Described by John Evelyn, an English writer from the 17th century, as “an Elysium of delight”, the Borghese Gallery (Galleria Borghese) is the art gallery to see if you only have time to visit one during your trip to Rome, Italy. This gallery was home to Scipione Borghese, an Italian Cardinal and nephew of Pope Paul V, in the 17th century. He was also known as a ruthless art collector, and his accumulation features an intriguing collection of modern art and Roman sculptures dating between the 15th and 18th centuries. During your visit, you will see the original masterpieces by artists such as Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, and many sculptures by my personal favorite, Gian Lorenzo Bernini – the creator of the Baroque style of sculpture. Read on to learn more about the original sculptures and paintings that you will see when you visit this exceptional gallery.
Covered from floor to ceiling in original artwork
The Borghese Gallery is also often referred to as being the ‘queen of all private art collections’, and once inside, you’ll find out why. There are twenty richly adorned rooms that you can visit, taking up the space of two floors. From floor to ceiling everything is completely covered in art, which seems convincingly three-dimensional. The paintings are so extravagant, that you almost have to keep reminding yourself that the ceiling is indeed flat.
Take a close look at the bust of Cardinal Borghese
The first floor is full of magnificent sculptures, including Bernini’s two busts of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, both done in 1632. What’s really interesting about these two busts is that when you get up close, you’ll notice that there is a crack in the head of the first version, just above the eyebrows. The crack was created when Bernini was touching up small details of the sculpture, and since the Cardinal was a friend of his, he did not want to upset him by delivering a cracked piece. In just 15 days, Bernini managed to complete a new bust, so similar in detail, that one could barely notice the difference. It is said, that on the day Bernini revealed the bust to Cardinal Borghese, he played a prank by showing him first, the cracked version. Cardinal Borghese tried to conceal his disappointment by still acting grateful, however he showed Bernini tremendous appreciation once he was presented with the second version.
Sculptures you must not miss
In the grand entrance hall on the ground floor, maybe one of the most fascinating of all the rooms, you will see Mariano Rossi’s fresco of Jupiter, high above your head, including many 4th-century mosaics depicting the lives of gladiators, beneath your feet. If you look up the wall, almost directly centered, you’ll see a first-century Greek sculpture of a horse falling. The Renaissance-era rider you see atop the horse was later added and carved by Pietro Bernini, the father of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Other incredible works you must look for on the first floor include Bernini’s Ratto di Proserpina (Rape of Persephone), his sculpture of David, and the incredibly famous Apollo and Daphne – depicting the climax from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Finished in 1625, you can admire the detail of this sculpture from many different angles, however Bernini designed it to be viewed from the side, which allows the viewer to see both reactions from Apollo and Daphne.
Caravaggio's plea for freedom - David and Goliath
Before making our way upstairs, visit room VIII on the first floor. It is here that you will find 6 famous paintings by Caravaggio, including the Boy with a Basket of Fruit that was completed in 1593. A noteworthy, and rather interesting painting to take note of is Caravaggio’s David and Goliath, featuring David holding the head of Goliath. What is so intriguing about this work of art, is that Caravaggio actually depicted himself as Goliath in hopes that when he presented this painting to Cardinal Borghese, he would be granted with a pardon for a murder and violent assault he had committed in Rome. Even though he did spend some time behind bars, Caravaggio, along with his co-accused, were eventually released with all charges dropped on September 25, 1603. It is unknown whether or not this particular presentation is what gave him his freedom once again, due to many others working with the papal justice system. However, in 1606 there was a rumor that perhaps Cardinal Borghese did in fact have a word in the matter.
One of Italy's most mysterious paintings
Upstairs you’ll find many beautiful paintings, and again be at awe by the astonishing three-dimensional creations that adorn the ceilings. There are also two self-portraits of Bernini, one done when he was 25 years old, and the other when he was 37. English notes can be found in each of the rooms, giving a brief description about each of the paintings. You must not miss the chance to view Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (Amor Sacro e Amor Profano), an oil painting that was completed in 1514. It’s actually considered to be one of Italy’s most mysterious paintings, with one reason being that we don’t even know the painting’s original name. In fact, in 1899 the Rothschilds (one of the wealthiest families) offered to buy this piece by Titian at 4,000,000 Italian Lira, which is a non-existent currency today. However, to give you an example of how extreme this offer was, the entire collection, as well as the building and grounds themselves, at the Borghese Gallery during that time was valued at 3,600,000 Italian Lira. Needless to say, the offer was indeed turned down. Why? Well, that’s just a part of the grand mystery.
A reservation is mandatory
An important thing to remember is that it is mandatory that you make a reservation before arriving at the Borghese Gallery. You can make your reservations online, however, I always found it easier to just give them a call at +39 06 32810. (Opening hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 8:30am until 7:30pm, with the last entrance at 5pm, and the gallery is closed Mondays.) Only a certain amount of people are allowed to enter at the designated timings. As you are only given two hours to explore these original paintings and sculptures, you really want to make the most of it while you’re here. Please make sure to also arrive thirty minutes before your reserved time, to collect your tickets and stow away your belongings. Ticket prices are extremely reasonable at 11 EUR (12.19 USD), for European Union citizens aged between 18 and 25 the price is only 6.50 EUR (7.21 USD), and it is free for all European Union citizens younger than 18 (though there is a 2 EUR or 2.22 USD service charge). After your tour, there is a museum shop on the ground floor that carries many art books, postcards, and items inspired by the masterpieces in the gallery. If you’re hungry, take a 15-minute walk (exit the main gate and turn right) over to Via Vittorio Veneto where you’ll find many unique restaurants and outdoor cafés.
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