One of Rome's most splendid 17th-century palaces, the Palazzo Barberini is a landmark of the Roman Baroque style. Pope Urban VIII had acquired the property and given it to a nephew, who was determined to build an edifice worthy of his generous uncle and the ever-more-powerful Barberini clan. The result was, architecturally, a precedent-shattering affair: a "villa suburbana" set on what was then the edge of the city. The grand facade was designed by Carlo Maderno (aided by his nephew, Francesco Borromini), but when Maderno died, Borromini was passed over in favor of his great rival, Gianlorenzo Bernini.
Ascend Bernini's staircase to the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica. The splendid collection includes Raphael's La Fornarina, a luminous portrait of the artist's lover (a resident of Trastevere, she was reputedly a baker's daughter): study the bracelet on her upper arm bearing the artist's name. Also noteworthy are Guido Reni's portrait of the doomed Beatrice Cenci
(beheaded in Rome for patricide in 1599)—Hawthorne called it "the saddest picture ever painted" in his Rome-based novel, The Marble Faun—and Caravaggio's dramatic Judith and Holofernes.
The showstopper here is the palace's Gran Salone, a vast ballroom with a ceiling painted in 1630 by the third (and too-often-neglected) master of the Roman Baroque, Pietro da Cortona. It depicts the Glorification of Urban VIII's Reign and has the spectacular conceit of glorifying Urban VIII as the agent of Divine Providence, escorted by a "bomber squadron" (to quote art historian Sir Michael Levey) of huge Barberini bees, the heraldic symbol of the family.
Part of the family of museums that make up the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte (others include the Palazzo Corsini, Galleria Borghese, Palazzo Spada, Palazzo Venezia), the Palazzo Barberini has gone into marketing in a big way—visit the shop for some distinctive gifts for Aunt Ethel back home, including tote bags bearing the beloved visage of Raphael's La Fornarina, bookmarks with Caravaggio's Judith slicing off Holofernes's head, and coffee mugs bearing the famous Barberini heraldic bees.