Khirman Vladimir / Shutterstock
It's a real toss-up as to which is more magnificent: the villa built for Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1612, or the art that lies within. Despite its beauty, the villa never was used as a residence. Instead, the luxury-loving cardinal built it as a showcase for his fabulous collection of both antiquities and more "modern" works, including those he commissioned from the masters Caravaggio and Bernini. Today, it's a monument to Roman interior decoration at its most extravagant. With the passage of time, however, the building has become less celebrated than the collections housed within, including one of the finest collections of Baroque sculpture anywhere in the world.
Like the gardens, the casino and its collections have undergone many changes since the 17th century. Much of the building was redecorated in the late 18th century, when the villa received many of its eye-popping ceiling frescoes (although some original decorations also survive). The biggest change to the collection,
however, came thanks to Camillo Borghese. After marrying Napoléon's sister Pauline, he sold 154 statues, 170 bas-reliefs, 160 busts, 30 columns, and a number of vases, all ancient pieces, to his new brother-in-law. Today, those sculptures, including the so-called Borghese Gladiator and Borghese Hermaphrodite, are in the Louvre in Paris. At the end of the 19th century, a later member of the family, Francesco Borghese, attempted damage control with his fellow Romans (outraged that many of their art treasures had been shipped off to Paris) with some new acquisitions; he also transferred to the casino the remaining works of art then housed in Palazzo Borghese. In 1902 the casino, its contents, and the estate were sold to the Italian government.
One of the most famous works in the collection is Canova's Neoclassical sculpture of Pauline Borghese as Venus Victrix. Scandalously, Pauline reclines on a Roman sofa, bare-bosomed, her hips swathed in classical drapery, the very model of haughty detachment and sly come-hither. You can imagine what the 19th-century gossips were saying!
The next three rooms hold three key early Baroque sculptures: Bernini's David, Apollo and Daphne, and Rape of Proserpina. All were done when the artist was in his 20s, and all illustrate Bernini's extraordinary skill. They also demonstrate the Baroque desire to invest sculpture with a living quality, to imbue inert marble with a sense of real flesh. Whereas Renaissance sculptors wanted to capture the idealized beauty of the human form that they had admired in ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, later sculptors like Bernini wanted movement and drama as well, capturing not an essence but an instant, infused with theatricality and emotion. The Apollo and Daphne shows the moment when, to escape the pursuing Apollo, Daphne is turned into a laurel tree. Leaves and twigs sprout from her fingertips as she stretches agonizingly away from Apollo. In the Rape of Proserpina, Pluto has just plucked Persephone (or Proserpina) from her flower-picking—or perhaps he's returning to Hades with his prize. (Don't miss the realistic way his grip causes dimples in Proserpina's flesh.) This is the stuff that makes the Baroque exciting—and moving. Other Berninis on view in the collection include a large, unfinished figure called Verità, or Truth. Bernini began work on this brooding figure after the death of his principal patron, Pope Urban VIII. It was meant to form part of a work titled Truth Revealed by Time. The next pope, Innocent X, had little love for the ebullient Urban, and, as was the way in Rome, this meant that Bernini would be excluded from the new pope's favors. However, Bernini's towering genius was such that the new pope came around with his patronage with almost indecent haste.
The Caravaggio Room holds works by this hotheaded genius, who died of malaria at age 37. All of his paintings, even the charming Boy with a Basket of Fruit, seethe with an undercurrent of darkness. The disquieting Sick Bacchus is a self-portrait of the artist who, like the god, had a penchant for wine. David and Goliath, painted in the last year of Caravaggio's life—while he was on the lam for murder—includes his self-portrait...in the head of Goliath. Upstairs, the Pinacoteca (Picture Gallery) boasts paintings by Raphael (including his moving Deposition), Pinturicchio, Perugino, Bellini, and Rubens. Probably the gallery's most famous painting is Titian's allegorical Sacred and Profane Love, a mysterious and yet-unsolved image with two female figures, one nude, one clothed.
Admission to the Museo is by reservation only. Visitors are admitted in two-hour shifts 9 am to 5 pm. Prime-time slots can sell out days in advance, so in high season reserve by phone or directly through the Borghese's website. You need to collect your reserved ticket at the museum ticket office a half hour before your entrance. However, when it's not busy you can purchase your ticket at the museum for the next entrance appointment.