Immersed in the lush greenery of Villa Borghese, just a few meters from one of the parts of Rome richest in monuments, is the Borghese Gallery, the largest private collection of art in the world. It’s almost impossible to imagine so many works concentrated in one single place: once inside you’re literally surrounded by splendid masterpieces, works of the most celebrated artists in history.
The concentration of so much beauty was the work of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. In 1600, he gave the commission for what would become his summer residence to the Dutch architect Van Santen, in Italian Vasanzio, who completed it in only a year.
The building is nothing more than a “typical” country house, with two towers, a portico, a large entry hall, the whole thing being given the look of a suburban Roman villa. Vasanzio covered the “U”-shaped façade with niches and antique sculptures, part of which were removed in the 19th century.
The villa was so perfect that it seemed like a grand Renaissance edifice in miniature. And to think that it was simply the family country home!
Cardinal Borghese was famous for being a passionate lover of all forms of art, particularly ancient and contemporary; he was also infamous for his use of any means at his disposal—legal and otherwise— to collect those inestimable treasures. This was how he managed over the course of years to group under a single roof —his!— sculptures and paintings by innumerable artists such as Titian, Raphael and Caravaggio.
For instance, he didn’t hesitate to have Raphael’s superb “Deposition” stolen at night from the church of Saint Francis in Perugia, causing the townspeople to riot.
Not satisfied, with a simple pretext he confiscated 197 works by the famous painter Cavalier D’Arpino, Caravaggio’s teacher, and even had the painter Domenichino imprisoned because the artist wouldn’t give the Cardinal his exquisite Hunt of Diana, ordered by another client.
Besides an expert eye, the cardinal also had a nose for new talent, such that he surrounded himself with young artists who produced beautiful works to adorn the Gallery halls. One example will do for all: the great Gian Lorenzo Bernini, just 20 years old, created masterpieces of sculpture such as “Apollo and Daphne”, “David” and “The Rape of Proserpine”, that are today at the center of one of the richest and most fascinating rooms of the museum.
And of course, there’s a portrait of the owner of the house: in fact, there are two of them, one next to the other. While sculpting the portrait, Bernini realized that the marble block on which he was working was defective, so, rather than disappoint his benefactor, he created a second bust, identical to the first —in a single night.
Various vicissitudes over the centuries have brought both new acquisitions and inevitable losses; for example, Camillo Borghese’s sale to Napoleon of more than 500 paintings and antique sculptures that, today, make up the Borghese Fund of the Louvre. Beside these certainly famous works, the museum has many others that are equally well-known: Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love”, the marvelous “David With Goliath’s Head” by Caravaggio, the “Pietà” of Rubens.
But perhaps the most famous statue of all is that of Paolina Borghese sculpted by Canova. At the start of the 1800s, another member of the Borghese family, Camillo, having married Napoleon’s sister, Paolina Bonaparte, had the great sculptor Antonio Canova create this famous image of his wife as the goddess Venus.
The sculpture was so perfect that Canova came up with a mechanism that made the statue rotate, to the immense surprise of the villa’s guests, so that it could be admired from all sides!
The museum is a marvelous voyage in time that allows us to admire works from different eras brought together in one harmonious whole, while we are observed by the vigilant and immortal glances of some of the most celebrated artwork of all time.