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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of the Galleria Borghese in Rome

What is the Galleria Borghese?

The Galleria Borghese is a gallery of art and sculpture housed in the former summer house of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, featuring works by Canova, Bernini, and Caravaggio.

Galleria Borghese

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Galleria Borghese History

The building housing the Galleria Borghese was originally built in the early 17th century as a casino, a suburban estate or summerhouse, on the vast grounds of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, in what was in those days on the very outskirts of the city. Today it’s owned by the state, but still exhibits the Borghese painting collection as well as many pieces from the family's impressive collection of sculpture.

Modified in the 18th century and restored again in recent years, the gleaming white, three-story building has a façade composed of twin towers flanking a portico. A double ramped staircase, deliberately imitating Michelangelo's entrance to the Palazzo del Senatore in the Campidoglio, leads up to the main gallery entrance.

The interior decoration is intricate and impressively varied, making it a challenge to decide where you ought to look. Frescoed ceilings, sumptuous wall coverings, faux marble wall decoration, and gilded mouldings all vie for attention. Remember that every room has a theme. The ceiling decorations – you mustn't forget to look up – and the sculptures are displayed in tandem. Wherever possible, an attempt has been made to extend this thematic link to the paintings on the walls.

Sculpture inside villa Borghese

The 4th-century Roman floor mosaics in the entrance room on the ground floor, or pianterreno, depict gladiatorial combat scenes. Excavated from the Borghese family estate at Torrenova, just outside the city, they are portraits of real gladiators, whose names mark them out in the mosaic. Figures that have fallen to the ground are marked with a θ (theta), the first letter of the Greek word thanatos (meaning death). The frescoed vault joins in this combative theme, depicting a Roman victory over the invading Gauls.

The sculpture collection contains some of the world’s most renowned pieces. In Room I is Canova’s marble statue of the reclining, semi-nude Paolina Borghese, also known as Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon's sister. Legend has it that the sculpture was kept under lock and key for years by her husband, Prince Camillo, who was scandalised by her lack of modesty.

The gallery also contains three spectacular pieces by Bernini, all completed while he was still in his mid-20s. In Room II, you'll find his David, in which the young hero is preparing to hurl a stone at his adversary. The face, with its intense and concentrated expression, is said to be a self-portrait of the sculptor.

Room III houses Apollo and Daphne, also by Bernini, which depicts the young nymph’s vain attempts to escape the god, as her hands and feet are in the process of being transformed into a laurel tree, and the same scene is also painted on the ceiling. The swirling and sensual movement of the two intertwined bodies demonstrates Bernini's extraordinary sculptural abilities, beautifully capturing the texture of skin and hair in marble. The same goes for his other work in the next room, the Rape of Proserpina: notice the way Pluto’s fingers appear to sink into Proserpina’s thigh.

The final room on this floor, Room VIII, is exceptional more for its paintings than its sculptures. There are six remarkable Caravaggios here, including St Jerome, David with the Head of Goliath, and the Madonna dei Palafrenieri.

Upstairs, a good place from which to look out to the gardens at the back, is the painting gallery, or pinacoteca, where one historic painting after another is on display. Some of the most celebrated painters in Western history all on show in the same gallery. Take your time; there’s a lot to enjoy.

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