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The Borghese Gallery

The Borghese Gallery, along with the Vatican Museums, is among the most popular art museums in Rome. Of course, we couldn’t miss it and went there shortly after our arrival.

The gallery owes its collection mainly to Scipione (Scipione) Borghese (1576 – 1633), a passionate collector of sculpture and paintings from the ancient, Renaissance and Baroque periods. Coming from a noble family, at the age of 27 he became a cardinal. This title was bestowed upon him by Pope Paul V, who was Shipione Borghese’s uncle.

Cardinal’s rank brought Borghese funds, wide powers, and with them – almost unlimited opportunities to collect art. Many of the works that brought fame to the collection Shipione Borghese, were made on his direct order, but the cardinal was not limited to this. Under the patronage of the Pope and the cover of his high position, to get from artists and owners of the desired works of art, passionate collector did not disdain anything: threats, blackmail, confiscation, fabrication of fake cases …

Despite the dubious methods of replenishing his collection, we must give credit and outstanding intuition, and artistic taste of the Cardinal. At the time of Schipione Borghese’s death in 1633, the gallery contained more than eight hundred first-class paintings, as well as an extensive collection of sculpture, including antique sculpture.

After Schipione Borghese’s death, the collection was occasionally added to by his heirs, but since then there have been incomparably more losses. The collection shrank most severely when one of the heirs, Camillo Borghese, married Paolina Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister. Under pressure from the Emperor, Camillo was forced in 1807 to cede to France (sometimes written that “sell”, sometimes – that “gift”) most of the antique collection, including one hundred and fifty-four statues, one hundred and seventy bas-reliefs, one hundred and sixty busts, thirty columns and vases (including the famous vase Borghese). All of them are now in the Louvre.

Although the core of the collection was formed in the first half of the 17th century, the gallery became a public museum only in 1902 – after the private collection of the Borghese family was sold to the Italian State. It was sold cheaply, for only 3.6 million lire. To estimate the scale of the concession on the part of the owners, let us mention that shortly before that, only for one of the paintings of the collection – “Love of Heaven and Love of Earth” by Titian, the Rothschilds were ready to pay more.

Today, moving through the halls of this outstanding museum, it is impossible to get rid of amazement at how many works of art with purely secular themes and sensual (even erotic) form of expression were collected by this family, so closely connected with the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy. Apparently, it can be explained by the fact that, as we read somewhere, Schipione Borghese believed that all forms of human expression, including those based on pagan myths and physical passion, glorify God. That is why masterpieces with non-canonical depictions of saints or those that were too immodest by the standards of the church, without any problems for the collector fell into the piggy bank of the Borghese collection.

The Borghese Gallery, being the result of the collecting obsession of almost one man, is today one of the world’s richest collections of works of art from Antiquity, Renaissance and Baroque. Cardinal Borghese had a particular passion for the works of sculptor Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini and painter Caravaggio, and works by both masters remain a vital part of the Gallery’s current collection. Bernini’s work is particularly striking in it, and this museum houses Rome’s largest collection of sculptures by this master. So, if you have not yet determined your attitude to this master, after visiting the Borghese Gallery it is simply impossible not to become his fan.

The first floor of the museum is dedicated to sculpture. There are numerous works of ancient art, as well as masterpieces by Bernini. On the second floor of the museum there is an art gallery. And there is also a lot of masterpieces: Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael, Rubens… Now Borghese Gallery has about 560 canvases, and mainly in this collection is represented by Italian paintings.

The Galleria Borghese building


Jean Lorenzo Bernini. Bust of Scipione Borghese. 1632 Cardinal Schipione Borghese, the main collector of the collection of the Gallery of the same name.

Left: Jean Lorenzo Bernini, Bust of Pope Paul V. 1632. Right: Marcello Provenzale, Portrait of Pope Paul V. 1621.

At the Galleria Borghese.

Bernini! His creations are perhaps the centerpiece of the Gallery. One of Bernini’s first works is “The Goat Amalthea feeding milk to the infant Zeus and the young Satyr”. Before 1615. By some estimates, Bernini was still a teenager when he created his first sculpture. But it wasn’t this work that created the master’s fame.

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. The Abduction of Proserpina, 1621-1622 This is one of the most famous works by Bernini in the Borghese collection. The master created this sculpture at the age of 23, depicting the abduction of Proserpina, the daughter of Zeus, by Pluto (Hades in Greek), the god of the underworld. Bernini’s works can (and should!) be viewed from different angles, and then new expressive perspectives and meanings are revealed to the viewer.

Looking at these indentations in Proserpina’s body from Pluto’s fingers, it is impossible to believe that the sculptor worked with hard marble! You will inevitably wonder if it is marble or flesh! Bernini’s artistic and technical virtuosity is astonishing!

On Pluto’s face is the smile of victory. On the face of Proserpina, desperately resisting violence, is fear and suffering. Bernini himself admitted in his old age that he could not have done better.

The three-headed Cerberus, Pluto’s eternal companion, guarding the exit from the realm of the dead. Sculptural groups created by Bernini are a kind of theatrical performances in stone. His compositions are characterized by unique “picturesqueness”, plasticity, “fluidity” of form. “What you consider my shortcoming, is the highest achievement of my carving, which I defeated the marble and made it flexible, like wax, and this was able to a certain extent to unite sculpture with painting”, – wrote the master.

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. Apollo and Daphne. 1622-1625. Apollo and Daphne is perhaps one of the most beautiful sculptures in the Galleria Borghese. It depicts the tragic love and hate story of the god Apollo and the nymph Daphne. Apollo, struck by Cupid’s arrow, falls in love and chases after Daphne. But the moment he catches up with her, Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree. Despite its static form, the sculpture wonderfully conveys the dynamics of the interaction between the characters, as well as Daphne’s gradual transformation into a tree. The nymph’s face is frozen with fear, while Apollo seems immensely surprised: he has just caught the girl and is already holding a tree.

To truly appreciate Bernini’s genius, you have to walk slowly around the statue and see Daphne transforming before your eyes: Bernini left some parts of her body ordinary, while others – fingers and toes, curls – turn into roots, twigs and leaves before our eyes. “Apollo and Daphne” Bernini as if symbolizes the ghostliness of the pursuit of pleasure: to catch up, but to hold in their hands – not. It is not by chance that the inscription on the pedestal of the statue warns: “Anyone who chases the desire for fleeting pleasure, is left with a handful of leaves and twigs in his hand, or, at best, picks bitter berries”.

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. “Aeneas leads his father Anchises and son Ascanius out of burning Troy” (1618-1619). The sculpture, depicting several generations in a family, shows the connection between the past, present and future. Aeneas, carrying on his father’s shoulders the burden of responsibility for his family, epitomizes physical and moral strength. Little Ascanius holds a fire in his hands – a symbol of life and light, the future of the family.

Old Ankhiz clutches a statue of the Penates, the guardian gods and patrons of the home. Each family in ancient Rome usually had two Penates, whose images, made of wood, clay or stone, were kept in a locked cabinet near the hearth where all the family members gathered. Bernini created this sculpture at the age of twenty. For a long time there was no silent debate that, being so young, the young man could not do the work himself and resorted to the help of his father – the sculptor Pietro Bernini. But in the middle of the 20th century archival documents were found, confirming the sole authorship of the master.

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. David. 1623-1624. One of Bernini’s finest works, David depicts the moment when the famous biblical character is about to throw a stone at the Felistine giant Goliath. The theme was quite popular during the early Renaissance. Many are familiar with Michelangelo’s, Donatello’s and Verocchio’s Davids (we have seen them all on this visit to Italy). Bernini’s David is quite different: he is depicted not before or after the battle with Goliath, but at the very moment of preparation for this battle, radiating dynamism, purposefulness and inner concentration. It is also striking how skillfully the sculptor managed to create the illusion of the presence of the second hero.

Lorenzo Bernini. David. David’s inner state is well read on his face: he is tense and focused: his eyebrows are furrowed and his lips are tightly compressed.

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. Truth Revealed by Time. 1646 – 1652 This work by Bernini was executed during a difficult period for him. After the construction of the bell tower, which Bernini supervised, cracks appeared in the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica. The bell tower was demolished and Bernini’s reputation was seriously damaged. “The Truth Revealed by Time” was intended as a commentary on what had happened: Time would reveal the Truth about this story and completely exonerate the master. In the end, this is what happened: the study showed that the cracks were caused by defects in the design of Carlo Maderno, the previous architect of the cathedral, and that Bernini was not to blame for what happened. In the photo is an allegorical figure representing Truth. The image of Time was never realized and the work remained unfinished.

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. Portrait of a boy. Around 1638, Bernini became famous not only as a sculptor and architect, but was also a talented artist. From about 1620 to 1640 Bernini painted about two hundred works, if we are to believe the biography written in 1713 by his son Domenico. Currently, only about a dozen paintings by the artist are known. Two self-portraits and one portrait painted by him are on display in the gallery.

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. Self-Portrait as a Young Man, 1623 (left). Self-portrait as an adult, 1630/1635 (right).

The Borghese Gallery boasts a large number of antique mosaics, sculptures or copies of them, such as in this room. The interior of Villa Borghese is a work of art in itself, with its marble floors, columns, bas-reliefs, frescoes, mosaics and painted ceilings. All this is the perfect backdrop for the works of art on display in the Gallery.

Antique mosaics in the Galleria Borghese.

Antique sculptures and mosaics fell into the hands of Borghese from the sites of numerous excavations, thanks to the ambitions of Pope Paul V, Rome was actively built up.

Sleeping Hermaphrodite. One of the most famous antique works in the Gallery is the Sleeping Hermaphrodite, a 2nd century AD Roman sculpture made from a 2nd century BC Greek original. The statue is 145 centimeters long and depicts a sleeping hermaphrodite almost at full human height. According to Greek mythology, Hermaphroditus was the son of the gods Hermes and Aphrodite (as reflected in his name). A nymph who fell in love with him prayed for eternal union with him. Her wish was fulfilled and their bodies merged into one. The name “hermaphrodite” later became a nominal term for animals and people with characteristics of both sexes. The term later passed into biology and medicine, and the myth of Hermaphrodite became a popular theme in art. There are at least twenty statues of hermaphrodites (in the Uffizi, Hermitage, National Museum of Rome, etc.), but this particular statue is considered one of the best. The sculpture is installed against the wall, so it is not possible to “study the question” from all sides:).

Leda, the Swan and Eros (1st century BC). This frivolous story of Zeus as a swan seducing Leda, the wife of the Spartan king, became incredibly popular during the Renaissance. Cardinal Borghese also liked such plots.

Statue of Aphrodite with Eros on a dolphin (early 2nd century AD, left). Statue of Aphrodite with a dolphin (120-130 AD, right).

Above the doors of the main hall on the first floor is an interesting wall sculpture “Marcus Curtius throwing himself into the abyss” by Pietro Bernini, the father of the genius sculptor. Marcus Curtius is a mythological hero who sacrificed himself to the gods of Hades to save Rome. In 1617, Pietro Bernini added the figure of a rider to the ancient horse (1st-2nd century AD), turning the sculpture into an equestrian statue of Marcus Curtius. In addition, the master changed the position of the upraised animal, pointing it downwards and thus creating the illusion of the rider jumping into the abyss.

Lion. Sculpture of the Imperial Roman era (2nd century A.D.)

“Fighting Satyr.” 120-140 AD. The head of the ancient statue was restored by Bernini’s father and son, but his pose with a characteristic reversal allegedly served as a model for the “David” Bernini the Younger (see above).

“Dancing Satyr.” Roman copy circa 220 CE from a Greek original by Lysippus from the 4th century BC(?). The movement of the satyr is spiral in nature, it begins with the feet touching the ground with only the toes and twists the figure, greatly changing its appearance when viewed from different points. To fully experience this effect of movement, the statue should be walked around in a circle.

“Dancing Satyr.” Something went wrong with the ancient sculptor: the tail of the satyr is located somehow too high.

Satyr on a dolphin. 1st century AD.

Sarcophagus with scenes of Hercules’ feats. About 160 AD.

Antonio Canova. Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix. 1805-1808 This sculpture, one of the collection’s high-profile acquisitions after the death of Schipione Borghese, was commissioned by Pauline Bonaparte’s husband Camillo Borghese in honor of their marriage. At first Canova was commissioned to depict Pauline Bonaparte as the chaste goddess Diana, but Pauline rejected this option, saying that no one would believe that she was a virgin. Napoleon’s sister, although she bore the titles of princess and duchess, had a bad reputation in the light. As a result, the image of Venus, the goddess of beauty, was chosen for the sculpture.

The sculptor depicted Pauline, who caused a lot of gossip among her contemporaries with her promiscuous behavior, in the image of Venus, the goddess of carnal love, who, according to Greek mythology, triumphed at the trial of Paris. Pauline’s slender fingers hold an apple given to her by Paris in recognition of Venus’ superiority over other goddesses.

When the sculpture was presented to the general public, a huge scandal broke out. Polina was asked how she had dared to pose completely naked. The beauty answered: “Do not worry, I was not cold. After all, there was a fireplace burning in the studio”.

One of the Pinacoteca rooms on the second floor of the Galleria Borghese. The picture gallery is also full of masterpieces. Let’s start with Caravaggio (1571-1610), whose great admirer was Scipione Borghese.

Caravaggio. Self-Portrait as Bacchus, or Sick Bacchus (1593). This is Caravaggio’s earliest self-portrait, which he painted at the age of 22. Unable to pay a sitter, the artist drew his mirror image for the painting. He was ill with malaria at the time and therefore was not in the best shape. And the bunches of grapes in his hand prompted researchers to think that in front of us – Bacchus, and unhealthy. This name was given to the painting.

Caravaggio. Young man with a basket of fruit. 1593-1594. The painting was painted in the early period of creativity, when the young master tried himself as a still-life painter. This painting, as well as “Sick Bacchus”, along with other works, in 1607 by order of Cardinal Borghese for non-payment of taxes were confiscated from the Cavalier d’Arpino (who worked for Caravaggio). This is how the painting came into the private collection of a passionate collector.

Caravaggio. Madonna with Child and St. Anne. 1605-1606. The Borghese collection also included masterpieces that were non-canonical or even immodest by the standards of the church. Thanks to this formulation, the cardinal, who had no problem with all this, got this painting by Caravaggio. The painting is also known as the Madonna Palafrenieri and is one of the artist’s most recognizable works. The Virgin Mary, holding the little Christ, tries with her son to trample the snake, symbolizing evil and original sin. St. Anne, looking like an elderly peasant woman, idly observes what is happening. The biblical images in Caravaggio’s interpretation, in contrast to the canon, appeared extremely humanized. The painting was commissioned for St. Peter’s Basilica, but was rejected and went to Cardinal Borghese.

The depiction of the Virgin Mary as an ordinary barefoot woman was extremely atypical for that time. Even more shocking was the corset, which indecently tightened and exposed the breasts of the Virgin Mary.

Both Mary and Christ are depicted on the canvas barefoot. Christ, along with the Mother of God, is trampling the serpent, which, metaphorically equalizing the degree of their power, also contradicted the canon.

Caravaggio. Writing St. Jerome. About 1606. The painting was commissioned by Cardinal Shipione Borghese. St. Jerome in Caravaggio’s interpretation appears before the audience not in the role of an ascetic and righteous man, but as a scholar, translating from Greek into Latin texts of the New and Old Testaments. But in religious painting, Jerome was more often depicted as a prayerful and hermit.

Caravaggio. John the Baptist. 1610. The work “John the Baptist” is considered one of the last works of the master. The image of the holy prophet was one of Caravaggio’s favorites. In the list of his works there are more than eight canvases with this saint. The hero of the painting “John the Baptist” is depicted more young in comparison with other similar works.

Raphael. Portrait of a young woman with a unicorn. About 1505-1506. The unicorn, which the woman holds in her lap, is a mythological animal symbolizing virginal purity. The identity of the young lady in the portrait is still unclear. The composition of the portrait is believed to be inspired by Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo da Vinci between 1503 and 1506.

Raphael. Deposition from the Cross. 1507. The painting is the central part of an altarpiece commissioned by Raphael for a noble lady, Atalanta Baglioni, in memory of her murdered son. There is a version that the young man in a red-green robe at the feet of Jesus is the murdered son. This work until 1608 decorated the family chapel Baglioni in the church of St. Francis in Perugia, for which it was painted. And then Cardinal Borghese laid his eyes on the painting, and it was “borrowed” by his representatives in favor of the owner. To assuage the anger of the outraged citizens of Perugia, the Cardinal’s uncle, Pope Paul V, signed a commendation for the painting “given to Rome”. Later, a copy of the work was sent to Perugia, while the original remained with the Borghese.

Raphael. Male portrait. Ok. 1502. For a long time this work was attributed to Perugino, then to Holbein. It is now recognized as the work of Raphael.

The following few photos show the marvelous 18th century neoclassical interior decoration of the Borghese Gallery. Magnificently preserved antique floor mosaics, skillfully inlaid with precious stone floors. The same splendor is on the walls and ceilings. But perhaps one of the strongest impressions in the interiors are the ceiling paintings.

Painting one of the ceilings in the Borghese Gallery. In the Baroque era, many painters-decorators worked in the genre of “looking from below” (from the Italian pittura di sotto in sù – “painting from below upwards”, “painting under the ceiling”).

Plafond painting in one of the halls of the Galleria Borghese.

It is impossible to get rid of the idea that the satin ribbons, grapevines, animals, etc. are not written on the plaster, but are real three-dimensional (!) details of the ceilings.


The “Gallery of Emperors”, lined with multicolored marbles, decorated with bas-reliefs and paintings, features busts of twelve Roman Caesars made by G. Della Porta in the 1580s. The wall paintings in these photos are called grotesques, a type of ornamentation that whimsically combines decorative and pictorial motifs.

Titian. Love in Heaven and Love on Earth. 1514. A beautiful allegorical work depicting two similar women seated on a marble structure resembling an ancient Roman sarcophagus decorated with bas-reliefs. Between the women is a baby with wings on its back, leaning over the “sarcophagus”. Apparently, this is Cupid, the companion of Venus, the goddess of carnal love. There are endless interpretations of this painting, and some people have become obsessed with unraveling its complex symbolism. Interpreters do not even agree on which of the two women represents heavenly love and which represents earthly love.

Titian. Venus blindfolding Cupid. About 1565. The painting depicts Venus fixing a ribbon on Cupid’s head. There are different readings of this painting by Titian. One interpretation is that the subject represents the moment of initiation into love, personified by Venus and expressed in its two aspects – chaste love with open eyes (in the person of Cupid, watching the scene from behind Venus) and blind passion with blindfolded eyes (the second Cupid).

Titian. St. Dominic. About 1565. St. Dominic is depicted in the vestments of a Dominican friar. His figure stands out against the dark background due to the luminescence encompassing the silhouette. Above the saint’s head is a subtle thin golden ring of a halo.

Titian. Nymph and shepherd. 1570-1575. From the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. This painting was temporarily on display at the Galleria Borghese when we visited.

Peter Paul Rubens. Position in the Coffin. 1602. The tomb with the body of the crucified Christ depicted in the foreground outwardly resembles an ancient sarcophagus decorated with bas-reliefs; on one side of it can be seen a figure mourning at the altar, and on the other – many details that speak of sacrifice. The nails and the wreath of thorns lying nearby also point to the atoning deed of the Son of God.

Peter Paul Rubens. Susanna and the Elders. 1607. Susanna is a young married woman living in Babylon during the first exile of the Jewish people. Older men, depicted on Susanna’s right, peeked at her taking a bath and, enchanted by her beauty, approached her with immodest proposals.

Perugino. Madonna and Child, early 16th century. Pietro Perugino was a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci and the mentor and teacher of Raphael Santi, who had some influence on his early works

Antonio da Correggio. Danube. About 1530. The artist captured the moment when Jupiter (Zeus) appeared to the beautiful maiden. The thunder god turned into drops of golden rain, which the winged Cupid collects in the folds of the sheets. The result of the love affair is the birth of Perseus. On the right side of the painting, at the foot of the bed, are two small cupids. One of them clutches an arrow with chubby fingers, perhaps sharpening its tip against a stone.

Jacopo Bassano. The Last Supper. 1542. The canvas is replete with realistic details: the disciples of the Savior rather resemble simple fishermen or peasant laborers. This feature distinguishes this work from similar ones created by masters of earlier eras, before Leonardo.

Antonello da Messina. Portrait of a man. 1474-1476. Looking at this painting, you get the feeling that the hero’s gaze is fixed on you, regardless of the point from which you look at him.

Fra Bartolomeo. Adoration of the Infant. 1499-1500. Lovely!

Giovanni Bellini. Madonna and Child. About 1510. Giovanni Bellini was about eighty years old when he painted this picture, and he was already considered one of the most prestigious painters of the Venetian Renaissance.

Dosso Dossi. Apollo and Daphne. 1520. Apollo, the god of poetry, is depicted on the canvas playing the lyre. On his head is a wreath of laurel, which indicates the transformation of the nymph Daphne into a tree that has become sacred to the lover. The moment of Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree is depicted to the left of Apollo.

Agnolo Bronzino. St. John the Baptist. 1525-1550.

Domenichino. The Sibyl. 1617-1618. An ancient myth tells us that Apollo, who fell in love with a girl, gave her the ability to predict and to live for a thousand years. She holds in her hand a scroll on which her prophecies are written, and has opened a book that also tells of the fate of the world.

Domenichino. Diana’s Hunt. 1617-1618. The painting was commissioned by the artist’s patron, Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini. By order of the Borghese’s Schipione, the work was confiscated from the painter’s studio and ended up in the Borghese collection.

Pompeo Batoni. Madonna and Child. 1742.

Lavinia Fontana. Dressing Minerva. 1613. Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) was one of the most successful women artists in European history and was the first artist to be elected to the Roman Academy.

Lucas Cranach the Elder. Cupid complaining to Venus. 1531. About 20 author’s copies of this painting are known, which speaks of its incredible popularity. It was considered one of the most successful creations of the master. Placing in the upper right corner of the painting moralizing quote from a poem by the ancient Greek author, the artist seems to say that the images of his heroes should be evaluated from the point of view of morality. These lines are translated as follows: “When Cupid climbed into the hive and stole the honeycomb, the bee stung the thief’s finger. Like the little god, we seek a fleeting passion that turns out to be sad, ruinous, and bitter to taste.”

Andrea Bresciano. Venus and two cupids. 1520-1525. Perhaps the most famous work by the artist from Siena.

Pinturicchio. Crucifixion with Saints Jerome and Christopher. 1471. On the left of the crucifixion kneels St. Jerome, who is depicted as a hermit holding a stone in his hand to strike himself in the chest with it to repent and beg God for forgiveness. On the right is St. Christopher, holding a palm branch in his hand, a symbol of martyrdom and victory over death. On his shoulders is a baby. The saint turns to the baby, that is Christ, and as if asks why He is so heavy. According to the legend, the saint replies that Christopher bears on his shoulders all the burdens of the world.

Lorenzo di Credi. Madonna with child and little John the Baptist. 1488-1495.