The Vatican dominates the art museums of Rome, with its vast collection of treasures, but for me, the Borghese Gallery and Villa has even more appeal. Some of the sculptures here are so beautiful and perfectly crafted, you can only marvel at the genius who created them.
Set in acres of landscaped gardens, the villa, built in the early 17th century, holds a classic collection begun by Cardinal Scipione Borghese. The wealthy, aristocratic cardinal had excellent taste as he gathered and commissioned artworks old and new.
You need to reserve tickets in advance to see the Borghese, and a limited number of visitors are allowed in at a time. This makes for a more pleasant experience, as you don’t have to fight jostling crowds to get a close look. After picking up your ticket and useful guidebook, you climb a spiral staircase and enter a salon. Here, ancient mosaics of gladiators lie at your feet, and a fabulous trompe l’oeil fresco of Roman gods is high above on the ceiling. The walls are lined with statues, columns, busts, and other antiquities. This is just the beginning.
Continuing on through some twenty rooms, the eye becomes dazzled by the array of stunning artworks. Raphael, Rubens, Caravaggio, Titian, and a host of others are here. Titian’s masterpiece, Sacred and Profound Love, brought the Borghese to world attention in 1899. The Rothschild family offered to buy the painting at a price higher than the value of all the other works in the gallery put together; and the gallery refused to sell it.
There are other masterpieces, including Correggio’s nude Danae, but the most splendid works on display are by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He was considered the greatest sculptor of the 17th century. You see his work all over Rome, most notably the fountain in Piazza Navona.
In the Borghese Gallery, Bernini’s work includes self-portraits, busts, and sculptures. The Goat Almathea with Infant Jupiter and Faun was carved when the precocious artist was only 17 years old. Bernini’s David shows the biblical David in action, confronting Goliath with his sling. The young man’s intense facial expression is said to be modeled on Bernini’s own expression as he struggled to carve the hard marble.
Bernini’s intricate works include the Rape of Proserpine, showing the mythological maiden being captured, and Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius, with Aeneas in flight from Troy, carrying his father Anchises on his shoulders while his son, Ascanius, bears the sacred hearth fire.
Occupying pride of place, and my favorite among all the gallery’s art, is the stunning Apollo and Daphne. Bernini’s life-size sculpture depicts the nymph Daphne as she is being turned into a laurel tree, saving her from a pursuing Apollo. Delicate leaves and branches sprout from Daphne’s fingers, and bark grows around her body, away from Apollo’s reaching hand. All from a single piece of marble. It is amazing.
After a dazzling trip through centuries of magnificence, catch your breath with a stroll through the villa’s gardens. Paths lead to fountains, sculpture, and grassy areas with benches. And then it’s time to head for some espresso. And maybe a taste of Italy’s famous gelato, itself a work of art.
Tickets can be reserved on-line here
from Tuesday to Sunday: from 8.30 a.m. to 7.30 p.m.
Closed the 1st of January, 25th of December
Access up to half hour before the closing time