horse shows the last week of May.

Between Porta Pinciana, Porta Flaminia, Viale delle Belle Arti and the Zoo (Parioli)
(Map H 1 - I 1 - J 1 - I 2)

Museum of Villa Borghese

Museum of Villa Borghese(Galleria di Villa Borghese). Project of Giovanni Vasanzio, 1614 (real name Jan Van Santen; Dutch).

In the formal inner garden lies this "Casino", beautiful country house of the rich and powerful Cardinal Scipione Borghese.

Beyond the walls of Rome, the "black" aristocracy (ennobled by Popes) built their pleasure palaces on farmland that surrounded the city.

The Cardinal's exquisite taste can be admired in the superb statuary and paintings, but also in the highly decorated rooms which are positively groaning with rosy cheeked revelers cavorting all over the ceilings - each of the ceilings - in EVERY room! Nothing has been spared in the [almost over]-loading of every conceivable surface.

The richness is indescribable: chocolate cake with cream all the way. There are even some jokes: a "trompe l'oeil" person disappears behind a door, which in fact is just a fresco on the wall.

Evening visitors will find the ceiling lighting too harsh: in the old days, with even one hundred candles, this would have appeared as a lush environment.

The room decoration is so strong it almost overpowers the oil paintings. If you are interested in learning all the names of all the ceiling paintings buy the Guide to the Borghese Gallery; it has a map with names and descriptions for each ceiling. The rooms have recently been renamed after the ceiling paintings.

Any painting or sculpture with the Cardinal's coat of arms on the name tag means this was part of his original collection.

Ground floor center room: 320 AD. The 5 beautiful Roman mosaics of gladiators and beasts, found at Torre Nuova near Rome in 1834, even have some of the gladiators' names written in, they were so famous.

Our favorite: behind the antique Roman statues on either side of the door, be sure to admire the lush damask silk curtains. On closer inspection they are brilliantly painted "trompe l'oeil". Above the door is a panel of a horse seemingly careening in full flight out of the wall. The horse was sculpted in Greece 1-2C AD; the Cardinal had the rider added, sculpted by Gian Lorenzo's father, Pietro Bernini.

Going counter-clockwise:

Paolina Borghese of CanovaRoom I. Don't miss the (in)famous statue of Pauline Borghese, sister of Napoleon, posing nude as "Venus", by Antonio Canova (1805).

Her skin looks like satin and so do the cushions. It used to have a motor in the base, that rotated the statue.

Room II, Sala del Sole. The Cardinal felt he discovered the talented younger Bernini, and collected many fine works by him: "David" (1623/4), sculpted when Gian Lorenzo Bernini was in his 20s, is supposedly a self-portrait. David is readying himself to send a stone into Goliath's face, and his body is twisted on itself like a spring.

Room III, Sala di Apollo e Daphne. "Apollo and Daphne" (1624). Bernini Jr. Virtuous Daphne is running away from Apollo the Sun god, who wants to have her. She escapes by turning into a tree. Note the thin little wispy leaves forming out of her hair. Bernini was a year older than when he created David.

Room IV, Sala degli Imperatori. "The Rape of Persephone" (Prosperina in Italian) (1622). The more Bernini sculpted, the more he mastered the technique. Locks of hair are spiraling out airily from the sculpted heads, and Pluto's fingers really are plunging into Persephone's luscious thigh!

Room V, Sala del Hermaphrodite. "Hermaphrodite" (1C AD), half male-half female lies face down.
Cushion added in the 16C.
In the middle of the room is a charming Roman mosaic of 2 fishermen in a boat (1C AD).

Room VI, Sala del Gladiatore. "Aeneas and Anchises" (1618-20), also by Bernini junior, when he was very young, with a little help from his father Pietro. Aeneas flees from the burning city of Troy carrying his father who in turn carries the sacred household gods.
Also, two later works by Bernini: "Truth", a woman with the Sun in her hand, and "Pietas Romana".

Room VII, Sala Egiziana. Everything here is inspired by Egypt. The ceiling, floor and walls have hieroglyphs and Egyptian motifs.
"Peplofora" (5C BC), statue of a wonderfully static antique woman with flat folds in her dress.
"Isis" (150 AD), female statue, her dress black marble, her face in white.

Room VIII, Sala del Fauno. Caravaggio's room: he has 6 works here. "Madonna dei Palafrenieri" (1605) Christ as a young boy almost steps on a snake. St. Anne looks on as Mary pulls him back. Dramatic background. This painting was banned from one of St. Peter's altars for lacking decorum. Cardinal Borhese scooped it up.
"St. Jerome" (1606) is writing with a skull on his desk. Darkness swirls about him.
The famous "Self portrait" (1593) as a sick Bacchus (perhaps a hangover?), holding fruit, with grape leaves in his hair.
"Boy with a basket of fruit" (1594) - perhaps one of his lovers?
"St. John the Baptist" (1609), a languorous young lad sits awkwardly, naked, staring at the painter.
"David" with the head of Goliath (1619): this painting was sent to the Pope asking for pardon, when Caravaggio had fled Rome with a price on his head as a suspected murderer. He died before learning that he had been pardoned.

Upstairs: The Galleria, Painting Gallery. Not to be missed:

Entrance Vestibule. Two mosaic portraits of Cardinal Borghese by Provenzale, the most gifted mosaic artist since Roman times. The one of Scipione as Orpheus was made in 1608, the other in 1621.

Room IX, Sala di Dido. The room of Raphael. "The Deposition", taking Christ from the Cross (1507). Admire the movement, and feel the weight of Christ's body.
"Portrait of a Man" (1502).
"Lady with a Unicorn" (1506). A delightful whimsical spoiled young lady and pet.

Room X, Sala di Ercole. Used to be called "Room of the Sleep", it was a bedroom with a 17C four-poster.

Our favorite: Cranach's splendid "Venus and Cupid" with a honeycomb (1531), shows Venus with elongated medieval body and small breasts, much in vogue in the 1500s. Don't miss her elegant hat.

Love and Venus of CranachRooms XI, XII, XIII. 3 small rooms next to vestibule.

Room XIV, La Galleria di Lanfranco. Now we see what Cardinal Borghese looked like in the 2 Bernini busts (1632 and 1623).
The second one was commissioned after a vein of marble was found right in the middle of the Cardinal's forehead in the first one. The Cardinal was not amused: "Do it again Gian Lorenzo!" From the sculptures we see a fat man, with intelligent eyes, and a self conscious wispy beard.
On the table in the middle a Bernini model of that famous portrait of Louis XIV (1669) - which the French Sun King wanted at the top of the Spanish Steps.

Our favorite: don't miss the two Bernini self portraits in oil: one as a young man (1623), the other older and more gaunt (1635).

Room XV, Sala dell'Aurora. The master of Ferrara, Dosso Dossi's Room: best is "Madonna and Child" (1525), with a new treatment for both halos.
A brilliant "Last Supper" (1546-7) by Jacopo Bassano shows the Disciples as barefoot fishermen snoozing after eating. Christ asks who will betray him and the light passes through the glass of wine staining the tablecloth blood-red.

Room XVI. "The Nativity" (1546), Giorgio Vasari, more famous for his book on the lives of the Renaissance artists.

Room XVII. An unusual Antique "Dealer's Gallery" (1620) by Franz Francken the Younger. Gaspare Landi's 1806 portrait of Canova, the sculptor of wild Pauline Bonaparte downstairs.

Room XVIII. A masterpiece by Rubens, taking "Christ down from the Cross" (1602). Don't miss Mary Magdalene looking quite pre-Raphaelite with her bosom peeping out.

Room XIX, Sala di Paris e Elena. Two by Domenichino: "Sybil" looks like a society lady (1616) and joyful.
"Diana the Huntress" (1617), with her troupe of merrymakers (for which Domenichino languished in jail until he gave the painting to Cardinal Scipione).
The contorted face of Antonio Carracci's "The Laughing Youth" (1583).

Room XX, Sala di Psiche. The Titian room. His most famous painting "Sacred and Profane Love" (1514), with profane love looking much more attractive than her po-faced friend.
"Venus blindfolding Cupid" (1565), another happy mythical subject.
"Christ scourged".
"St. Dominic".
Antonella da Messina's smiling "Portrait of a Man" (1475).
Lorenzo Lotto's "Madonna" (1508) with a refreshingly obstreperous child.

Museum of Villa Borghese


1605-21. Pope Paul V Borghese reigned. (As a simple Cardinal he had been an Inquisitor and the one responsible for having censured Galileo during the dreaded Inquisition). Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the Pope's nephew, ruthlessly took advantage of his uncle's temporal as well as spiritual power.

1607. Scipione confiscated the paintings he coveted of Cavalier d'Arpino (Caravaggio's teacher) and imprisoned Domenichini when he fancied a painting commissioned by Cardinal Aldobrandini, to make sure he got the painting, Diana the Huntress. He did.

1803. Napoleon I not only thrust his sister, Pauline Bonaparte, on the weak Prince Camillo Borghese, but also relieved the Prince's father of much of his ancient statue collection, sending it to the Louvre in Paris. In exchange, he gave him land, of little consequence, in the north of Italy.

1805. Princess Pauline had her famous nude likeness sculpted by Canova. Her outraged husband had it locked away and they separated soon after.

1997. The Museum reopened after restoration to its old splendor and the addition of amenities for visitors. Luxurious honey-colored travertine abounds in the basement entrance (ticket booth, audio-visual equipment, shop and snack bar) and one floor up on the garden side is the world's most sumptuous public lavatory!

Piazzale Scipione Borghese, 5. Tel 06 32810
Open 9 am - 7 pm Tuesday through Saturday; Sunday and holidays 9 am - 1 pm. Closed Monday. Reservations recommended.