All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in December 2009.
Villa Borghese (part two) (Book 10) (Map A1) (Day 2) (View B6)
The private gardens have been less affected than the public ones by changes made by the Borghese, but they suffered because of the many statues and reliefs which were sold to Napoleon or at a later time to private collectors. In addition after they became a public garden in 1901 open spaces have replaced some of its woodland.
The original fountain in front of the casino was very different from the current one: its basin was similar in shape to Fontana del Moro, while its upper part resembled that of Fontana di Sisto V; it had on top a statue of Narcissus. Villa Borghese could rely on a constant supply of water thanks to a short aqueduct which branched off Acqua Felice.
The beginnings of the alleys were marked by modern herms; some of them are works by Pietro Bernini with the assistance of his young son Gian Lorenzo who was in charge of sculpting the fruit baskets.
Quite obviously the statues embellishing the garden were a second choice as the finest ones were kept indoors; they were however made more attractive by being placed on elaborate pedestals, which were very often decorated with the Borghese's heraldic symbols.
The subjects of the reliefs placed in the garden are not linked by an obvious thread; perhaps those representing wild animals and in particular elephants were an indication of the Cardinal's desire to show his guests a real elephant (Pope Leo X had a white elephant); he did have in Villa Borghese a cage with lions and enclosures with gazelles and ostriches; peacocks were left free to wander about.
The private garden had two main alleys: one led to the Casino, the second one was perpendicular to the first and it ended at Teatro, more exactly the hypothetical reconstruction of a scaenae frons, the wall on the back of the stage in a Roman theatre.
Prince Marcantonio IV Borghese (1730-1800) married Marianna Salviati, the last of that family and in 1769 he won a legal battle with the Doria Pamphilj about some possessions of the Aldobrandini (the last of the Aldobrandini had married first a Borghese and later on a Pamphilj). Having strengthened the finances of the family he embarked on a vast plan which the gardens of Villa Borghese and modified the decoration of the Casino interior; in this task he was assisted by Antonio and Mario Asprucci, the family architects, who were aware of the new neoclassical tendencies.
William Kent (1685-1748) was an architect who played a major role in defining the pattern of English landscape gardens; he spent several years in Rome, where he became acquainted with its ancient and modern buildings; after his return to England in 1719 he designed several gardens where he placed temples and statues in a "natural" environment rather than in the structured spaces of the Italian garden.
In particular he was impressed by Tempio di Vesta at Tivoli and similar circular temples made their appearance in the gardens he created and in those of his followers.
This new trend in gardening was known to Prince Marcantonio Borghese also because one of the painters in charge of embellishing the Casino was Jacob More, a landscape Scottish painter. The Asprucci were asked to build a circular temple in the "English fashion"; the decoration of the interior has a definite Wedgwood flavour.
Ragnaia (after Italian ragno = spider) was the name given to a structure of poles supporting nets which were used to catch birds for the aviary. The Asprucci used this vast space to design a low amphitheatre having the shape of those at Villa Mattei in Rome and at Boboli Gardens in Florence. It is named Piazza di Siena because the Borghese had their roots in that town. Since 1928 it is the venue of an international showjumping event.
Casa del Gallinaro (hen-house) was the name of a small building which was used to house not only hens, but also peacocks and ostriches. The Asprucci turned it into a sort of medieval fortress. The presence of a well indicates that the building existed before the construction of Villa Borghese which was supplied by an aqueduct since its foundation; most likely it belonged to a minor villa bought by Cardinal Borghese. The well is decorated with a very fine relief of the school of Andrea Bregno which shows the coat of arms of Cardinal Gabriele Rangoni; this cardinal was the papal envoy at the court of Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary; his presence in Rome is recorded for a few months in 1486, when he took part in the conclave which elected Pope Innocent VIII.
The most important addition to Villa Borghese was a Ionic temple on an islet in an artificial pond; the whole complex was surrounded by rocks and caves and it was accessed through serpentine walks. This setting was modified by the Borghese in 1823 and by the Italian State after the acquisition of the villa.
Marcantonio Borghese thought he had turned the public section of his villa into an English garden, but English visitors continued to regard it as an Italian garden with some follies.
More Recent Additions
In 1903 Emperor William II of Germany donated to the Italian State a Monument to Goethe by Gustav Eberlein; the poet is shown standing on a colossal Corinthian capital and is surrounded by statues portraying characters of his works Iphigenia in Tauris, Mignon and Faust.
Two years later the Romans watched the arrival of a French reply to the German gift: a monument to Victor Hugo by Lucien Pallez; because the French writer's association with Rome was rather loose (he visited the city when he was six) the inscription quoted a speech he made to praise Garibaldi.
They were the first of a long series of other monuments and statues which were placed in Villa Borghese.
You can spend A Sunny Day in Villa Borghese and see more of it.
Read Henry James's account of his visit to this site in 1873.
Read William Dean Howells' account of his visit to this site in 1908.
You can see some more pines of Villa Borghese in The Pines of Rome.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Next plate in Book 10: Villa e Casino Medici sul Monte Pincio
Next step in Day 2 itinerary: Muro Torto