Our subject is the Villa Borghese, a sprawling park on the north side of Rome and home to Rome’s most wonderful museum, the Galleria Borghese. Unscrupulously assembled by Scipione Borghese, nephew to Pope Paul V, the art collection in the Galleria includes several of Bernini’s finest statues, as well as works by Caravaggio, Canova, and the greatest Renaissance artists. In moving from St. Peter’s to the Borghese, we again move from halos to nudes and so have another chance to see the dramatic changes initiated in the Renaissance.

Show Notes

In order to document how Rome has changed over time, and hence to indicate the diversity and disagreements that are at the core of this complex city, I’ve been moving each week from ancient, to Christian, and to modern sites. We are back among the Christian Romans today, but we will begin to see the second side of the lives they lived in the seventeenth century.

By the first side, I mean the side represented by St. Peter’s Basilica, which we have been discussing in the last several episodes. Most of the art with which it was decorated was added under the supervision of Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 17th century, and its main theme is the majesty and authority of the Roman Catholic Church, which received added emphasis because this is precisely what the Protestants were denying as they spread their rival views especially in northern Europe. For them, the pope was the antichrist, and Luther charged that St. Peter never even set foot in Rome. The basilica, on the other hand, stresses the claim that Peter was essentially Christ’s successor on earth, that he ruled as the bishop of Rome, and that he passed on this authority to his long line of successors. It is also filled with holy relics and works of art representing the saints, martyrs, and angels in general, all of which subjects express a rejection of Luther’s core doctrines. He had said that “the just shall live by faith alone” and placed all his emphasis on “Christus solus [Christ alone].” The Catholic Church responded to these claims in part by the art it positioned in the largest and most magnificent church on the planet. Bernini’s contributions consisted not only in the Catholic character of the subjects he represented but also in the drama of his art, which sought to stir the senses and elicit a strong emotional response from viewers. This is the most evident goal behind the baroque art he helped to introduce.

Today we leave St. Peter’s in favor of a very different venue on the other side of the Tiber, the Villa Borghese. I’ll start with a general introduction and then explain why I’m juxtaposing the Villa with the Vatican. In particular, I’ll suggest that Bernini made major contributions to the Borghese, as he did also to St. Peter’s, and that baroque art links the two sites, notwithstanding other crucial differences.

Siena Square in Villa Borghese (photo by Howard Hudson, Wikimedia)

The Villa Borghese is a large and pleasant park lying just outside the old walls of Rome on the north side of the city. Just under 200 acres, and hence almost double the size of Vatican City, it is a preferred location for relaxed strolls and picnics. Since it is a good place for people to meet, it turns up in films and novels, including Nathanial Hawthorne’s Marble Faun. The Villa is easily reached from the Pincian Hill, which overlooks Piazza del Popolo, but I’ll soon be adding directions and other practical information to the Get Ready for Rome website. After all, there are signs that Covid is losing its grip and that travel to Rome may again be possible, so getting ready for Rome will entail looking at a few maps.

The Villa takes its name from the rich and powerful Borghese family, from among whose sons Camillo Borghese became Pope Paul V in 1605. In keeping with the nepotistic practices followed by other holders of this high office, he promptly appointed family members to ecclesiastical and political positions. To his sister’s 26-year-old son he gave the office of Cardinal Nephew, which for a couple of centuries had been a way of linking the fortunes of the pope’s family to the papacy. Though 26 sounds young for a cardinal, Paul III had created a Cardinal Nephew who was only 16.

Temple of Aesclepius Villa Borghese (Photo by Jean-Christophe Benoist)

Pope Paul V then adopted his nephew as his own son, at which point his nephew’s name changed from Scipione Caffarelli to Scipione Borghese. While the pope’s main building project was to finish the demolition of the Old St. Peter’s and the construction of the nave and façade of the New Basilica, his nephew Scipione’s was to build a new home for the extraordinary art collection he was assembling. He purchased a vineyard outside the city and contracted to build a “country house,” a casino, that he would fill with his art. The extensive grounds of the new villa would also allow him and his heirs to add gardens and other outdoor features. Cardinal Borghese left the majority of these gardens open to the public, which may help explain why he was spoken of in familiar terms, as “Cardinal Scipione.” Thus began the Villa Borghese, which stayed in the hands of the Borghese family for almost three centuries before financial pressures forced them to sell it to the new city of Rome, which had recently overthrown its last papal ruler.

The staggering wealth of this papal family will become more evident when we actually see the extraordinary collection of art Scipione managed to assemble, but note that soon after his inauguration, Paul V began construction of another palace for his family, the Palazzo Borghese, which is just a little south of the Altar of the Peace of Augustus and whose first floor is now the Spanish Embassy. And then the Borghese also had country estates in the Castelli Romani. What I’d like to suggest, however, is that such concentrated wealth was a sign of the times, aristocratic times: other such families as the Chigi, Colonna, Orsini, Pamphili, and Aldobrandini were similarly endowed. To appreciate this wealth, while also seeing more extraordinary art, I recommend visiting Palazzo Barberini, Palazzo Colonna, or the Doria Pamphili Gallery; but I’d also go first to the Borghese.

Along with the wealth of the Borghese, their longevity is also noteworthy. It helps me remember this to recall that the Prime Minister who presided over the unification of modern Italy, Camillo Benso, the Count of Cavour, was named Camillo because of his family’s ties with the Borghese family. Pope Paul V was born Camillo Borghese, and two centuries later there was another Camillo Borghese. He was married to Napoleon’s sister Pauline, and Cavour was their godson. The long prominence of the Orsini family is even more remarkable than that of the Borghese: there have been three Orsini popes, with the last coming six centuries after the first, and there have also been 34 Orsini Cardinals. And as extensive as is the Villa Borghese, the Villa Doria Pamphili is even larger. It, you may recall, is on the Janiculum Hill and is the area from which the French launched their attack against Garibaldi and the Roman Republic in 1849. For much of its history, Christian Rome was also Aristocratic Rome.

The Villa Borghese today features a large equestrian center, a zoo, pleasant pathways, several attractive buildings, and multiple ponds and fountains, but not a single church or chapel. There are also numerous statues, some placed on elaborate pedestals; imitation temples of Venus and Asclepius; and three museums. The largest of the statues are of Goethe, who set the standard for how to get ready for Rome and hence how to get the most out of a visit, and Victor Hugo, who was an admirer of Garibaldi and strong supporter of the controversial statue of Giordano Bruno. Both statues were donated by the homelands of the men honored.

Galleria Borghese (photo by Alessio)

Let’s now turn our attention from the Villa as a whole to its centerpiece, the Borghese Gallery and Museum, which is the current name for the splendid home Scipione built to house his art. It has about twenty display rooms on two main floors filled with about 800 paintings and many wonderful sculptures and antiquities. I suppose this qualifies it as overwhelming, but the pleasant setting, the focused concentration on works from Ancient Rome, the Renaissance, and the Baroque Period, and the limited number of people admitted at any one time makes it seem much more manageable than, for example, the Vatican Museums.

I’d like first to mention a few connections between the Villa and St. Peters, which will then provide a nice backdrop for stressing the more striking differences. By the connections, I mean the following:

There is a family connection: as Camillo the pope worked on the Basilica, Scipione the Cardinal worked on the Villa.

There is a temporal connection: Scipione built the Galleria just as his uncle the pope was finishing the construction of St. Peter’s main frame or shell.

There is an artistic connection: Like St. Peter’s, the Villa is a showcase for Baroque Art, though the collection in the Villa is also rich in work from the Renaissance and from Roman antiquity. In particular, Bernini is vital for both the Basilica and the Villa.

I’m going to risk a brief digression here on the methods Cardinal Scipione used to build his collection, though some may see in it another connection with the basilica, in this case regarding the dubious ways the two structures were funded. But my point is just to note that Scipione’s methods may at first seem unfamiliar and shocking, for they involve a papacy much more political and powerful than we know from our own day. And yet, on consideration, they don’t seem so different, for we continue to see the powerful abuse their power and get away with it.

To be brief, Scipione did not seem to stick to the highest ethical standards in acquiring his art, and he may not even have met the lower standards of the law. But the pope then was the law, at least in great measure, so this made things easier for him.

One case concerns an art collection of the painter the Cavaliere d’Arpino, who employed the young Caravaggio in his workshop and possessed his Boy with a Basket of Fruit and Sick Bacchus, both of which are very highly regarded today and were desired by Scipione. D’Arpino’s workshop was searched, and he was accused of possessing illegal firearms. The penalty he had to pay was to surrender 130 excellent paintings—or 107 according to a different source—including the works by Caravaggio. He paid the penalty to the papal authorities, who then handed the paintings over to Scipione. It looks as though the punishment did not so much suit the alleged crime as please the Cardinal.

Scipione’s acquisition of Raphael’s Deposition seems no less questionable. Some sources say he simply hired a gang to take it forcibly from the city of Perugia, but it appears that his adopted father, Pope Paul V, had pressured the brothers of the church of St. Francis al Prato to accept its removal. Ask yourselves whether the pope’s persuasion of the brothers—who of course were bound to serve the Church—makes the transfer any less distasteful. The pope did compensate Perugia by later giving them two copies of the painting that had been taken from them.

Scipione also had the authority to pardon criminals, and he used it to get Caravaggio to hand over his David with the Head of Goliath in order to receive a pardon for having killed a man in a brawl. Machiavelli maintains that all powerful cities begin in violence, and it may be that the beginnings of great art collections are also less than morally pristine.

I add in passing that one source for these events cannot help betraying almost breathless admiration for Scipione’s exquisite taste. It agrees that his methods strayed from the straight and narrow, but still admires the result. How rare that art acquisitions are guided by such good judgment! This too raises Machiavelli’s great question regarding ends and means.

Assembled in part by force, Scipione’s collection was also subject to attack. When Napoleon conquered northern Italy and Rome, he was no less eager to fill Paris’s Louvre Museum, which he renamed the Musée Napoléon in 1802, than Scipione had been to fill his country estate two centuries earlier. Napoleon looted Italy of its greatest works of art, and he took a sizeable collection from the Villa Borghese, which was then the possession of his sister’s husband, Camillo Borghese, Cavour’s godfather. Whereas many of the other looted works have been returned to Italy, the losses to the Borghese have proved permanent. What Napoleon wanted from the Villa Borghese was especially its collection of almost 700 Roman antiquities, which remain in the Louvre. The collection still honors the Borghese name, though not their wish to recover it.

As for the collection that Scipione put together, Bernini and the baroque tie the Villa to St. Peter’s, but there is also a world of difference between them. The art of St. Peter’s was devoted above all to the majesty and authority of the Roman Catholic Church, but this theme is almost entirely absent from the Galleria Borghese. There are a few paintings of St. Peter, and more of Christ, Mary, and saints, but these are all outnumbered by pagan subjects and nudes by very wide margin. The Galleria shows that the same sort of style, the baroque, was able to stimulate erotic sentiments as well as religious ones. At St. Peter’s, Bernini positioned baroque sculptures all over the basilica’s main floor, including especially in the holiest and most conspicuous parts of the church, in the reasonable belief that their energetic and passionate postures would excite at least something like the religious ecstasy demonstrated by his statue of the swooning St. Teresa. But in the Borghese, two of the four great statues commissioned by Cardinal Scipione were attempted sexual abductions, both with attractive nudes whose hearts, as it seems, are still beating rapidly. They too show energy and passion, but not of the same sort as we find among the martyrs of the counterreformation basilica.

In the Galleria, even some of the paintings with Christian subjects are sensual. In fact, one of the more or most famous works in the entire collection is Caravaggio’s Madonna and Child with St. Anne, which was initially intended for St. Peter’s but was deemed inappropriate for such a sacred space, for the Madonna is endowed with the impressive figure of the prostitute Caravaggio had used as his model for her. And his Christ child is perhaps a little old to be running around in the nude. When the Church said that this scandalous painting could not go in St. Peter’s, Cardinal Scipione quickly purchased it, and it is at least possible that his uncle the pope kept the painting from being hung in the basilica in part to assist his nephew.

I don’t mean to charge Scipione with hypocrisy, with peeping at nudes on his country estate while, presumably, trying to promote chastity and other good Catholic virtues elsewhere. This would be a lapse from good conduct, but I think the issues involved are intellectual as well as moral. What if Bernini’s statues in the Borghese, commissioned by the Cardinal, represent a substantially non-Christian way of viewing the world? They might in this case be not merely evidence of not living up to the faith but of challenging or even rejecting it.

This is the question raised not just by his statues but by the stories that that they mean to tell. In our next episode on Christian Rome, we’ll stick with Bernini and the Borghese and look carefully at two of his finest statues in the Galleria. We’ll also consider the stories on which they are based. Both come from the Latin poet Ovid. From one, Bernini received his inspiration for his Pluto and Persephone and from the other, his inspiration for his Apollo and Dafne. I am far from being alone in thinking these to be among his most wonderful sculptures, partly for their beauty, partly for the evident genius and devotion they required from their maker, but partly also for the thought provoking questions they raise.

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