The Golden touch of the Cardinal: the Galleria Borghese

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By Federico Schiaffino

The history of the “villa outside the Pincian Gate” began on the 16th of May, 1605 when Camillo Borghese became Pope Paul V and when two months later Scipione, son of Camillo’s sister Ortensia, was made cardinal at only 28 years of age. These events mark the rise of this Sienese family that moved to Rome in the middle of the 1500s. The Borghese family lived in a palace in the Borgo district and here Scipione gathered works that previously belonged to Camillo Borghese and others owned by Camillo’s brother, Francesco. The Madonna of the Candelabras and The Three Graces by Raphael were probably included in this first group. Shortly after, Scipione moved to another residence in the Campus Martius where he set up his gallery in the long wing of the main palace, designating it as a space intended principally for paintings. When in 1614, however, the Pincian Villa was completed, the cardinal had his paintings and ancient sculptures (about 200) transported there and the villa became his favorite residence.

Scipione is described by his contemporaries as an “excellent student of luck” and as a man “to whom everything in life is favorable.” He managed, in fact, to accomplish a most difficult task: he fully realized both himself and his passion, namely, collecting. The portrait that Bernini painted of him in 1632, the year before he died, when his entire existence had therefore already transformed his features into reflections of his character, catches with an impressive lifelike quality the expression of surprise that must have shown itself often on the ruddy face of the cardinal.
Paul V would never have even thought of delegating his state affairs to his beloved nephew, for Scipione’s intolerance of politics, which allowed him to concentrate completely on his unbridled passion for collecting, was evident to all. In this way Scipione Borghese influenced his epoch without ever proposing a theory of the arts, and notwithstanding his mediocre cultural foundation, he became one of the most passionate connoisseurs of the century. He put together one of the most sensational collections of his time with a nucleus of 17th century painting that was the most impressive to be found in a princely collection. He commissioned works from painters who were his contemporaries, often unknown and who remained that way, like Giovan Battista Benci, painter of the Return of the Prodigal Son. The artists that he chose were usually forced to give their works to him, and were pursued until the cardinal had the satisfaction of possessing the piece that he so desired. Such was the case with Domenichino, who was thrown into prison for having resisted Scipione’s order to give him his newly-finished Diana the Huntress.
Scipione bought many paintings by Caravaggio realized between 1593 and 1610 including Boy with a Basket of Fruit, Sick Bacchus, Saint Jerome, David with the Head of Goliath and the Madonna of the Palafrenieri. The last, known also as the Madonna of the Serpent, is one of Caravaggio’s works intended for an altar and refused. The painting was commissioned by the Papal Grooms for a privileged altar in Saint Peter’s and was removed  by the pope shortly after it was hung for its excessive realism. Paul V took this drastic action either to manifest his hostility towards the trends of pauperism or to help his nephew, for soon after Scipione bought the painting at half price.

In 1803 the Borghese heir, Camillo, married Pauline Bonaparte and couldn’t, therefore, oppose to the continual requests for works by Napoleon who took possession of all of the archeological pieces that are today still visible in the Louvre (including the sculpture of the Hermaphrodite; the one today in the gallery is a restored copy of a Hellenistic original). However, Camillo Borghese did make two very important acquisitions: the Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix by Antonio Canova (dated to about 1805-08) and the Danae by Correggio (1827) which was restored by Pietro Camuccini because it was in a very bad state. The Danae under restoration became a meeting point for artists passing through Rome who wished to watch the restorer bring the original beauty of the work to light, while the sculpture of Pauline immediately became the symbol of the museum.
There is a simple reason as to why there are not many 15th century works conserved in the Borghese Gallery – Scipione didn’t like them. The few that are there were inherited from the Aldobrandini family, to whom the Borgheses were related. Among the most important are Pinturicchio’s Crucifixtion (1473), the Portrait of a Man by Antonello da Messina (1430), the Courtesan by Vittorio Carpaccio (1493) and Leda and the Swan, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (pictured above).

Painting from the 16th century was much more in tune with the cardinal’s taste, and the collection includes very important works like Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (pictured below) which was sold by Cardinal Sfondrato to Scipione Borghese in 1608. The metaphor of this wedding allegory is the same as those portrayed in 16th century images of beautiful women obliged to suggest their chaste nature while at the same time demonstrating their sensuality, to exhibit and show off their bodies and to promise love in the only way possible at that time, in marriage, and for the only audience possible, the bridegroom, who is almost never represented because he must be imagined “in front of” the painting. The two women in Titian’s work corrispond to the twin aspects of the perfect bride: the first is dressed, official and social, a woman in the public realm while the second is naked, available and willing, a wife in the private conjugal and, therefore, sensual realm. The buyer of this painting was a certain Niccolò Aurelio, member of the Council of Ten in Venice who had it made in 1515 for his marriage to Laura Bagarotto.

Scipione Borghese also had many paintings by Raphael that an important collection like his couldn’t be without. Members of the Borghese family had personally commissioned works from the painter from Urbino when he was still living in Siena. The devastating death of the master was compared to the death of Christ and Raphael immediately became a legend. Since it wasn’t easy to buy works by the great master in the 1600s, it was common practice to steal them from churches. This was the case with the famous Borghese Deposition which had been commissioned in 1500 by Atalante Baglioni in memory of his dead son and painted by Raphael for the chapel of the Saviour in the church of S. Francis in Perugia. Other 16th century artists represented in the collection include Andrea del Sarto and Ghirlandaio, and precious works include the Portrait of the Widower by Lorenzo Lotto (1535) and the Scourging of Christ by Titian (1560).

The last years of the 16th century and the first years of the 17th century saw not only the life of Scipione Borghese but also the creation of the works that he so dearly loved. The collection includes works by Paul Brill, Rubens, Annibale Carracci, Guido Reni and Guercino, Bernini’s famous group of Apollo and Daphne (1622-25), his David (1623-24) and Domenichino’s Sibyl of Cuma (pictured left). A morning of sun is the ideal frame for a visit to Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s recently restored villa, the elegant  palazzo immersed in the green of the park that is full of light  and its invaluable treasures.
Piazza Scipione Borghese, 5. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Reservations are necessary to visit the collection. Call 0632810 Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m