In the middle of the beautiful Villa Borghese park is one of Rome’s best art galleries, the Borghese Gallery (Galleria Borghese). Originally the private collection of a wealthy cardinal, the Borghese Museum and Gallery is now a popular public art gallery, and one of the main attractions in Rome. Highlights of the gallery include some of Bernini’s greatest masterpieces (such as Apollo and Daphne), the famous Sleeping Hermaphrodite statue, and paintings by Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio. It may be smaller than the Vatican Museums, but the Borghese Gallery’s comparatively compact size has its advantages. With only twenty rooms, it feels much more manageable, and the ticketing system means you don’t have to battle crowds to see the artworks. There may be no equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, but there are still plenty of masterpieces to admire, from Roman statues to Baroque paintings. The Borghese Gallery is selected as a highlight by every guidebook to Rome, and often mentioned as a “must-see” attraction on travel websites and blogs. In the words of Lonely Planet, “if you only have the time (or inclination) for one art gallery in Rome, make it this one”. And it’s not just the critics and guidebook authors who rave about the Borghese Gallery – it’s also rated on TripAdvisor as one of the top attractions in Rome, with an average rating of 4.5 from more than 11,000 reviews. If you’re even remotely interested in art and culture, you’d be mad to miss it. So, book your ticket in advance, go for a stroll in the park, and then prepare to see some of the most extraordinary works of art in Rome…
ABOUT THE BORGHESE GALLERY
HISTORY OF THE BORGHESE GALLERY
The Borghese Gallery is an art gallery located in Villa Borghese, a large park in the center of Rome. There’s a permanent display of highlights from the Borghese collection, including paintings, sculptures, and Roman antiquities, and there are occasional temporary exhibitions. The gallery is best-known for its collection of Bernini statues on the ground floor, including Apollo and Daphne, the Rape of Proserpina and Aeneas, Anchises & Ascanius. There are also numerous paintings by Bellini, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, and Caravaggio.
The extraordinary collection of the Borghese Gallery is the result of one man’s obsession. Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633) was the pope’s personal secretary, a patron of Caravaggio, and an avid collector of Bernini’s sculptures. He was wealthy, powerful, and utterly ruthless, stopping at nothing to get his hands on a work of art. He would imprison artists in order to steal their work, and even had Raphael’s Deposition removed from an altar in Perugia, so it could be displayed in his own home. Scipione Borghese was essentially the mastermind behind the villa (now the Borghese Gallery) and the surrounding gardens. The house was intended to be used as a “party villa”, a location for extravagant events, and homoerotic liaisons that scandalized his contemporaries. It was also the ideal place for showing off his art collection, and visitors were duly impressed. The English writer John Evelyn, visiting in 1644, described the house and gardens as “an Elysium of delight”. In the early 19th century the villa lost two of its greatest works – the Borghese Gladiator and the Borghese Hermaphroditus – when they were sold to Napoleon. They remain in France, on display at the Louvre. The villa became the Borghese Gallery in 1903, making the cardinal’s art collection and gardens accessible to the public at last.
The Borghese Hermaphroditus, now at the Louvre Museum, once property of the Borghese Gallery
FACTS ABOUT THE BORGHESE GALLERY
- The Borghese Museum and Gallery were built in the 17th century, and before it became a public art gallery, it was the private home of Scipione Borghese, located in what was then the outskirts of Rome. The gardens were once home to ostriches and peacocks.
- The gallery has the greatest collection of works by Bernini in Rome. As well as famous masterpieces such as Apollo and Daphne, you can also see the earliest known work by the sculptor, The Goat Amalthea with the Infant Jupiter and a Faun. According to some estimates, Bernini was in his early teens when he produced his first sculpture.
- There are numerous classical antiquities on display, including a Roman mosaic of gladiators that was excavated on another Borghese estate, just outside of Rome.
VISITING THE BORGHESE GALLERY
HOW TO GET TO THE BORGHESE GALLERY
The Borghese Gallery is located in Villa Borghese, the largest park in central Rome. The simplest (and most pleasant) way to reach the gallery is a walk through the park. From Piazza di Spagna (served by metro A), climb the hill and take a short walk through the park to reach the gallery, which is well-signposted. It’s also easy to reach from the park entrance near Via Veneto, so you can reach the gallery by taking any bus that goes up the Via Veneto.
BORGHESE MUSEUM AND GALLERY TICKETS
Buying tickets for the Borghese Gallery is a little different. Unlike most art galleries, you can’t just turn up, buy a ticket and walk in. Buying a ticket in advance is obligatory; you can order online or call the gallery to book. You’ll then be given a ticket for a specific time slot. The advantage of this system? No queues, and fewer crowds. Your ticket gives you access to the gallery for two hours, which is sufficient time to see everything in the collection. In theory, you have to leave after two hours, although in reality you’re unlikely to get kicked out. Keep in mind that the Borghese Gallery is very popular, and can get booked up quickly. It’s also closed on Mondays (like many other museums and galleries in Rome). If you’re in Rome for a few days during peak tourist season (spring/early summer), don’t wait until you get to Rome to buy your tickets, as they may well be sold out. Planning pays off at the Borghese Gallery. Alternatively, you can book a tour of the Borghese Gallery with a tour operator, and we’ll take care of everything, including the tickets.
WHAT TO SEE AT THE BORGHESE GALLERY
Classical antiquities – Roman sculptures from the 1st to the 3rd century AD are on display on the ground floor, including the enigmatic artwork known as the Sleeping Hermaphrodite. The androgynous sleeping figure represents the child of Hermes and Aphrodite. According to legend, a nymph fell in love with the son of the gods, known as Hermaphroditus, and prayed to be united with him for eternity. Her wish was granted, and their bodies were transformed into one. The myth of Hermaphroditus was a popular theme in art, and there are at least twenty Sleeping Hermaphrodites alone, but this sensuous Roman statue is generally considered to be one of the best. Amongst the Roman sculptures you’ll also find a famous neo-classical sculpture from the early 19th century, representing Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix (pictures on the left). This sculpture by Canova was commissioned by Camillo Borghese, the husband of Pauline Bonaparte. It was highly unconventional for a woman of such rank and social importance to be depicted nude, but Pauline was not conventional in any sense. She was described as being “in love with herself”, and a woman who “lived for pleasure”. There were rumors that she used her maid’s neck as a footrest, and hired a black servant to carry her to the bath. When you look at her languid yet imperial pose in Venus Victrix, you can almost believe it.
BERNINI SCULPTURES – If you visited the Borghese Gallery and only saw the works by Bernini, it would be worthwhile. The founder of the Borghese collection, the cardinal Scipione Borghese, was a great admirer of the sculptor, and commissioned him to produce numerous works for the villa, including Apollo and Daphne and David.
Apollo and Daphne is arguably the highlight of the entire collection – a breathtaking sculpture that magically captures the moment when Daphne, fleeing from Apollo, transforms into a tree. To truly appreciate Bernini’s genius, you need to slowly walk around the statue, and watch Daphne transform before your eyes. It takes a rare talent to make marble seem like a living, breathing material, and to create movement out of stone, but Bernini achieved this effect in numerous statues.
Similarly spectacular is the Rape of Proserpina (picture on the right), a harrowing sculpture of Proserpina (Persephone) being abducted and taken to the underworld by the god Pluto. It was described by Bernini’s son as “an amazing contrast of tenderness and cruelty”, and becomes even more remarkable when you pay attention to specific details – the contorted bodies, or the god’s fingers sinking into Proserpina’s thigh. You really wonder if this is marble or flesh!
Bernini’s David, though less famous than Michelangelo’s, is an impressively emotive work, with the hero grimacing in determination, while the group portrait of Aeneas, Anchises & Ascanius is a moving portrayal of the family’s flight from burning Troy.
CARAVAGGIO PAINTINGS – Scipione Borghese was also a patron of Caravaggio, one of the greatest artists of the Baroque. There are many Caravaggio paintings in Rome that you can visit on one of the many Caravaggio tours available). The Borghese Gallery also has an excellent collection of Caravaggio paintings, from the sensuous Boy with a Basket of Fruit to the sombre St Jerome.
David with the Head of Goliath has attracted a lot of critical attention and interpretation over the centuries, as it appears to be a double self-portrait. A pensive young David holds the bearded, grimacing head of the defeated Goliath, but despite his victory, the mood is not triumphant but rather troubled, as David even seems to have some pity for his victim. Could David be a portrayal of the artist as a young man, holding up the head of his older self? As many have observed, Goliath bears a striking resemblance to Caravaggio.
Finally, Madonna and Child with St Anne is a strikingly unconventional religious painting, showing a rather ordinary, barefoot Mary with an exposed cleavage. The portrayal of St Anne is also unflattering, as the saint resembles a wrinkly old peasant woman. Although Caravaggio was admired for his realism, this painting was a step too far. It had been commissioned for St Peter’s Basilica, but was rejected, and recent research suggests that Scipione Borghese had always intended that it would end up in his private collection.
OTHER HIGHLIGHTS – The Borghese Gallery contains masterpieces by many other great painters of the Renaissance and Baroque. There aren’t many places in the world where you can stand right in front of a painting by Raphael without being jostled by crowds, but the Borghese Gallery is one of them. Look out for his stunning Deposition (on the left), and the mysterious Lady with a Unicorn.
There are alsopaintings by Titian, the most impressive of which is Sacred and Profane Love (below) – a beautiful allegorical work showing two women standing next to a sarcophagus. There are infinite interpretations of the painting, and some people have become obsessed with unravelling its complex symbolism. It’s also the most sought-after item in the entire Borghese collection. The Rothschild family tried to buy it for 4 million lire (€2.6 million euros) in 1899 – more than the value of the rest of the Borghese collection put together. The offer was rejected, and Sacred and Profane Love remains on display in the gallery, alongside other masterpieces by Bellini, Correggio, Rubens, and many others.
- Give yourself plenty of time. The official advice is to arrive 30 minutes before your time slot, but considering that you need to queue to pick up your tickets and drop off your bags at the cloakroom (obligatory), you might want to get there even earlier. The lobby gets crowded, as everyone’s arriving at the same time, and a bit of queueing is inevitable.
- Most visitors follow the obvious route, beginning on the ground floor (sculptures) and finishing on the first floor (paintings). To avoid the crowds, consider starting on the first floor instead, and then working your way downstairs.
- Although the official rule is “no photos”, most visitors seem to get away with taking a picture here and there. Avoid using flash.
- Make use of the bar (for a coffee stop) and the toilets, as decent cafes and public toilets can be hard to come by in the park.
- It would be a shame to rush through Villa Borghese on your way to and from the gallery. Make some time to explore the park, which is a peaceful, shady retreat from the rest of the city. Rent a rowboat on the lake, visit the zoo, or simply sit on a bench beneath the umbrella pines and relax.