The Villa Borghese
Imagine a mansion built solely for the purpose of housing art. Now fill it with the pre-eminent works of the greatest artists in Italian history. Finally, open it to small groups of the public who can view the works without any of the crowds that fill other Roman museums. Well, you don’t have to imagine it; it’s called the Villa Borghese Gallery and it’s every art lover’s dream. The Villa was built in 1613 for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, one of the wealthiest men of his time and also an avid art lover. The house itself was a villa suburbana, that is, never meant to be lived in. Instead, it was a place for parties, business meetings, and of course, Scipione’s renowned art collection. As a public museum it’s most famous for its collection of classical antiquities and some of the finest works of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, including Pluto and Persephone and Apollo and Daphne. It is also perhaps the only famous Roman art museum in which visitors can enjoy a modicum of peace during the high season.
Visiting the Villa Borghese Gallery: What to See
The Villa Borghese
Scipione Borghese was, if you believe the historical accounts, a somewhat conniving person with an abiding love of great art. When he wasn’t amassing titles and official positions in Pope Paul V’s government (the Pope also happened to be his uncle), he was using the money and power from all those positions to commission and/or acquire art. Eventually, his collection was so large it needed its own place to live and so he commissioned the architect Flaminio Ponzio to build him a villa on the outskirts of 17th-century Rome where he could house all his works. “Villa” is the key word here because, despite being a public museum today, the Borghese Gallery still feels like someone’s house – albeit someone with a lot of money. The rooms are grand but intimate, the layout homely, and the scale very digestible. If the Vatican is all about glorifying the divine, the Villa Borghese is concerned with beauty on a very human level. There are no velvet ropes, no “stand behind this point” signs, and even the security guards blend into the background, it’s just you and the art, the way it should be.
The Galleria Borghese is home to two beloved Raphaels. The first is The Depostion, a depiction of the entombment of Christ with a heart-breaking backstory. It was commissioned by a matron of Perugia’s noble Baglioni family to commemorate her son, who had been murdered by his father. Not that he was completely innocent. He and other family members had conspired to kill most of a rival part of the family (including his father). When it didn’t go according to plan he literally ran to his mother, who refused him entry into her house. She eventually changed her mind, but it was too late. She caught up with him just in time to see her husband strike him down.
The other Raphael is a slightly less dramatic portrait of a young woman with a unicorn. Yes, a unicorn. The animal was often used as a symbol of purity and virginity in the middle ages and Renaissance. The miniature version held by the noblewoman is a way of adding to her aura. The identity of the young lady remains a mystery.
Don’t forget that there is also a very good copy of Raphael’s enigmatic La Fornarina in the Villa Borghese. This is the portrait of the woman that many believe to have been the artist’s famously passionate lover. If true, it’s the same woman with whom Raphael spent his final night before dying of a mysterious fever supposedly brought on by over-exertion.
Scipione Borghese was one of the young Caravaggio’s first major supporters and was able to secure some of his best early works. In short, Caravaggio was an early pioneer of the artistic movement that would eventually be called “realism”. He took all the idealized frills out of his imagery and grounded it in real life. This meant, among other things, using everyday people as models – street urchins became his angels, prostitutes his madonnas. In works like Young Sick Bacchus, and Boy with a Bowl of Fruit the young Caravaggio is at his best using his trademark dark, lush color palette (not to mention a healthy dollop of homoeroticism) to bring out an almost tangible sense of beautiful, yet spoiled, youth.
Also on display are later works like Madonna and Child with St. Anne, a painting that would have scandalized many who saw it for the way it revealed the bodice of the Virgin Mary and depicted her mother, St. Anne, as a grizzled old crone. Perhaps more shocking, from a modern perspective, is David with the Head of Goliath, a depiction of one of the Renaissance’s favorite triumph stories turned upside down. In it, David holds the gruesomely decapitated head of Goliath (onto whom Caravaggio painted his own face) but instead of appearing triumphant, he looks only introspective and troubled by what he has done. A further layer of intrigue is added by the fact that some historians believe the model for David was Caravaggio’s young lover. Regardless of how you interpret it, this is a very untraditional telling of the favorite Bible story.
If you see nothing else in the Borghese gallery, you owe it to yourself to take a few moments to admire the sculptures by the 17th-century virtuoso Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Three works in particular stand out. The first is his David, which is a slightly less tortured depiction of the biblical hero than Caravaggio’s. That doesn’t make it less interesting, though. It shows the titular hero mid-sling swing and perfectly captures the moment of sublime movement and pathos. Far from Michelangelo’s determined yet dignified titan in Florence, this David is frozen in a moment of kinetic explosion, like a runner springing off the starting blocks.
You also can’t miss Pluto and Persephone, a sculpture that captures the moment in which the god of the underworld kidnaps the hapless woman he means to make his wife. His fingers sink into the soft skin of her thigh and a delicate tear shimmers on her cheek as she twists and writhes in a vain effort to escape. Marble has never looked more lifelike.
The final and most vaunted piece is Apollo and Daphne, which illustrates a similar story (The Greek/Roman weren’t known for being sexually restrained) in which the sun god chases after a nymph who, in order to evade him, is turned into a tree. Until Bernini created this sculpture (when he was only in his 20s), stone had never been used to portray a process of change or transformation. The very idea seemed absurd to most artists. Bernini elegantly proved them all wrong by carving a woman half-metamorphosed into a tree, complete with tiny leaves so delicate it looks like you could pick them from their branches. Indeed, you probably could. The work is a triumph of both execution and imagination, an exquisite study of what man can create with nothing but his hands, a few simple tools, and plenty of marble.
The Borghese Gallery not only has some of the finest 17th-century sculptures, it has the single most iconic 18th-century sculpture in the world: Pauline Bonaparte by Antonio Canova. Pauline was the sister of the famous little general and had the same sort of fame in her own time as Marylin Monroe did in the 50s or Kim Kardashian does today. She was considered beautiful, powerful, influential, and more than a little sexy. Canova was the last of the great Roman sculptors, a man of such immense talent and prodigious output he is, to this day, the only sculptor to receive a monument while still alive. Officially titled Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix the work portrays the famous beauty as the goddess of love herself. When it was unveiled it scandalized all of polite society because portraits of famous people rarely depicted their subjects in the nude. Who exactly came up with the idea of having Pauline bare all is still a matter of debate. What no one questions is that, for many years, the sculpture was considered to be one of the most beautiful and titillating images in the world.
Scipione Borghese helped design the grounds of his villa in an English naturalistic style. The resulting Villa Borghese gardens is one of the largest public parks in Rome and also the perfect spot for an afternoon stroll through wide, tree-line paths. You can rent bikes or paddle boats, take in a puppet show, or simply sit on a bench with a cool gelato and watch the world go by. If you book tickets to the galleries in the morning you can relax in the gardens in the afternoon, then head over to the Spanish Steps (at the southern end of the park) to enjoy some late-afternoon sunshine.
Tips for Seeing the Borghese Gallery
The Borghese Gallery is open from Monday to Friday 9:00am to 6:00pm, Saturday 9:00am to 1:00pm. It’s closed on Sundays and Holidays, Open on the 24th and 31st of December 9:00am to 1:00pm.
No bags, purses, cameras, or umbrellas are allowed inside the galleries. You have to leave them all in the cloakroom before entering.
In theory, the gallery is wheelchair accessible but their elevator is smaller than most wheelchairs so there is a good chance you will have to exchange yours for one of theirs upon entrance. You will also have to find an attendant when you want to change floors. Finally, the wheelchair entrance/exit is not well marked. So while disabled visitors are accommodated by the museum they are not, for the moment, accommodated particularly well.
Villa Borghese tickets cost €11.00. You must reserve them in advance for a specific time slot on the day you want to visit. This is because they only let a certain number of people into the galleries at a time and once inside you have two hours (which are very precisely timed) before you are ushered out. You can also go with a guided tour that will reserve the tickets for you.
The Best Time to Visit the Villa Borghese Gallery
The beauty of this art gallery is that no matter what time of day you visit or what time of year you’re in Rome, there will never have more than 360 people inside the galleries with you at once. That may sound like a lot but it’s practically empty compared to many of the other big art galleries in Rome. Remember to reserve your ticket as early as possible to ensure that you get your preferred time slot.
Read More on our Blog
September 2, 2015
Walks of Italy runs a wide range of immersive, small group walking tours in Italy. Whether you're coming to Italy for the first time or the 10th, our local experts would love to take you past the well-worn tourist trail for an experience you'll never forget. Italy is on everyone’...More Info
October 23, 2012
Between the constant debates over who the Mona Lisa really was, and Dan Brown's "decoding" of the Last Supper, you might think that Leonardo da Vinci is the only Italian artist hiding some serious secrets. Far from it! Art history always involves some degree of sleuthing—and there are dozens ...More Info
December 21, 2012
In our previous post on scofflaw and artist Caravaggio (born Michelangelo Merisi), we told the story of his turbulent life up to the point when he'd committed an unforgivable crime: murder. Caravaggio wasn't new to legal trouble, and his powerful patrons had protected him before. But this time, it was ...More Info