The Borghese Gallery houses a jaw dropping art collection in a luxurious garden villa. It’s rich in ancient Roman, Renaissance, and Baroque pieces. It houses works from the greatest artists of the time, including Titian, Caravaggio, Raphael, Rubens, and Canova.
The collection is housed in sumptuous palace. Its splendidly decorated marble rooms and frescoed ceilings. For art lovers, it’s a highlight of any visit to Rome.
In this Borghese Gallery guide, I tell you everything to see inside and give you must know tips for visiting and getting tickets. The highlights of the collection are:
- Bernini sculptures
- Raphael paintings
- Caravaggio paintings
- Canova sculptures
- Venetian Room (Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto)
The Borghese has timed entrances with limited tickets, so you need to plan in advance. It’s absolutely essential to book a skip the line ticket in advance. They sell out weeks in advance.
Who Were The Borghese?
The Borghese behind this glamorous gallery was Scipione Borghese. He was the pope’s nephew, a cardinal, and an avid art collector.
Scipione commissioned architect Flaminio Ponzio to build the Borghese Villa. Its sole purpose was to show off Scipione’s ever expanding collection of precious art. He wanted to create a “theater of the universe” to entertain VIPs.
But Scipione wasn’t your typical cardinal. Or perhaps he was.
Scipione was an unscrupulous and greedy sort. In his obsessive quest to build a preeminent collection, he used any tactic, however illegal, to acquire a masterpiece he coveted.
In 1608, Scipione hired thieves to steal a Raphael masterpiece, The Deposition, from a convent altar.
Scipione would confiscate art from people who hadn’t paid taxes. He’d jail artists on trumped up charges who refused to sell their paintings to him. The big bully would forcibly remove pieces from artists’ studios.
Scipione even blackmailed the great Baroque artist Caravaggio. The artist was desperate to return to Rome, after he was exiled because of a brawl and murder accusation.
Scipione could have pardoned him. Instead, Scipione made him wait in desperation.
When Scipione finally issued the pardon, a grateful Caravaggio gave him David with the Head of Goliath, one of Caravaggio’s best paintings.
Caravaggio was also commissioned to paint Madonna and Child with St. Anne for altarpiece in a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica. When it was declared inappropriate for a basilica, Scipione appropriated the piece. That may have been his plan all along.
Though his methods were dastardly, Scipione’s taste was unassailable. The Borghese Gallery boasts some of the finest works of Italian art.
Scipione was expert at sniffing out talent. He commissioned works from rising stars such as Caravaggio and Bernini.
In particular, the cardinal commissioned Bernini to create a series of sculptures that would become the pièces de résistance of his sanctuary. Bernini carved intensely charged bodies of mythological gods and heroes from massive slabs of marble.
In the process, Bernini helped pioneer the emotion, dynamism, and immediacy characteristic of Baroque art.
In the late 1770’s, the Borghese family renovated the villa. They reorganized the collection to improve the viewing experience.
Thereafter, the villa functioned as a semi-public museum, only open to select members of the public.
In 1902, the museum was sold to the Italian government. In 1903, it opened as the Galleria Borghese.
Guide To The Borghese Gallery: What To See
It’s hard to drill down to the top paintings from over a thousand works of art.
But here’s my list of 16 important artworks to see in the Borghese Gallery. When you’ve only got two hours, you have to make every minute count. So decide what you want to see in advance.
1. Raphael, Young Woman With a Unicorn
Intended as a wedding gift, this Raphael masterpiece depicts the virtues and symbols of a young bride. The young Florentine woman in the painting symbolizes virginity and spiritual love.
Even the lap dog unicorn is a symbol of chastity. Medieval legends hold that only a virgin can tame a unicorn.
Raphael’s painting was clearly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, the Mona Lisa. Raphael used Leonardo’s half length format, the sitter’s folded hands, and added a beautiful landscape in the background.
Unlike the Mona Lisa, however, the woman has a look of cool watchfulness not an enigmatic smile.
2. Raphael, Deposition
Sticky fingered Scipione stole Deposition from the altarpiece of a church in Perugia. The pope told the victimized city that the painting was a gift for his nephew. When confronted with his theft, he ordered a copy for the parishioners.
Raphael’s painting shows Christ being taken down from the cross. One woman faints at the tragedy, while another looks on in disbelief.
A hallmark of Raphael, Deposition is ordered in harmonious geometric perfection. His lyrical figures exude a narrative pull. The painting is currently on display, but behind glass walls undergoing diagnostic review for future conservation.
There’s plenty of other Raphael works to see in Rome. But his most breathtaking pieces are among the masterpieces of the Vatican.
3. The Sleeping Hermaphrodite
There are 20 known copies of the ancient Greek sculpture of the sleeping hermaphrodite. The Borghese’s Sleeping Hermaphrodite is a Roman copy inspired by Polycles’ Greek original from the 2nd century BC. Romans thought copying the Greeks reflected exquisite taste.
In this version, the figure of Hermaphroditos, always portrayed as a female with male genitalia, lies asleep on a messy mattress. The sculpture exudes ambiguous seductiveness. It may appear to be female or male.
Look up, the ceiling continues the theme. The frescos in the room depict the myth of Hermaphrodite, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite.
According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the youth’s double nature resulted from his forced union with the clingy water nymph Salmacis. She beseeched the gods to never let them part. Her wish was granted and their bodies were fused.
Another version of the Sleeping Hermaphrodite is at the Louvre, on a mattress created by Bernini in 1602 at Cardinal Scipione’s request. The Sleeping Hermaphrodite inspired many copies. There’s also a bronze one on display at the Prado Museum in Madrid.
4. Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath
The Borghese Gallery owns six Caravaggios. It’s the greatest collection of Caravaggio anywhere in the world. Caravaggio pioneered Baroque painting, much as Bernini pioneered Baroque sculpture. You could literally camp out in the Caravaagio room and never leave.
Caravaggio was a bit of a rogue, leading a reckless rock star life. In 1606, he got into a brawl and may have killed a man. He fled Rome to escape prosecution. Then he created this brilliant painting of uncompromising realism and, perhaps, of a guilty conscience.
In it, David carries the severed head of Goliath, having conquered his superior foe. Caravaggio painted his own face on the grisly Goliath. The painting is renowned for its use of chiaroscuro, which sets light colors against a dark background for maximum dramatic effect.
5. Caravaggio, Saint Jerome Writing, 1606
I heard a tour guide dissing this painting as a “lesser” work by Caravaggio. To my eye, that seemed wrong.
It may not be as soulful or graphic as Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath painting. But it’s powerful.
Scipione commissioned the painting. St. Jerome was a Roman priest who translated the bible into Latin. In Caravaggio’s painting, a devout St. Jerome appears bald and wrinkled.
He innocently stretches out an arm to refill his writing quill, thereby drawing your attention to the skull.
6. Caravaggio, Madonna and Child with St. Anne
This Caravaggio painting has an interesting backstory. In 1605, with the help of Scipione, Caravaggio received a commission to paint an altarpiece for St. Peter’s Basilica. It was the dream of every artist in Europe. Caravaggio was effectively given a chance to paint himself out of trouble.
His assigned task was to paint the Virgin Mary shooing away evil in the form of a snake, with baby Jesus and St. Anne by her side. Simple enough, except Caravaggio rendered it a rather blunt way, which he must have known might antagonize the pope.
In Caravaggio’s version of the biblical tale, he used a well known prostitute as the model for the virgin, whose face was instantly recognizable. Even though Caravaggio made an attempt at piousness (halos and all), he still refused to compromise.
Caravaggio’s virgin is depicted as a voluptuous and tender peasant with a hiked up red dress and ample breasts. Together, she and a frontally nude Jesus crush a snake beneath their feet. St. Anne is seen as a withered old gypsy woman.
Caravaggio’s painting was shown for only two days. Then, it was abruptly removed from St. Peters. It wasn’t “pure” enough, despite its sense of the miraculous in ordinary reality.
The painting was sold for a pittance to Cardinal Borghese. Any chance of Caravaggio receiving papal favor and future commissions was forever eliminated.
7. Berini, Apollo and Daphne
For some time, the great Baroque sculptor Bernini was only too happy to work exclusively for his patron, Cardinal Scipione. He produced three masterpieces for him.
Stunningly beautiful, these Berninis are the stuff of legend. It’s worth a trip to Rome just to see them.
Apollo and Daphne is inspired by a passage in Ovid’s Metamorphoses where a mischievous Cupid holds sway. Apollo is struck by Cupid’s golden arrow. Overwhelmed by lust, he chases after Daphne.
But Daphne’s simultaneously been stuck by a lead arrow of disgust. She cries out to her father, a river god, for help. He transforms her into a laurel tree.
Bernini captures the intense action of the dramatic moment, with the pair’s arms and legs moving in space and Daphne partially transformed into a tree. The details are so good that it seems real rather than merely mythological. Newly renovated, the sculpture looks absolutely pristine.
8. Bernini, Rape of Persephone
This stunning sculpture was created when Bernini was only 24!
He takes the classic story of the abduction of Persephone from Roman mythology as his theme. The title is clickbait. In ancient terminology, “rape” means kidnapping.
This stunning sculpture was created when Bernini was only 24. He takes the classic story of the abduction of Persephone from Roman mythology as his theme. The title is clickbait. In ancient terminology, “rape” means kidnapping.
Pluto, king of the underworld, falls passionately in love with Persephone. He abducts her. Bernini captures the climatic moment in visceral life-like detail.
In the sculpture, Pluto seizes a crying Persephone. Terrified, she fights to free herself from her molester. You can see indentations in Persephone’s leg where Pluto grasps her. Cerebus, the three-headed guard dog, sits at Persephone’s leg barking.
Persephone’s mother, Demeter, was distraught. She caused crops to wither unless and until Zeus/Jupiter intervened and forced Pluto to let Persephone go.
But Persephone had tasted the underworld’s pomegranates, a situation no doubt maneuvered by Pluto. So Persephone spent the winter months down below, and returned to her mother in the spring.
9. Bernini, David
Bernini’s David appears like an olympic athlete in swirling motion. His feet are wide apart and he twists to gain the maximum swing for his shot. The intensity of his gaze and energy are palpable. You can feel his resolution.
David’s face is that of Bernini’s. A mirror was held up for Bernini as he chiseled David’s face.
Bernini’s David is often compared and contrasted with Michelangelo’s Renaissance statue of David in Florence’s Accademia, one of Florence’s best museums. While Michelangelo’s is calm and serene, Bernini’s David is full of emotion and in attack mode.
10. Bernini, Self Portraits, 1623, 1630-35
Bernini could paint as well as sculpt, not surprising for an artist of his prodigious talent. The Borghese holds two of his self portraits, one at age 25 and one at age 35.
In the one above, the artists looks confident. He would go on to transform Rome, from St. Peter’s Square to Rome’s many fountains.
11. Bernini, The Goat Amaltea
This small sculpture was created by a teenage Bernini, who was a child prodigy. It’s significant because the sculpture is Bernini’s earliest identified work.
The sculpture is based on the Greek myth where Cronus eats his children so they won’t murder him as prophesied. To protect her son Zeus from Cronus, Rhea hides him in a cave on Crete.
Bernini gives the classic myth a Roman spin. Two young boys are shown as putti, children who sometimes appear as cherubs or cupids. The goat looks almost motherly. The sculpture is typical of Bernini’s preference for sculptural groupings.
12. Antonio Canova, Pauline Borghese as Venus
Commissioned by Camillo Borghese, Canova’s Venus Victorious is an utterly beautiful Neo-Classical marble statue of a semi-nude, reclining Pauline Bonaparte. She was the flirtatious and promiscuous sister of Napoleon, who married Camillo Borghese.
The golden apple in her hand identifies her as Venus. Venus was the goddess who won history’s first beauty contest. Originally, Canova intended to depict her as Diana. But Borghese insisted on Venus. In fact, the Borghese family believed they were descended from the heroic founder of Rome, Aeneas, the son of Venus.
The sculpture scandalized society. At the time, nude depictions of the aristocracy were rare. Invited viewers could only inspect it by candlelight. When asked how she could have posed in such a manner, Borghese cooly replied “the room wasn’t cold.”
The sculpture has been cleaned and restored. Its milky glow mimics Borghese’s indulgent ritual of daily milk baths.
Canova masterfully recreates the creases of the sheet, the plump pillows, and the soft dent she puts in the mattress. It’s beautiful to behold and everything seems almost real.
13. Titian, Sacred and Profane Love
Titian’s Sacred and Profane love is the star of the Borghese’s wonderful “Venetian Room” and a famous Italian Renaissance painting. It was commissioned in 1513 to celebrate the marriage of Niccoló Aurelio, a secretary to the Council of Venice, to Laura Bagarotto.
As its title implies, the painting presents two forms of love. Sacred love stands on the right with a church in the background. Profane love, in the guide of a bejeweled woman, sits on the left.
A baby Cupid plays in the middle, an ambiguous combination of the two. Another ambiguous feature is that the women are sitting on a tomb filled with water.
In 1899, American art collector Isabella Stewart Garner considered buying the painting for her Boston museum. Legend holds that the Rothschild family also offered to pay a massive sum for this painting. But the Borghese family refused.
14. Antonio Corregio, Danae
Antonio Corregio was a late Italian Renaissance painter who anticipated the Baroque period. He was known for his erotic mythological paintings and was a master of chiaroscuro.
The artist is a mysterious figure, with an undocumented life. Not much is known about him. He was reputedly both impoverished and aristocratic, uneducated and well-trained. Whatever the truth, historians consistently praise him for his naturalism and ability to capture feminine beauty.
This painting portrays Danae, a figure from Greek mythology. Danae was the daughter of Acrisius, King of Argos. An oracle forecast that Acrisius would be murdered by Danae’s son. So he jailed her in a bronze tower.
Correggio depicts Danae under a shower of gold. As she lies on a bed, Eros undresses her. At the foot of the bed, two putti or amoretti play with arrows.
15. Jacopo Bassano, Last Supper
This Last Supper painting is considered Bassano’s master work and was recently restored. It’s a classic of Mannerist painting with dramatic elements, elongated figures, and bright colors.
The Mannerists departed from the perfection and classicism of the High Renaissance. Unlike the linear and smooth organization of the twelve apostles in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in Milan, Bassano’s work is a disorganized scene.
You see the figure of Christ and some highly excited apostles in an unconventional peasant setting. (This use of “real world” settings would be adopted by Caravaggio in the Baroque period.) The apostles erupt at the prophecy that one of them will betray Christ.
The painting depicts the controversy and different reactions the apostles have to the prophecy. Jesus and the redheaded disciple form the center of the artwork. The way Bassano portrays them is different from other Last Suppers. Jesus lags behind someone and is almost in the background.
Each item on the table is intentional, and appears as a still life. The dark lighting gives the painting a nocturnal feel.
The painting of Leda and the Swan After Leonardo da Vinci, is attributed to Mannerist painter Il Sodoma. (Though the attribution is not uncontested.) Based on a Leonardo painting, the painting depicts the mythological story of Leda and the Swan.
Three drawings of Leda by Leonardo still survive, but his painting is a missing Leonardo. Many artists, including Raphael and Leonardo’s assistants, drew sketches of Leonardo’s Leda.
Research suggests that an unfinished version of the painting was in Leonardo’s house when he died in France 1519. The painting was inherited by one of Leonardo’s pupils, but then disappeared.
In Solodma’s rendition, as in Leonardo’s, Leda stands in an elegant curving pose, her hair partially escaping from her plaits. She wraps her arms around the swan’s neck.
X-rays techniques have revealed another composition beneath the painting depicting Leda’s four children emerging from the Swan’s eggs.
Tips For Visiting The Borghese Gallery
No guide to the Borghese Gallery would be complete without some must know tips for visiting. The Borghese Gallery can be tricky to visit. So, here are some tips to ensure you have the best museum experience.
1. How To Get a Ticket to the Borghese Gallery
Entrance to the Borghese Gallery is strictly controlled. The museum limits the number of visitors at any given time. 100 visitors are permitted in two hour time slots.
At the end of each slot, the gallery is emptied before the next set of visitors is let in. This system has the benefit of ensuring the museums isn’t too crowded.
In low season, it may be possible to purchase same day tickets onsite. But generally, you 100% must make a reservation to guarantee access and avoid disappointment.
The easiest way to make a reservation is to book a Borghese Gallery tour. Your expert guide will make the necessary reservations and ensure you see the key highlights in your 2+ hour time slot.
You can also make a reservation either by telephone or online on the museum’s official website. You then collect your tickets in the basement.
Tiqets sends the ticket right to your smartphone. Viator representatives (the option I used) meet you outside the museum entrance. There, you’ll exchange your voucher for a ticket.
2. Borghese Gallery Rules
You’ll have to check everything that isn’t tiny before entering the gallery, including handbags, backpacks, strollers, umbrellas, etc. The bag check is outside and is free. There’s often a long line. So allot time for this process.
You should arrive early (30-40 minutes) to the Borghese Gallery to check your bag and collect your ticket. You don’t want that process to eat into your 2 hours. You’ll get a claim check to reclaim your items when you’re done with your visit.
No food or drink is permitted inside the museum.
3. How To Allot Your Time At The Borghese
The Borghese Gallery has 20 rooms spread spread across two floors. The ground floor has 8 rooms. The first floor, the Pinacoteca or painting gallery, has 12 rooms. After you hand over your ticket, you can pick up an audio guide in the basement.
On my visit, visitors were shuttled directly to the upper floor to begin the visit. You only have 2 hours, so keep an eye on the clock.
The quality of the works is so high, it’s easy to loose track of time. Try not to get stuck in the beautiful Venetian Room.
Allot most of your time for the ground floor, which houses the Bernini sculptures and Caravaggio paintings.
4. Practical Information
Address: Piazzale del Museo Borghese.
Getting There: You can take a taxi or the metro. The nearest metro station is “Spagna” on Line A. If you take a taxi, Be sure to say you’re going to the Galleria Borghese, not the Villa Borghese. The gallery is a 20 minutes walk from the Barberini metro stop.
Hours: Open daily 9:00 am to 7:00 pm, except closed on Monday. Open late on Wednesday night until 10:00 pm No entry after 5:00 pm.
13 €, plus online reservation fee of 2 €. The 1.5 hour audio guide is 5 €. I advise getting it, if you’re not on a guided tour.
On the second Wednesday of the month, the museum is free. But you must still reserve a spot, as per the usual procedure.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the Borghese Gallery. You may enjoy these other Rome travel guides and resources:
- 8 ways to spend 1 day in Rome
- 3 day itinerary for Rome
- 5 day itinerary for Rome
- Hidden gems in Rome
- Best museums in Rome
- Archaeological sites in Rome
- Guide to the Borghese Gallery
- Rome’s secret palace museums
- Guide to the Capitoline Museums
- Guide to free art in Rome
- Guide to Palatine Hill
- Guide to the Roman Forum
- Guide to the Colosseum
- Walking tour of central Rome
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