Brilliant Baroque at Galleria Borghese
“A picture is a poem without words.” ― Horace
In the center of Rome and in the center of a beautiful park, a collection of artistic treasures swelled up to rest …with zest! Paintings with dramatic faces and scenes… and statues screaming their emotions! Each seemed to convey “I am alive”! And whilst the spectators are intellectually stimulated by the vitality of the masterpieces, there was that sense of awe, admiration and respect for such a creative power.
It is like watching a theatrical play in a lavish setting, not with a number of farces but with drawn-out dramas, watched by spectators from all levels of society. Each artist is a dramatist who stepped into the skin of his subjects, and whose art, just like a spectacular plot, draws its audience, bringing them to the process of imagining on the essential nature which contributed to such elaborate subjects. The artworks speak directly to them, and each piece has that power to move and evoke amazement… to the accompaniment of an orchestra playing a rhapsody of intellectual thoughts. The masterpieces reach out and emote, extruding a scene, an image, a story…an evocation of life… with as much emotion as possible, which was truly Baroque.
As you surmise one opulent Baroque piece after another, the tone merged into something dazzlingly brilliant.
Inside the Museo e Galleria Borghese, we are seeing an intellectual explosion at a dramatic but harmonious scale!
The Rape of Proserpina
Oh what a beautiful maiden
A young sweet soul who walks upon the garden
Savoring the morning, so lovely and fair
Such sweet smell of roses in the air
A soft silhouette, the sunlight seems to seize
With hair blown in the soft, whispering breeze
Ephemeral, dreamlike, she picks up a bloom
So unaware of the impending gloom
A figure lurking in the shadows, a dark reflection
Jumps on the nature of his evil intention
Terror strikes through Proserpina at a fast pace
Tears come rolling down the now hardened face
Petals come flying, falling on hardened ground
Everything comes crashing down at a deafening sound
This is “The Rape of Proserpina”, one of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s series of dazzling sculptures. Under Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s patronage, he sculpted this in 1621 at a young age of 23, based on the mythological story of the abduction and rape of Proserpina by the god Pluto. Typical of Bernini who always worked towards capturing the most realistic expression of his subject at a most dramatic point, he captured that fear, unlike anything Proserpina had ever experienced, with a desperation to free from the clutches of Pluto…and madness, born of desperation to get Proserpina, piercing into Pluto’s mind and heart, filling every single muscle of his body!
Apollo and Daphne
Time moves in agonizing motion
Daphne begged in desperation:
River god Peneus, with your power, please take me in
Away from the wicked, with fire raging within
Far from a god’s power, his lust, his vile deed
The stormy world his kind shall breed
Whilst darkness slowly creeps, I shall banish
Amongst sunlight rays, I shall flourish
Not to be ravaged and ruined, but whole and free
Yes, yes… I will be your sweet-smelling laurel tree
What a dramatic depiction of a metamorphosis and a Greek mythology! Bernini made this life-sized marble statue of Apollo and Daphne from 1622-25. Such determination…hermetic, sinewy! Daphne with roots coming out from her toes and leaves sprouting from her fingers as she begins to transform into a laurel tree to escape being abducted by the god Apollo!
Armed as he was with just a sling in front of a gigantic figure who was breathing out threats of slaughter, the young shepherd David’s heart was beating wildly! He was biting his lips in enmity, trying to tear himself out of fear while gathering all his strength before he was about to swing his sling forward! He got to hit the towering Goliath, clothed in an armor, who blurted these words of mockery at him: “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks? Come here and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!”
I got a bit carried away while looking at Bernini’s version of David. He made this in 1623, when he was only 25 years old. The face of David is Bernini’s.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)
Standing in front of Bernini’s three-dimensional sculptures with the right proportions of human bodies, I got carried away. The figures seemed possessed with astounding power that they were able to bring me to their bitter resentment, hopeless struggle, fear, constrained disdain, anger, frustration, exalted aspiration, unrequited and enduring love! Pronounced emotions still further accentuated by flailing arms, biting lips in wrath and whirling draperies.
Bernini’s artworks are testimonies to his intellectual powers. They reflect an intense creative process influenced by so much passion for artistic expression and the constant encouragement by his father, the Mannerist sculptor Pietro Bernini. He tried to lose himself inside his subject, so he could almost feel every bit of emotion, drawing new levels of creativity from it.
For half a century, none was worthy to be called a successor of Michelangelo after his death in 1564 until this child prodigy from Naples was discovered. His sensitivity to aesthetics was early developed. He had that air that blared “artist” at a very young age and it was said that he was only 8 when he made a small marble head of a child. At 17, he completed The Goat Amalthea with the Infant Jupiter and a Faun, his earliest known work and first commission for the Borghese family.
Commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, he adorned the streets and churches of Rome with his magnificent artworks. He received commissions from Pope Urban VIII to decorate the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica and from 1623-1624, he built the magnificent baldacchino. He continued working up to the end of his life, which ended as a result of a stroke in 1680.
It was Bernini who created the Baroque style of sculpture. He ultimately became the greatest sculptor of the 17th century, continuously astounding the world with his art and fascinating process of creation.
David with the Head of Goliath
A man holding a bleeding severed head, seemed all of a sudden stepped out from the dark! “David with the Head of Goliath,” with Goliath being the self portrait of its painter, Caravaggio (1573-1610).
I nearly shuddered staring at this intense piece, creating an intense interest over the artist, known as one of the founding fathers of modern painting… but more known as a wild man with wild art.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in the year 1571 in the village of Caravaggio near Milan. Being orphaned at a tender age of 11, who knows what kind of affliction had formed and loomed for the rest of his life. Was this the time when misery started to pull down an exuberant spirit and dig such a void? Perhaps…I can only speculate but certainly, he painstakingly filled that void with paint. Isn’t it so that misery loves creativity? He evolved, pursued his inspiration and spilled it onto canvas. His agony spawned an epic grandeur with unfeigned creativity!
I could picture him in a dingy studio like a frenetic in a frenzy, assimilating conflicting forces into his vision, thus inevitably altering scenes with dark shadows. But oh, what a brilliant artist! When other artists used natural light as the source of light on the scene, Caravaggio bathed his subjects in a theatrical light! A brilliant play of light and shadow! It was revolutionary and the sensibility was unequivocal, intense and disturbingly phenomenal that it influenced a whole generation of painters. A style acquired from his understanding and expression of the complexity of the world.
His gaze intense, his mind intricate, his range bold, his nature rebellious. His art was dark, dramatic and emotional…and some of his paintings had an obnoxious effect. He pushed beyond the traditional.
Like his art, Caravaggio dramatically painted his life with a flicker of lights and long dark shadows. He went to Rome after his apprenticeship in Milan at the age of 20. The curtain lifted and the lights shone in 1598 when the influential Cardinal Francesco del Monte recognized his great talent. His series of paintings of St. Matthew at the Contarelli Chapel set the stage for him. In 1601, he stepped out from the Cardinal’s steady domicile and stepped into a shaky path. He had brawls, street fights and ultimately, in the summer of 1606, he became a murderer. It was said that he killed his opponent after a dispute in a game of tennis. Thereafter, the lights went on and off for him, running from Naples to Malta to Sicily to avoid prosecution. He went back to Naples in 1609 where he was almost killed in a fight.
He seemed to be trapped in an intricate web which was unwaveringly bound together by defective threads that even with determined efforts, he couldn’t get out!
A papal pardon was about to be granted but he was arrested by mistake when he reached Porto Ercole on his way back to Rome. His breath hung in agony as he thought about his fate! He was sent to prison again and released just in time to see his boat for Rome sail away with his paintings. His art! His life! Sick and scared out of his wits, he pursued his paintings on foot with the scorching summer heat. He collapsed along the shore and died a few days later, at a young age of 38. Could his paintings be more dramatic than the scene of his death? Or the scenes of his life? Was that his last curtain call? Were his lights permanently switched off that summer of 1610?
Caravaggio, whose controversy as to the nature of his art, arising as it did mainly out of his genius and experiences, did not fade into oblivion. He’s been shining on the creative stage where he ought to remain. His paintings will continuously be lighted and admired in museums, his style widely imitated by artists around the world.
Floor to ceiling filled with magnificent artworks by Bernini, Caravaggio, Raphael, Rubens, Canova, Titian, Barocci, and many more brilliant artists!
So amazed with the passion of great geniuses portrayed in artworks!
Patrons of the arts, from the powerful circles of society, commissioned highly talented individuals for employment. They bought artworks excessively which stimulated and inspired the most talented and prolific artists. It may be simply satisfying their increasing sophisticated needs, or flaunting of wealth and influence which seemed acceptable at the time, or it was dictated by their egos as they wanted to be known for their good taste and grandiosity.
One great example of these patrons of the arts is Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633) who, considering the vast collection of artworks he collected in his lifetime, seemed obsessed in adding priceless pieces to his family’s art collection. He was one of the wealthiest and powerful men in Rome in the 17th century, who’s lineage has a rich history dating back to 12th century in Siena.
The Borgheses were wealthy wool merchants and bankers at the time when these two industries were vital to Siena’s thriving economy. The head of the family Marcantonio Borghese and most of its clan members moved to Rome in 1541. His son Camillo was elected to the papal throne as Paul V in 1605. The family became more powerful, their wealth rapidly augmented as the pope had the power to grant titles.
Pope Paul V ordained his sister’s son, Scipione Borghese Caffarelli, as priest. Ten days later, the 27-year-old Scipione was elevated as a Cardinal and decided to use Borghese as his last name.
The pope continued to grant benefices to his clan, especially to his favorite nephew the cardinal, giving him a title of Prince of Vivero as well as the position as pope secretary, entrusting into his care both the papal and Borghese family fortune. Thenceforth, amid controversy of some of his unscrupulous means of obtaining more wealth and master pieces, he was able to satisfy his insatiable appetite for artworks. He became a major patron of the arts, commissioning brilliant artists like, among others, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Caravaggio.
This established the name Borghese as one of the significant art patrons in history.
What could be more fitting to showcase the works of the great masters than a mansion on a hill surrounded by a beautifully landscaped garden? The elements of grand architecture, dramatic masterpieces, cheerful blooms, and verdant greens evoke a dreamlike magic.
In 1605, Cardinal Borghese converted this property, which used to be a vineyard, into a park. He commissioned architect Flaminio Ponzio, who was known as the designer of the Vatican palaces, to build this Roman Baroque villa. The architect worked on it until his death in 1613 and the construction was completed by his assistant Giovanni Vasanziountil.
The cardinal used the imposing villa for entertainment and displaying his priceless treasures for visitors to enjoy. Wealthy aristocrats during that time had art galleries in their palaces to showcase their art collections.
Sophisticated in tastes, he set no limits to the indulgence of his tastes… either in the collection of paintings, sculptures, or of his love of architecture, the greatest example of which was turning his party villa into an art gallery.
Museo e Galleria Borghese became the home to one of the world’s top private art collections.
After the cardinal’s death in 1633, perhaps the Borgheses were either very contented with everything in the villa or somewhat threw off their nonchalance, as there was no known significant alteration on the villa.
It was only in 1775 when another Borghese, Prince Marcantonio IV who was married to the wealthy Maria Salviati, made significant renovations to the villa and its gardens. Unfortunately, it was also his son Prince Camillo, married to Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister Pauline Bonaparte, who sold hundreds of pieces of art from the Borghese collection to Napoleon in 1806. The sold artworks were transported to the new Musée du Louvre in Paris around 1807-1808, which was then renamed the “Musée Napoléon”.
Perhaps less than a quarter of the artworks remained of the collection after Napoleon’s acquisition but still enough to fill the grand villa.
The turbulent years in the economy, high taxes and poor financial management had dire effects on the Borgheses. At the turn of the 20th century, they lost most of their wealth that their ancestors had accumulated through centuries… including Villa Borghese.
The Italian government purchased the whole property together with its contents. In 1903, its grounds became a public garden and the mansion became a popular public art gallery called Galleria Borghese.
This is a popular museum which rates #12 of 1,519 things to do in Rome in TripAdvisor so it is better to buy your tickets in advance online to avoid waiting in admission lines.
The gallery is open daily except Mondays and on December 25 and January 1.
Opening hours – 9am to 7pm (with access every two hours)
You may visit this website for more details: