The Borghese Gallery is one of the most beautiful museums of the world and is an absolute must for anyone who loves art. The gallery boasts the largest single collections of Caravaggio and Bernini alongside works by Botticelli, Raphael, Domenichino, Bellini, Coreggio, and many more including some northern European artists Rubens and Cranach. The signature piece of the gallery and the most expensive painting in the collection is ‘Sacred and Profane Love’ by Titian. The Gallery is housed in an elegant mansion surrounded by parkland known as the Villa Borghese, today a large city centre park.
The Gallery is named after Scipione Borghese the cardinal who built the mansion and whose private collection of ancient sculpture and artwork make up most of the collection. Scipione Borghese (nephew to Pope Paul V) was a passionate art collector and patron as well as an avid talent spotter. He was patron to Caravaggio at the end of his life and the young Bernini; hence the collection has a number of pieces by both artists. However, he often obtained his artwork by unscrupulous methods including intimidation and even theft. Scipione was one of the richest men in Rome at this time and his relationship to the pope meant nothing was out of his reach. The collection includes numerous pieces of ancient sculpture and statues that were unearthed in Rome.
The Villa Borghese was outside of the city walls in its day and was a suburban villa, designed specifically to house Scipione’s art collection. It was never intended to be a residence, as the Borghese had a number of palaces in the city. It was used to entertain important guests and host parties in a cultured and artistic setting. Much of the collection dates back to Scipione (1577-1633) and the building remains unchanged except for the décor and stucco on the front of the building removed in the 19th century by Napoléon. The Borghese family continued to expand the collection, which today includes a beautiful statue of Paolina Bonaparte as Venus by Antonio Canova.
What we see today was dramatically reduced by Napoléon who ‘acquired’ or demanded the sale of some of the most prized pieces of ancient sculpture in the collection; 600 pieces were taken, many of which can be found today in the antiquities section of the Louvre museum. Prince Camillo Borghese received (Napoleon’s sister) Paolina Bonaparte’s hand in marriage. By the turn of the 20th century the Borghese family could no longer afford to maintain their estate and it was sold to the Italian state for a fraction of its value.
The twenty-two rooms are spread over two floors and contain ancient sculpture and statues from the 1-3rd century AD and countless masterpieces from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The ground floor hosts the majority of the sculpture and the first floor is dedicated to painting arranged into the different schools. The villa itself is exquisitely decorated, with many of the ceiling frescoes reflecting the original centrepiece of the room.
On the ground floor the highlights are the full-standing statues of Bernini including ‘Apollo and Daphne’ and the ‘Rape of Persephone’ and a personal unfinished piece ‘Truth unveiled by Time’ that was never seen by the public. Almost an entire room is dedicated to Caravaggio, including some of his earliest pieces ‘Boy with a bowl of fruit’ and ‘Sick Bacchus’ to the terrifying ‘David and Goliath’ in which Caravaggio offers his own head to his patron from exile. Antonio Canova’s statue of Paolina Borghese is Venus Ventrix is outstanding, despite the fact it no longer revolves. When it was unveiled at the beginning of the 1800s it caused scandal among the provincial Romans. The floor in the entrance hall should also not be missed as it includes Roman mosaics from the 3rd century of Gladiators and animals.
The first floor is literally full of masterpieces, the main hall on the first floor has a few more statues and paintings by Bernini including Scipione Borghese himself. The highlights on the first floor include some of Raphael’s early work including ‘Girl with unicorn’ and ‘The Deposition’ which is particularly striking and broke tradition in many ways. It is painted on wood and originally hung in a church in Perugia, but was forcibly removed by Scipione after he was refused the painting by the monks.
You should not miss Correggio’s ‘Danae’, Domenichino’s ‘the Hunt of Diana’, and Bassano’s pastel coloured ‘last supper’. There are also a number of paintings by Titian, spanning sixty years of his work including Venus blindfolding Cupid and the most sought after ‘Sacred and Profane Love’. The Rothschild family offered Four million Lire (2.9m Euros today) but they refused to sell. Only a few years later the entire estate including the villa, the grounds and the collection was sold to the Italian state for much less. Today the painting represents a passion for and the value of art!
If you see one art gallery in Rome – the Borghese Gallery is a MUST-SEE!
Visiting the Borghese
A limited number of visitors are allowed at any one time which means the rooms do not get overly crowded and one can enjoy the artwork without being jostled.
Tickets to the Borghese Gallery must be booked in advance online or by telephone. The Borghese is one of the top attractions of Rome tickets are in demand in the summer months, so booking well in advance is recommended. If you are not an art aficionado, guided tours of the Borghese Gallery are recommended to ensure you see the highlights and to give an insight not only to the artwork, but the lives and relationships of the painters and their patrons.
Arrive at least 30 minutes before your scheduled time as you will need to queue to collect tickets.
All coats and bags must be checked into the cloakroom, before your visit. Staff will give you a small bag for personal items.
Start on the first floor which will give you time to explore as visitors usually see the ground floor first.