Rome Travel Guide

Rome Sights

Galleria Borghese

  • Piazza Scipione Borghese 5 Map It
  • Villa Borghese
  • Fodor's Choice

Published 06/20/2007

Fodor's Review

It's a real toss-up as to which is more magnificent: the museum built for Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1612, or the art that lies within it. The luxury-loving cardinal had the museum custom-built 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.

Like the gardens, the "museo" 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 building, 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 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 allure. 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 Persephone. 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 lifelike 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 works, 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 aid her escape from 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 Pluto and Persephone, 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.

Room 8 contains six paintings by Caravaggio, the hotheaded genius who died 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 fondness for wine. David and Goliath, painted in the last year of Caravaggio's life—while he was on the run, murder charges hanging over his head—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 Galleria is by reservation only. Visitors are admitted in two-hour shifts 9–5. Prime-time slots can sell out days in advance, so reserve directly through the Borghese's website.

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  • Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy

    Khirman Vladimir / Shutterstock

Sight Information


Piazza Scipione Borghese 5, off Via Pinciana, Rome, Latium, 00197, Italy

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06-32810-reservations; 06-8413979-info

Sight Details:

  • €15, including €2 reservation fee; increased fee during temporary exhibitions; audio guide €5
  • Closed Mon.; admission by reservation only

Published 06/20/2007


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