The Borghese Galleries is small enough to visit in two hours, and it is packed with world-class masterpieces

The Borghese Galleries
Rome's Princess is Receiving Again

[Regions of Italy]
Reservations are mandatory!
Book now to avoid missing Italy's loveliest museum.

A Virtual Tour of La Galleria Borghese
Click on the pictures to see them enlarged.

Self-Portrait as a Mature Man,
by G.L. Bernini

The Deposition,
by Pier Paul Rubens

Pluto and Proserpina,
by G.L. Bernini

Self-Portrait as a Young Man,
by G.L. Bernini

Pauline Borghese,
by Antonio Canova

by G.L. Bernini

Madonna of the Palafrenier,
by Caravaggio

The Deposition,
by Raphael

Reservations are mandatory!
Book now to avoid missing Italy's loveliest museum.

The Last Supper,
by Jacobo Bassano

by Domenichino

Sacred and Profane Love,
by Titian

Photos from The Borghese Gallery, sold at the museum.

Some cities are great museum towns: Florence is perhaps the best example. Other cities are museums in themselves: Rome tops that list for me. In fact, I often commit artistic heresy by advising folks who can spend only two or three days in Rome to skip the museums altogether. Not go to the Vatican?! Well, as they've been saying in Rome for centuries, "De gustibus" (to each his own). I think the city of Rome has so much to offer that it's a shame spending half a day walking the miles of aisles that lead to the Sistine Chapel. "When in Rome," I say, "visit museums on Day Four."

Since September, I've been committing artistic heresy number two. "Time for only one museum in Rome? That's easy. Make it the Borghese Gallery." Reopened after 17 years of vast restorations, it houses a world-class collection of art that spans two millennia and can actually be seen in a pleasant two or three hours. In addition to the works themselves, you get to explore virtually every nook and cranny of an extraordinary villa. Intended solely as an entertainment palace and a showplace for what was long considered to be the finest non-royal art collection in the world, it was commissioned in 1613 by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the favorite nephew of Pope Paul V. Although he was often unscrupulous in his dealings with artists, he had a superb eye and was hugely influential in the careers of many of our favorites, including Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Caravaggio, Domenichino, Guido Reni and Peter Paul Rubens. In building his Gallery and Gardens he was clearly imitating the emperor Hadrian; in our times we might liken him to J. Paul Getty.

Like many great beauties, the Borghese knows how to play hard to get. Walk-ins are not accepted. Ticket holders are allowed in only once every two hours. You must reserve your tickets in advance. You can carry nothing in except the glasses on your nose. To begin this pilgrimage, go down the steps into the basement, pick up your previously-reserved tickets and a guidebook (highly recommended). A few minutes before your golden moment, go back downstairs, walk straight through to the back of the building and join the other "supplicants" waiting to be let past the velvet ropes. Once you are approved for entry, climb the delightful spiral steps. This is literally your stairway to heaven, for at the top is a vast salon whose ceiling bears a majestic fresco in which Giovanni Lanfranco depicted Jupiter surrounded by the council of the gods. It's the first of many breathtaking frescoes and wall decorations that rival the collection's more illustrious masterpieces. No matter how hard it may be, force yourself to look at these "incidental decorations" in each room as you enter it (before the big shots thoroughly distract you!).

My favorite paintings in the Lanfranco salon are the side-by-side self portraits of G.L. Bernini, as a young man and as a mature man. About a decade separates them, and although the setting, the clothing, even the haircut are virtually identical, there is in the eyes of the young man a wariness, almost a fear, that has been tempered in the older, by now successful artist. Bernini is not as well-known in the world as are, say, Michelangelo and Leonardo, but he is Rome's favorite son. You will see his work everywhere you go, perhaps most spectacularly in the Piazza Navona Fountain of Four Rivers. He was unbelievably precocious, as can be witnessed in the sculpture of The Goat Almathea, in the same room. This whimsical view of two infants playing with a large woolly goat was completed when the artist was barely 17 years old. Rounding out his substantial contribution to this room are two busts of the patron himself, Cardinal Borghese, and an equestrian statue that made Louis XIV resemble an erotic god of love. Although it is pleasing to the modern eye, you can understand why it was one of Bernini's rare artistic failures.

Let me just mention a very few of the other unforgettable works that now reside on the Borghese's top floor. Room XV is dominated by Jacopo Bassano's Last Supper. This 16th-century masterpiece contrasts starkly with the Suppers of most artists, who usually depicted the scene in a formal or melancholy way. Here the apostles crowd around the table, a riotous mess of colorful robes, bare feet and muscular working class arms, looking like they're about to start a game of poker. Next door, I love the swirling crowd of worshippers in Pellegrino Tibaldi's Adoration of the Christ.

At this point I quicken my pace toward Room XVIII, where I am equally captivated by Rubens' Deposition and Badalocchio's Entombment of Christ. They represent two opposite approaches to chiaroscuro. The figures in the entombment scene are the epitome of human elegance, expressing their grief in a channel of emotion and light that flows steadily toward Christ and the tomb. Rubens' figures are much more fluid, almost impressionistic, bathed in a glow that spills down on them from a tear in the clouds, which reflects the gashes in Christ's flesh. His lifeless arms are already turning the same dark inky blue as the tempestuous sky. The canvas completely overwhelms the "small" room.

To calm myself down a little, I now pause before Domenichino's gorgeous Sybil, in Room XIX. Also fascinating in the same room is Federico Barrocci's Aeneas' Flight from Troy. It inspired one of the great masterpieces you'll see downstairs, Bernini's statue of the same theme. In Room XX, I love the thoroughly rambunctious baby Jesus in Lorenzo Lotto's Madonna with Child, St. Flavian and St. Onophrius. Room XX is a tough one, because it offers way too many wonderful paintings, all of which are overshadowed by Titian's mature Venus Blindfolding Cupid, and his masterpiece Sacred and Profound Love, painted when he was only 25. This is the work that originally put the Borghese "on the map." In 1899 the Rothschilds offered to buy it at a price that exceeded the estimated value of the whole gallery and all the other works in it. Miraculously, the offer was refused.

Of course, Titian's are not the only glorious nudes in the Borghese. Across the terrace in Room X is Correggio's Danäe, a lady who enraptured all Europe for three centuries. Actually, this room is full of nude women, men and children! My favorites are the cuddly baby Jesus and young St. John in Andrea del Sarto's painting.

To return to a more spiritual level, step into Room IX, where you'll find Raphael's Deposition, Perugino's Madonna and Child, Fra Bartolomeo's Adoration, and Pinturicchio's Crucifixion. Despite the intrusion of an ugly plexiglass cover, Raphael's work is poignant and personal. I've always thought his Christ looks like a wounded grey water bird. Next door in Room XII, Sodoma's Pietà is one of my personal favorites. There's nothing comforting about this work. It's dark and depressing. Christ looks much older than his virginal mother. Contrast him with the same artist's adorable baby Jesus, in the same room.

After all this inspiration, we must now subject ourselves once again to the hairbrained modern organization of the Borghese. Descend the same spiral staircase you came up by. Go outdoors into the formal garden. Turn right and walk around to the front of the building. Climb the external stairs that lead to the "ground" floor. Show the guard your ticket and walk back into the building. End of annoying 20th-century interruption.

To my mind, the ground floor entrance hall of the Galleria Borghese is one of the world's most spectacular rooms. High above your head is Mariano Rossi's fresco of Jupiter, beaming down on a host of local deities including Romulus and Remus, the Capitoline Geese, the River Tiber, the Tiburtine Sibyl and others. Beneath your feet are several ancient mosaics, most notably the 4th-century BC depiction of gladiators. All along the walls are classical statues, busts, reliefs, stuccos, cameos, columns, pediments, medallions and other monumental bric-a-bric, and a truly dramatic equestrian statue by Bernini's father, Pietro. The restorations to this salon have greatly improved it, removing a variety of 19th-century additions (in Rome, one of the most dreaded phrases you can utter is "19th-century additions").

If I were Dante, I would call what follows now "the eight circles of heaven." We start in Room I, where Antonio Canova's Pauline Bonaparte lounges on her sumptuous marble and wood sofa (which once rotated, by the way). Be careful not to let your love of Pauline distract you from Valadier's Herm, which features an exquisite bronze head atop a golden marble body. Room II is dominated by Bernini's David, executed at about the same time as the artist's Self-Portrait as a Young Man (Room XIV). The Old Testament hero's eyes bear a very similar expression, yet here it reads as anger and determination.

Room III is the metamorphosis chamber. Here are Dosso Dossi's paintings of Circe (or Melissa) changing humans into lemurs, and his Apollo, along with Bernini's delicate Apollo and Daphne. Just look at how the innocent maiden is already turning into a tree, to elude the god's lascivious advances! For an idea of Bernini's extraordinary talents, consider that this statue was finished the year before David and the year after the Pluto and Proserpina in Room IV. An even earlier work, the previously mentioned Aeneas and Anchises, is in Room VI, near what many consider to be the artist's most personal work, Truth. Almost 40 years separate the two figures.

Many masterful classical pieces fill the remaining rooms on this floor. Room VII was designed in the Egyptian style. It makes a fitting antechamber to "the inner circle of heaven." In this room we can forgive all the venal sins of the 20th-century masters of the Borghese, for perhaps the most brilliant thing they did when renovating the museum was to gather up six large canvases that had formerly been scattered throughout the building. Now, the last room you visit at the Borghese is devoted almost entirely to Caravaggio. I will leave it up to you to decide which is your favorite. In my own case, I find it changes each time I visit the gallery. Save plenty of time for this room, because in true Borghese fashion, it also contains several other masterful paintings you might otherwise overlook. Perhaps fittingly, given the many picaresque episodes in Caravaggio's life, the center of the room is occupied by a riveting classical statue of a satyr.

by Kristin Jarratt

La Galleria Borghese is at Piazza Scipione Borghese, 5, in the northeast corner of the Borghese Gardens. You can walk there from Via Veneto, along Via Pinciana.

[Regions of Italy]