• Leslie

Ultimate Guide to Visiting the Borghese Gallery in Rome

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

Here's my guide to visiting the Galleria Borghese, or Borghese Gallery, in Rome. The magnificent museum is one of my very favorite museums in Europe. It houses one of the world’s most jaw dropping art collections in a chic and luxurious garden villa.

In the 17th century, Cardinal Scipione Borghese meticulously assembled the densely packed collection. It's rich in ancient Roman, Renaissance, and Baroque art. It boasts major works by Bernini, Titian, Caravaggio, Raphael, Rubens, and Canova.

Scipione Borghese: Naughty Cardinal and Art Connoisseur

The Borghese family is a noble Italian family from Siena. They moved to Rome in the 16th century. Once in Rome, the Borghese family gained prominence and amassed great wealth. They had close ties to the Catholic Church. One Borghese became Pope Paul V. Others became cardinals and high ranking officials.

bust of Cardinal Scipione by Bernini, one of two in the museum

The Borghese behind this glamorous gallery was Scipione Borghese -- the pope's nephew, a cardinal, and an avid art collector. Scipione commissioned architect Flaminio Ponzio to build the Borghese Villa. He promptly filled it with an ever expanding collection of precious art, seeking to create a "theater of the universe" to entertain VIPs.

But Scipione was an unscrupulous and greedy sort. In his obsessive quest to build a preeminent collection, he used any tactic 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. He'd forcibly remove pieces from artists' studios.

Scipione even blackmailed Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio. The artist was desperate to return to Rome, but was blackballed because of a brawl and accused of murder. Scipione could have pardoned him at once. Instead, Scipione made him wait. When he finally issued the pardon, a grateful Caravaggio gave him David with the Head of Goliath, one of his best paintings.

Caravaggio was also commissioned to paint Madonna and Child with St. Anne for altarpiece in a chapel in St. Peter's. When it was declared inappropriate for a basilica, Scipione appropriated the piece. That may have been his plan all along.

ceiling in the Borghese Gallery

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. He became the master of marble. Instead of sculptures designed to be seen only from the front, he created a theater in the round experience for viewers.

In the 19th century, the fortunes of the Borghese family cratered. In 1807, Prince Camillo Borghese sold 695 pieces to the French State under Napoleon Bonaparte. Many of these pieces are now displayed in the Borghese Collection in the Louvre. The most important pieces are the Sleeping Hermaphrodite, Gladiator, the Borghese Vase, and a bust of Marcus Aurelius.

ceiling frescos in the Hall of Emperors

The Borghese Gallery

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.

15 Must See Masterpieces and Highlights of the Borghese Gallery

While it's hard to drill down to the top 15 from over a thousand works of art, here's my list of the most important works of art to see in the Borghese Gallery. When you've only got two hours, you have to make every minute count.

Raphael, Young Woman With a Unicorn, 1505

1. Raphael, Young Woman With a Unicorn, 1505-06

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.

Raphael, Deposition, 1507 -- currently under diagnostic review for conservation

2. Raphael, Deposition, 1507

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.

This painting shows Christ being taken down from the cross. One woman faints at the tragedy, while another looks on in disbelief. The painting fuses the best of Raphael’s rich colors with a touch of Michelangelo’s physicality. Raphael had recently been in Florence and seen Michelangelo's work in the Palazzo Vecchio.

A hallmark of Raphael, the painting is ordered in harmonious geometric perfection. His lyrical figures exude a narrative pull. The painting is currently on display, but behind glass walls for 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.

the Sleeping Hermaphrodite

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.

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1610

4. Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1610

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.

Caravaggio, Saint Jerome Writing, 1606

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.

Berini, Apollo and Daphne, 1625

6. Berini, Apollo and Daphne, 1625

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 is pristine.

Bernini, Rape of Persephone, 1622

7. Bernini, Rape of Persephone, 1622

This 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 Proserpina’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.

Bernini, David, 1622

8. Bernini, David, 1622

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. While Michelangelo's is calm and serene, Bernini's David is full of emotion in attack mode.

Bernini, Self Portrait at age 35, 1630-35

9. Bernini, Self Portraits, 1623, 1630-35

Bernini could paint as well as sculpt, not surprisingly 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.

Bernini, The Goat Amaltea, 1609-15

10. Bernini, The Goat Amaltea, 1609-15

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.

Antonio Canova, Pauline Borghese as Venus, 1808

11. Antonio Canova, Pauline Borghese as Venus, 1804-08

Commissioned by Camillo Borghese, Canova's ''Venus Victorious'' is a 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.

Titian, Sacred and Profane Love, 1514

12. Titian, Sacred and Profane Love, 1514

Titian's Sacred and Profane love is the star of the Borghese's “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 considers 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.

Antonio Corregio, Danae, 1531

13. Antonio Corregio, Danae, 1531

Antonio Corregio was an 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.

Jacopo Bassano, Last Supper, 1542

15. Jacopo Bassano, Last Supper, 1542

This is considered Bassano's master work and was recently restored. It's a classic of Mannerist painting with naturalistic elements and bright colors. Faces appear realistic, like ordinary men.

In the painting, inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's piece in Milan, you see the figure of Christ and some highly excited apostles in a peasant setting. It shows the controversy and different reactions they have to the prophecy that one of them will betray Christ. Each item on the table is intentional, and appears as a still life.

ceiling frescos in the Borghese Gallery

Tips for Visiting the Borghese Gallery in Rome

The Borghese gallery can be tricky to visit. Here are some tips to ensure you experience the museum in the best way.

1. How Do I 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. Visits 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.

In low season, it may be possible to purchase same day tickets onsite. But generally, you must make a reservation to guarantee access.

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. Or you can buy a ticket with a reserved time slot from a reseller like Viator. Meet the representative outside. You'll exchange your voucher for a ticket.

bust from the Emperor's Room

2. What Rules Should I Be Aware Of For the Borghese Gallery?

You'll have to check everything isn't fairly 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.

You should arrive early (30 minutes) to the Borghese Gallery to allow time 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. Can I Take Photos at the Borghese Gallery?

You can take personal photos in the museum. But you can't use a flash.

floor mosaic in the Borghese Gallery

4. The Borghese Gallery Floor Plan

The Borghese Gallery is spread across two floors. The ground floor has 8 rooms. The first floor, the Pinacoteca or painting gallery, has 12 rooms. On my visit, I was shuttled directly to the upper floor to start the tour. Allot most of your time for the ground floor with the Berninis and Caravaggios. You can pick up an audio guide in the basement.

5. How do I get to the Borghese Gallery?

The gallery sits on the very outskirts of Rome, so isn't terribly easy to get to. Since I was staying in Trastevere, I took a cab. If you use that option, you'll be dropped at the gates with a short walk to the museum. 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.

ceiling fresco in the main room of the Pinacoteca

Other Practical Information for Visiting the Borghese Gallery

Address: Piazzale del Museo Borghese

Hours: Open daily 8:30 am to 7:30 pm, except closed on Monday.

Entry fee: 20 €. The 1.5 hour audio guide is 5 euros. I advise getting it, if you're not on a guided tour. Under 18 free.

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