28 July 2012

Villa Borghese - palace of the arts

When he built Villa Borghese on the northern outskirts of Rome, Cardinal Scipione Borghese's collecting passion was accounted for. His uncle, Camillo Borghese, had been elected Pope Paul V in May 1605, so the family was already assured its place in history. But the Cardinal wanted more than a sumptuous private residence and diplomatic seat.

The Borgheses were not the first family to build luxury villas. The U shaped plan had two projecting side wings, a central portico surmounted by a terrace and a facade decorated with antique sculptures in the Mannerist style. Lying between the two towers was an open loggia with a fresco by Lanfranco, looking out onto a garden.

Decorated room, with sculptures, furniture and ceiling murals

By 1614 the villa was up and running, and his 200 sculptures, his tapestries and furniture could be moved ino the villa. The paintings came marginally later. The walls were covered with multi-coloured Roman marbles and the floors were set with polychromed marble inlays; no space was left undecorated in the entire villa. The tables were polished wood, set with polychromed marble inlays, fine cabinet work and mirrors.

That should have been enough! Yet stunning paintings by Caravaggio, Domenichino, Dosso Dossi, Raphael, Titian and Reni had to find space on top of the decorated walls. Sculptures had to find space in each room, also jostling for the visitor's attention in a sea of cultural objects and visual stimulation. Later on, Berninis and Rubens were added to the collection.

If the rooms were over-decorated, the huge gardens were perfect. The park was originally divided into three areas enclosed by walls, but these were later knocked down and the open spaces were crossed back and forward by paths. Trees everywhere and well placed sculptural pieces made the gardens a place of green retreat in a very busy, noisy city. And the Pincian Hill of ancient Rome, in the south part of the park, offers a very special view over Rome.

Front entrance

Life does not stand still, of course. There was radical restructuring of the entire villa ordered by Marcantonio IV Borghese in the 1770-1800 era, on the interiors and to the gardens. But worse was to come when Camillo Borghese, husband of Pauline Bonaparte, sold many of the collectibles to Napoleon for 13 million francs. These pieces are now in the Louvre, readily identified as the Borghese Collection. The Romans acted quickly and forbad the dispersal of Listed Cultural Items, but it was too late for the Borgheses. In any case, the villa, gardens and collections were bought by the Italian state in 1902.

Part of the English gardens


Parnassus said...

At least the interiors were large and light in color, which keeps them from being too claustrophobic. Still, those gardens provide a welcome respite. Were they installed in the later regime?
--Road to Parnassus

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Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:
It is the vast sums of money expended at the time on palaces such as this which becomes so very difficult to imagine. And yet here is living proof that it could, in some way or another, be afforded.

Hels said...


The gardens are truly magical. They were beautiful from the very beginning, given that the villa was where the family could live surrounded by peace, beauty and vast space. But yes, there were a number of significant changes to the gardens over the centuries.

It was very hot when I visited a fortnight ago and Rome was quite oppressive. But wandering around the gardens was a pleasure.

Hels said...

Koh Samui,

Thank you. I agree, in general.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance,

I decided instantly that next life, I am going to be a cardinal and the niece of a pope. Quite tricky, since I am a woman and a Jew, but seeing Villa Borghese made the decision a simple one :)

The paintings are so special that Cardinal Scipione either had a great eye for art himself or he was well advised.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your business/blog card in Rome. I followed your recommendation and loved Villa Borgese. Which were your favorite paintings.

An American Tourist in Rome

Hels said...

American Tourist

Glad you had a successful visit. I loved many of the paintings but particularly the three Caravaggio masters: Madonna of the Palafrenieri 1605; John the Baptist in the Desert 1606 and David with the Head of Goliath 1613. How could one collector have cornered THREE of them?

etc, etc said...

Interior pictured is the Salone degli Imperatori (Hall of the Emperors).

Re: "over-decoration"

I suppose if one has any inclination towards a modern, minimalist aesthetic (and that would probably include almost everyone) things like this will be seen as over-decorated, baroque-ish atrocities. I do like it and think of it as a synthesis of living space and museum, albeit clearly favoring the "museum" aspect.

Joseph said...

Etc etc

Thank you, I should have said exactly that.

I don't need a Bauhaus room that has 4 white walls, a white ceiling, white furniture and 2 cushion covers in a primary colour. But I didn't expect to need sunglasses inside, either.

The question of purpose is an interesting one. I suppose Villa Borghese was set up as a domestic living space in the first instance and only developed as a museum later. In more modern times, that would be like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The Frick Museum in New York, on the other hand, was set up from the first day as a museum in which the Fricks happened to live, until they died.

Hels said...

Etc etc

Sorry for the answer coming from the wrong partner. I wrote it myself whilst still in Portugal, but accidentally used Joe's account.


Bali Hotels said...

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Hels said...

Bali Hotels

for gorgeous photos of dozens of the villa's art objects, read Architect Design: