Borghese Gallery Artwork: Top 10 Masterpieces
The park of Villa Borghese extends for 80 hectares close to the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain Area. Seen from above, the villa is heart-shaped. Within its edges stands the stunning Borghese Gallery, one of the finest museums in Rome.
In this dream scenario of lush vegetation, little lakes and fountains, art and nature merge harmoniously. The museums, which develops on two floors, houses one of the most beautiful collection of artwork in the world. Ancient myths and fables we all come to know from books such as the Rape of Proserpina, Apollo & Dafne, David and Goliath come to life through the masterpieces of the greatest artists in history.
Be ready to relive first hand your favorite tales at the Borghese Gallery! In this post we are going to cover the 10 Masterpieces you should not miss, hoping to help you during your visit!
|Credits: image by @Roma_Wonder|
Brief History of Borghese Gallery
A brief introduction is mandatory if you are planning your experience at the Borghese Gallery. We could not miss to tell you how this dream place came to be.
Today, the Borghese Gallery is a museum. OK, we got that covered!
However, you must think about the gallery as part of a larger complex, within the green setting of the gardens, a palace intended for the contemplation of the beauty of art and nature.
The villa dates back to the 17th century. The rapid rise of the Borghese family, originally from Siena, in the city of Rome reached the highest point with the election of Pope Paul V (Camillo Borghese), known for being an avid collector of artwork. At his side, his nephew Scipione Borghese, absolute protagonist of the papal court.
It looks like Paul V had appointed Scipione “Cardinal” at one condition: Scipione had to build the most luxurious and magnificent aristocratic residence and the biggest gardens in Rome, “but no pressure” (author addition).
Scipione was a pretty smart young man and didn’t need to be asked twice. He immediately commissioned the works to architect Flaminio Ponzio. Works to build Villa Borghese started in 1607 and were completed years later by Giovanni Vasanzio, following the model of other noble residences in Rome, such as Villa Farnesina and Villa Medici.
The Facade of Borghese Gallery
Before going inside, take some time to admire the facade. The light structure and color of the building is perfectly balanced with the natural set, while decorations on the facade are just a taste of the wonders of art housed inside.
Inside the Borghese Gallery
By 1770 Villa Borghese underwent some significant changes under the direction of architect Antonio Asprucci. A large group of artists, painters and sculptors worked on the inner decorations, making of Villa Borghese a model to draw inspiration from all across Europe.
The main masterpieces were moved in the middle of the rooms, giving visitors the chance to admire them at 360 degrees.
Now let’s get a look inside and learn about our favorite 10 Masterpieces of Borghese Gallery!
The works are listed following the order of their location inside the museum to help you during your visit.
1Canova’s “Pauline Borghese”: Room 1 – “Pauline Room”
In 1805 Prince Camillo Borghese commissioned the famous Venetian sculptor to portray his young wife, Pauline Borghese, sister of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The occasion was their wedding!
Canova depicted the young Pauline as Venus Victrix: the princess wears the guise of goddess Venus, laying half naked on a painted, wooden daybed decorated with gold inserts.
A mechanism allow the daybed to rotate, hence the spectators could admire the work from every perspective.
|Canova’s “Pauline Borghese” / Credits: image by @Roma_Wonder|
Today, we still don’t know for sure if Pauline actually posed naked for the artist, or if Canova used his imagination!
Among the tapered fingers, Pauline is holding an apple, probably the famous “Apple of Discord”, symbol of the supremacy attributed to Venus among the other goddesses.
According to the Greek myth, the three goddess Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite (or Venus for the Romans) competed for the “Apple”, a prize that would have been given to the most beautiful. Paris would have eventually married the victorious goddess. Eventually, Aphrodite won the competition.
2Bernini’s “David”: Room 2 – “Room of Sun” (1623 – 1624)
Definitely one of our favorite works and one Bernini’s greatest masterpieces, the “David” stands in the Room of Sun in the Borghese Gallery. The biblical hero is captured in the instant of throwing the stone that will kill Goliath, the terrifying giant called upon by the Philistines against the people of Israel, with a single shot from his sling.
In the David you can see all Bernini’s genius at work. By looking at this sculpture you will relive the biblical narrative and forget the work is made of marble!
|Bernini’s “David” / Credits: image by @Roma_Wonder|
The spectator is brought in the middle of the action and is emotionally involved: David is about to release the fatal slingshot, the space around the stone comes to life thanks to the torsion of David’s body.
Feel the energy of the shot and the tension of the moment by looking at the body and at his expression. The knit eyebrows and the lips pressed together tells us that David is focused and committed to kill the giant. The arms, the fingers and basically every muscle in his body shows us that David is gathering all the strength he has, even though he has God behind him.
3Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne”: Room 3 – “Apollo and Daphne Room” (1622 – 1625)
This was one of Bernini’s major commissions, and one of our favorite works by the artist. We are aware it tells one of the saddest stories of all times, but still… we love it!
Bernini tells the fable of Apollo and Daphne, a nymph, daughter of river Peneus. Daphne loved to spend her days in the woods, living a tranquil life.
One day Eros, the god of Love, who some of you may know as Cupid, is insulted by Apollo, the god of Sun.
Out of revenge, Eros fashions 2 arrows, one made of gold and one made of lead. He pierces Apollo with the golden arrow, which makes the god fall in love with Daphne. Then he pierces Daphne with the arrow of lead, which makes her repulsed by Apollo.
Let’s read Ovid’s Metamorphoses – Book I
“[…] Apollo’s first love was elusive Daphne,
The child of Peneus, kindly tyrant of the river,
Nor did the god pursue the girl by chance
The cause was Cupid’s anger at Apollo […]”
|Bernini’s “Apollo & Daphne” / Credits: image by @Roma_Wonder|
Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne captures Apollo chasing and catching the nymph who is trying to flee away. Daphne calls upon her father, a river god, for help. As soon as Apollo grabs her, she turns into a laurel tree.
Apollo’s hand wraps around Daphne’s torso and she begins turning into a tree: her fingers becoming branches and leaves, her toes turning into roots, her hair pushing back as she flees away.
Figures are in motion: Apollo is standing on one leg as his body is in the act of catching Daphne. The bodies and the drapery arch and move into space, thus spectators almost forget they are looking at marble.
Look at the expression of Daphne as she figures out she is losing her humanity.
Daphne goes back to earth where she belonged, but Apollo will still love her:
“[…] In a cloud of leaves; all that was Daphne bowed
In the stirring of the wind, the glittering green
Leaf twined within her hair and she was laurel.
Even no Phoebus (Apollo) embraced the lovely tree
Whose heart he felt still beating in its side;
He stroked its branches, kissed the sprouting bark,
And as the tree still seemed to sway, to shudder
At his touch, Apollo whispered, “Daphne,
Who cannot be my wife must be the seal,
The sign of all I own, immortal leaf
Twined in my hair as hers, and by this sign
My constant love […]”
4Bernini’s “The Rape of Proserpina”: Room 4 – “Room of the Emperors” (1621 – 1622)
When Bernini completed the marble sculpture “The Rape of Proserpina”, he was just 23. Sometimes the work is also known as “Pluto and Proserpina”, the names of the main subjects of Bernini’s work and the protagonists of another Greek myth.
Pluto, the god of the underworld, is taking the poor Proserpina down with him to be his wife against her will.
One of the most striking thing about this masterpiece is certainly the look of Proserpina.
Her eyes, her lips, the eyebrows pushing together and the tear falling along her cheek convey the sense of terror and also that she is fighting back to get away from Pluto’s grasp.
|Bernini’s “Rape of Proserpina” / Credits: image by @Roma_Wonder|
But Pluto’s too strong for her to win: look at his fingers pressed into her thigh, pulling her body against his to not let her go. Under them stands Cerberus, the three-headed dog, guardian of hell.
5Caravaggio’s “David with the Head of Goliath” – Room 8 “Sileno Room” (1609 – 1610)
In this painting by Caravaggio, David is holding Goliath’s head.
The pretty macabre subject is dramatized by the use of light and the contraposition of black and warm-tones colors. There’s still a glimmer of light in Goliath’s eyes, which make the scene even more dramatic.
The light comes from the left, emphasizing David’s chest and face. In his fist, the head of Goliath.
Beside’s the subject, the theme of the canvas is the contraposition between sacred and profane.
The work must be read as a sort of self portrait, an autobiography of Caravaggio.
The face of David is probably the one of the young Caravaggio with a clean face because without sins, while the face of Goliath portraits the older Caravaggio, ruined by a life of sufferings and carelessness.
6Caravaggio’s “Madonna and Child with St. Anne” – Room 8 “Sileno Room” (1605 – 1606)
Even though this is not one of Caravaggio’s most famous works, the painting features one of the most atypical representations of the Virgin Mary for the time, and must have been pretty shocking for his contemporaries.
The dress of the virgin features a plunging neckline from which emerges a quite seductive cleavage!
|Caravaggio’s “Madonna with Child and Saint Anne” / Credits: image by @Roma_Wonder|
The theme is the one of the Immaculate Conception, depicting the Virgin, symbol of the Church, trampling on a snake, symbol of evil and sin, with the help of her son, Jesus.
St. Anne witnesses the event, almost detached from the scene. Originally the paint was houses in St. Peter’s Basilica, but soon it was removed and ended up in the Borghese Gallery.
7Raphael’s “Young Woman with Unicorn” – Room 9, “Didone Room” (1505 – 1507)
This work is to be especially appreciated for the uncountable surprises it revealed over the years to both experts and viewers, and this is the reason why it’s in our list!
The work was of uncertain attribution until recent times. Between 1934–1936, restoration works confirmed the attribution to Raffaello Sanzio, known as Raphael.
But a lot mysteries have lingered around this work for a very long time, until in 2000 the Borghese Gallery unveiled all its secrets in a presentation.
Through a series of scientific exams, experts revealed that Raphael never completed the work. Further artists put their hands on this painting, adding new details.
“Young Woman with Unicorn” was probably commissioned to Raphael on the occasion of a marriage. But in 1506 Raphael left Florence to move to Rome, hence he could not have completed the work.
Another artist, probably Antonio Sogliani, first added a little puppy, which was revealed under the unicorn. The dog, which symbolizes loyalty and devotion, was then replaced with the unicorn, symbol of purity and chastity. Even the sleeves seem to be a later addition, not part of Raphael’s original sketch.
8Raphael’s “Deposition” – Room 9 – “Didone Room” (1507 – 1507)
The Deposition, also known as “The Entombment” is an oil on canvas, the central part of a larger work named as Pala Baglioni. No way we could have not listed this masterpiece among our Borghese Gallery Artwork top 10!
It was Atalanta Baglioni, noblewoman from a powerful family in Perugia, who commissioned the work to the artist to commemorate the murder of her son, Grifonetto.
The masterpiece depicts the moment between the deposition of Christ from the cross and the moment in which Jesus is buried inside the Holy Sepulchre.
This is a narrative painting, as through different elements tells the story of Jesus’ final days.
On the right you can spot the Calvary (or Golgotha), the mountain where Jesus was said to have been crucified (the past). On the left, stands the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus body will be brought (the future). Two men are using a band to transport Jesus body, while Mary Magdalene is holding his hand (the present action). The Three Marys are supporting the Virgin Mary, torn apart by the death of her son.
9Bust of Cardinal Borghese by Bernini – Room 14 – Lodge of Lanfranco (1632 – 1632)
“Errare humanum est” reads an old Latin saying attributed to Seneca, that translates into “To err is human”.
Even a genius such as Bernini made some mistakes sometimes, and this is one of the reasons why the Chest of Cardinal Scipione Borghese is listed among our top 10 Borghese Gallery artwork.
The other reason is that the work portraits Cardinal Scipione himself, and we could not miss to mention a tribute to the man who made the Borghese Gallery possibile.
|Bernini’s “Bust of Cardinal Scipione Borghese” / Credits: image by @Roma_Wonder|
However, going back to Bernini’s mistake, it looks like the first bust sculpted by the artist, obviously commissioned by Cardinal Scipione himself, had a crack!
Bernini worked nights and days to sculpt a new bust for the Cardinal. This time the work was perfect and you can admire it in the Borghese Gallery.
The Cardinal was probably not the most handsome man in town. But certainly he was one of the most important figures in the papal court. Hence, Bernini portrays him wearing the papal cape with the typical hat.
The proud posture celebrates the importance of the Cardinal in the Roman Society. We love looking at the details of the clothes: look at the buttons and the folds of the cape!
10Correggio’s “Danae” – Room 10 “Room of Hercules” (1531)
The last Borghese Gallery Artwork we want to mention is “Danae” by Correggio.
Danae belonged to a series of paintings named “Amori di Giove”, a Mythological series of works based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, commissioned by Federico II Gonzaga as a gift to Charles V.
The theme of the painting draws inspiration from the myth of Danae, Greek heroine and the only child of King Acrisius of Argos.
According to legend, the Oracle of Delphi foretold the King of Argos that Danae’s future son will have caused his death. Hence, the king imprisoned Danae in a bronze tower, in a single richly decorated bedchamber, with no doors. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells that Jupiter turned himself into golden rain, reached Danae. From this encounter, Perseus was born.
|Carreggio’s “Danae” / Credits: image by @Roma_Wonder|
Danae is one of the few paintings of Correggio in which the scene is set within a domestic environment. The white, bright colors and the amorino angels contribute to convey an intimate atmosphere.
Two amorini angels are testing the resistance and purity of golden arrows on a stone. But only one of them has wings. This means that one comes from the sky, while the other from earth.
The central scene shows a winged herald gazing at a golden cloud, Jupiter. Golden drops are falling on Danae’s body. Her contemplative expression tells us she has accepted her fate to give birth to a special child, Perseus, son of an eternal, superior love.
This article about Borghese Gallery Artwork ends here! If it has inspired you to visit the museum in person we are glad and suggest you to check out “Borghese Gallery Reservations, Tickets and Hours” to plan your visit!