In this page:
Inside Casino Borghese:
- Cardinal Scipione Borghese and Gian Lorenzo Bernini
- Late XVIIIth Century Redesign
- Borghese Collection at the Louvre
- Present Borghese Collection
in page one:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
in page two:
More Recent Additions
You may wish to see page one first.
The exquisite grace and beauty of Canova's statues; the wonderful
gravity and repose of many of the ancient works in sculpture, both
in the Capitol and the Vatican; and the strength and fire of many
others; are, in their different ways, beyond all reach of words.
They are especially impressive and delightful, after the works of
Bernini and his disciples, in which the churches of Rome, from St.
Peter's downward, abound; and which are, I verily believe, the most
detestable class of productions in the wide world. (..) They were breezy maniacs; whose every
fold of drapery is blown inside-out; whose smallest vein, or
artery, is as big as an ordinary forefinger; whose hair is like a
nest of lively snakes; and whose attitudes put all other
extravagance to shame. Insomuch that I do honestly believe, there
can be no place in the world, where such intolerable abortions,
begotten of the sculptor's chisel, are to be found in such
profusion, as in Rome.
Charles Dickens - Pictures from Italy - 1846
This statement by Dickens was in line with the prevailing opinion of his time. It does not appear however that he actually saw the statues which young Bernini made for Cardinal Scipione Caffarelli Borghese and which are considered his masterpieces. He most likely based his judgement of John Murray's handbooks for travellers in Rome where the works by Bernini were associated with worst taste, beneath criticism, extravagancies and decay of taste and errors of his successors.
Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius fleeing Troy (1618)
I saw the Statue of Aeneas carrying his old Father Anchises upon his Back, out of burning Troy. The young Man is brawny and strong; the old man is made lean and weak; As also the young man shews a great deal of tender affection towards his Father, and the Father as much fear in his looks.
Richard Lassels' The Voyage of Italy, or a Compleat Journey through Italy in ca 1668
This group was for a long time attributed to Pietro, Gian Lorenzo's father, who was commissioned statues for the decoration of the gardens and was helped by his son.
The sculpture depicts Aeneas fleeing Troy while carrying his father, Anchises, on his shoulders with his young son, Ascanius, following close behind. The old man steadies himself on his son with one hand while the other hand grasps the Palladion, a wooden image of Athena Pallas above his son's head. The three generations are arranged in a precarious vertical composition. The finest part of the sculpture is the way the flagging skin of Anchises is treated which contrasts with that of Aeneas.
Cardinal Scipione was so pleased with this statue that he asked Bernini to make three other lifesize statues which would have complemented his collection of antiquities.
The first life-size sculpture which is entirely attributed to Bernini shows the maiden Persephone being abducted by Pluto, the god of the underworld, and being taken to Hades.
Rudolf Wittkower, the art historian whose works on Bernini in the 1930s reversed the negative opinions of the past, states: Bernini interpreted this old rape theme as a conflict between brutal lust and desperate anguish, emphasizing the contrasting feelings of the two figures by various compositional subtleties. That which immediately strikes the viewer is related to the fingers of Pluto which sink into the flesh of Persephone. Another one is given by the almost gigantic size of Pluto when compared to that of Persephone. The way her body twists away brings to mind The Abduction of the Sabines by Giambologna. The statue by Bernini was taken as a model by Pietro da Cortona for the decoration of Palazzo Pitti in Florence.
On the 17th November 1644: The new piece of Daphne, and David, of Cavaliero Bernini, is observable for the pure whiteness of the stone, and the art of the statuary plainly stupendous.
John Evelyn's Diary and Correspondence
I saw the Statue also of David slinging at Goliah. He frowns so terribly as he slings, that you would swear he intends to fright him with his looks, and then kill him with his sling. Lassels
In this Villa, there are also some highly esteemed pieces by Bernini. Aeneas carrying his father; David slinging the stone at Goliah; and Apollo pursuing Daphne: the last is generally reckoned Bernini's masterpiece; for my part, I have so bad a taste as to prefer the second. The figure of David is nervous, with great anatomical justness, and a strong expression of keenness and exertion to hit his mark, and kill his enemy.
John Moore - A View of Society and Manners in Italy - 1781
The statue of David was the last to be commissioned. There were two established iconographies of the Biblical king. One was developed in Florence by Donatello, Verrocchio and Michelangelo and it depicted David as a young hero, a symbol of liberty and of the Man of the Renaissance. Another iconographic pattern regarded David as a Christian prophet and portrayed him playing the harp, a reference to the many psalms attributed to him. This latter iconography was that preferred by the Catholic Church and it was followed in the decoration of the transept of S. Giovanni in Laterano, only a few years before Cardinal Scipione commissioned the statue. It can be seen also in the decoration of Colonna dell'Immacolata in 1857.
Bernini was a great admirer of the Florentine statues of David, but he wanted to depart from them. He did not attempt to imitate their already iconic faces and postures and in particular those of Michelangelo's David which in 1550 Giorgio Vasari praised with these words: And, of a truth, whoever has seen this work need not trouble to see any other work executed in sculpture, either in our own or in other times, by no matter what craftsman.
Bernini therefore designed a completely different David in the act of throwing the stone and for the face he depicted his own, rather than looking for one which conformed to the tenets of classical beauty.
Hall of the Sun with Bernini's David (1624)
The same course that brought Michelangelo to impassable
places and steep cliffs plunged Bernini, by contrast, into swamps and puddles.
He sought to ennoble forms taken from lowest nature by exaggeration, as it
were, and his figures are like common people who have suddenly met with
good fortune: their expression is often contradicted by their action, as when
Hannibal laughed in extreme grief. Nonetheless, this artist has long sat on the
throne and homage is paid to him even today.
Johann Joachim Winckelmann - History of Ancient Art - 1764
Winckelmann failed to notice that Bernini was a great admirer of the ancient statues and that he often developed his own works from the study of an ancient masterpiece, in this case the "Borghese Gladiator" and a satyr throwing a shepherd stick which were part of the Cardinal's collection.
For certainly This Statue does not yield in the Number, or the Quality of its Beauties to any that are in Italy, Ancient, or Modern; and with this Advantage, that as it has it self the most Lovely Air, and Shape of a Young Lady that ever was, 'tis contrasted by the most Beautiful one too of a Young Man, the Apollo, which has just overtaken heir. His Air is Wild, and Fearful; his Lips a little open as panting for Breath, and after all his pains he just touches her timorously, and draws back his Arm a little, by which is seen the greatest Respect, mixt with the greatest Passion. Bernini did not think fit to follow the Proportions of the Venus as to the Shape of the Daphne, who is more Tall and Slender without that Largeness of Hips which is so remarkable in the
Venus; this indeed is something owing to, the Attitudes of both; One stands, and bends a little, which makes the Hips larger, and t'other
is running, which as it requires a Shape more degage does not spread the Hips as the other. (..) What I have to add is, that as the Metamorphosis is just begun, the Bark covering some parts, and the Branches sprouting from the Extremities, the whole Figure rises with
such a tree-like Sweep as at once is very Beautiful, as well as finely imagined: And not only the Sweep of the Figures, but the Raising of
the Arms above the Head, and her Feet being put upon a Ground something higher than that on which Apollo is, so as to bring her Head above his, All humours the same Thought. There are two other Particulars which I will not omit; one is, that when this Groupe is shewn they strike it with a Key, or some such thing, and it rings as if 'twas of hollow Metal. The other, and much more considerable is, that Bernini was but 18 Years old when he did it.
Jonathan and Jonathan Richardson - Account of Some of the Statues, etc. in Italy - 1722
On the upper story are grouped three interesting works of Bernini's youth. Aeneas carrying away his Father is a rather cold group, without great elevation, but in which the legs are very fine and the execution consummately skilful; the artist was fifteen when he worked with this authority. David with his Sling is a portrait of Bernini at twenty; his Daphne pursued by Apollo, struggling in the arms of the god, and crying out while undergoing transformation, is a work of just renown - a vivid piece, executed with great force and knowledge in its minutest details, and which must have shed the halo of round a brow of only eighteen springs.
Francis Wey - Rome, its Churches, Monuments, Art, and Antiquities - 1903 English edition.
Wey wrote this piece in 1872 when Winckelmann's views on Bernini began to be regarded as too negative in respect of the sculptor's early works, because they did not take into account how he mastered the technical aspects of them.
At that time the statues by Bernini were grouped in a room in the upper floor and the sculptor's biography was imprecise. The first modern monograph on Bernini was written in 1900 by Stanislao Fraschetti.
Details of Apollo and Daphne and inscription dictated by Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, future Pope Urban VIII on one side of the pedestal
Ovid - The Metamorphoses - 1828 interlinear translation
According to Greek mythology, Apollo (struck by Eros with a golden arrow) fell in love with Daphne, a nymph and he pursued her. Eros however struck Daphne with a lead arrow, which made her afraid of love. When Apollo overtook Daphne, she cried out to her father, a river god, who, in the nick of time, spirited her away and left a laurel tree in her place. Apollo made a wreath from the leaves of the laurel tree to console himself.
The decision by Cardinal Scipione to decorate his villa with statues having pagan subjects such as the Rape of Proserpina and Apollo and Daphne was criticized by some other cardinals who dared voice their views because Pope Paul V, the Cardinal's uncle had died in 1621. Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, a friend of Scipione and a great admirer of Bernini's talent, suggested to place on the pedestal a reference to Ovid and a Latin distich (a poem of two verses, a hexameter and a pentameter) he wrote for the occasion which said: Whatever lover pursues the joy of fleeting beauty/fills his hands with leaves or plucks bitter fruit, thus conveying an appropriate Christian morale to the statue.
This is the first work which earned Bernini that fame of "breezy maniac" which was mentioned by Dickens. As a matter of fact he created Apollo and Daphne by adopting a technique based on joining together separate parts of the statue. This allowed him to show the effect of the race speed on the floating mantle of Apollo. Unlike Michelangelo, Bernini did not carve his statues from a single block of marble. In addition he preferred to use slightly veined marbles, rather than the very white ones.
In 1623 Cardinal Barberini was elected Pope Urban VIII and he "requisitioned" Bernini for the next twenty years. He wanted the young artist to express his creativity as an architect in the design of palaces, churches and fountains. During this period his activity as sculptor was linked to his work as an architect, as in the case of the statue of St. Longinus in the Octagon of S. Pietro. Bernini however managed to make some busts which were highly praised in Rome and abroad. He was about to finish a bust of Cardinal Scipione, a gift by Pope Urban VIII, when a break in the marble materialized. In a matter of days he made a second bust. Eventually the first one was repaired. Cardinal Scipione died in the following year, but the busts show him still full of life.
Museo e Galleria Borghese (i.e. the national museum inside the casino) houses a lifesize statue by Bernini which he did not make for that location, but for his own residence. After the death of Pope Urban VIII in 1644 Bernini fell out of favour with the successor, Pope Innocent X.
The subject of the statue he made for himself had an evident reference to that difficult period of his life. Time would have re-established the truth about his value as an artist and particularly as an architect. Bernini did not complete the group by making the statue of Time, because he eventually gained the new Pope's benevolence by designing Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi. The statue belonged to the Bernini family until 1928 when it was bought by the Italian State.
You may wish to see an ancient statue of Sleeping Hermaphroditus which was restored by Bernini for Cardinal Scipione and which is now at the Louvre.
The museum houses a number of paintings which embellished the Cardinal's town palace. Those above were acquired with a stratagem. Cavalier d'Arpino was the leading painter in Rome at the end of the XVIth century. In 1599 he was elected Prince of Accademia di S. Luca, i.e. head of the guild of the Roman artists. He was very well paid and he gathered a collection of paintings in his house which eventually became Palazzo Rondinini. In 1607 he was charged with hiding guns in his house and imprisoned. He rapidly regained his freedom, but his collection was confiscated by Camera Apostolica, the Treasury of the Papal State, from which Cardinal Scipione easily acquired it. D'Arpino had many early paintings by Caravaggio.
Domenico Guidi was a pupil of Alessandro Algardi, the only sculptor who challenged the supremacy of Bernini in XVIIth century Rome. His master had shown his talent and his skill in a bust of Olimpia Maidalchini at Palazzo Pamphilj and Guidi demonstrated he had learnt from him by making a very similar sculpture. It was bought by the Italian State in 1907.
The other two statues shown above belong to the original decoration of the casino. Their design resembled that of the ancient works of art which were on display, but they added a touch of colour and luxury to the overall appearance of the collection.
Ceiling of the Entrance Hall by Mariano Rossi: detail showing Marcus Furius Camillus defeating the Gauls
The interior of the casino was almost entirely redecorated after 1775 by Prince Marcantonio IV Borghese with the assistance of Antonio and Mario Asprucci, the family architects. The purpose was that to emphasize the link between the building and the works of art of ancient Rome and Greece which it housed. Some details had references to the Borghese themselves e.g. the depiction of Camillus in the ceiling of the Entrance Hall was a way to celebrate the birth of Camillo, Marcantonio's first son and a tribute to Cardinal Camillo Borghese, i.e. Pope Paul V.
Some of the halls were named after an ancient masterpiece they housed. This hall was named after a statue of Silenus, a satyr, with Infant Dionysus which was sold to Napoleon in 1807 (it is very similar to one at Musei Vaticani). It was replaced with another ancient statue of Silenus which was restored/completed by Bertel Thorvaldsen. Today the room is perhaps better known as Caravaggio's Hall for the many paintings by him on its walls. Cardinal Scipione bought other paintings by Caravaggio in addition to those he had acquired from Cavalier d'Arpino. You may wish to see one of the last works by Caravaggio at Messina.
Ceiling of the Hall of Silenus by Giovanni Battista Marchetti and Tommaso Conca
The ceiling of this hall shows the influence of those illusionistic effects which characterised the interior of many Roman churches. In this ceiling however the figures do not look towards the sky, but towards the viewer; they are not gazing at the sky in rapture, but they seem to be jeering the visitors.
Ceiling of the Egyptian Hall by Giovanni Battista Marchetti and Tommaso Conca
This ceiling reflects the changes in taste which occurred in the late XVIIIth century. The partition is very neat with few subjects inside frames. The Egyptian collection of the Borghese was mainly made of Roman statues in Egyptian attire and in particular of those found at Villa Adriana.
The design of the Hall of Paris was similar to that of the Egyptian Hall and these two halls were the most praised ones during the XIXth century. The Hall of Paris was known as Hall of the Victorious Venus between 1838 and 1881 because it housed a statue of Venus by Antonio Canova which portrayed Paolina, sister of Napoleon and wife of Prince Camillo Borghese.
March 1822. In the gardens we frequently meet the Princess Pauline; sometimes alone but oftener surrounded by a cortege of beaux. She is no longer the "Venere Vincitrice" of Canova; but her face though faded, is pretty and intelligent; and she still preserves the "andar celeste," and all the distinguished elegance of her petite and graceful figure. Of the stories told of her, I suppose one half may be true and that half is quite enough. She is rather more famous for her gallantries, than for her bon-gout in the choice of her favourites; but it is justice to Pauline to add that her native benevolence of heart seems to have survived all her frailties; and every one who speaks of her here, even those who must condemn her, mention her in a tone of kindness, and even of respect. She is still in deep mourning for the Emperor.
Anna Jameson - Diary of an Ennuyée - 1826
Victorious Venus was the only modern statue of the casino which was described in detail by Rev. Jeremiah Donovan in Rome ancient and modern - 1843, a very detailed guide to Rome:
Her pretty form is here idealised with all the simplicity, grace and beauty that characterised the chastened chisel of the first sculptor of modern times, the renovator of modern taste, the restorer of the fine forms of Nature and the antique, as is illustrated in this, his favourite work.
In 1908 William Dean Howells elaborated on the subject:
As the masterpiece of the sculptor it testifies to an ideal of his art for which the world has reason to be grateful. Criticism does not now put Canova on the height where we once looked up to him; but criticism is a fickle thing, especially in its final judgments; and one cannot remember the behaviour of the Virtues in some of the baroque churches without paying homage to the portrait of a lady who, whatever she was, was not a Virtue, but who yet helped the sculptor to realize in her statue a Venus of exceptional propriety. Tame, yes, we may now safely declare Canova to have been, but sane we must allow; and we must never forget that he has been the inspiration in modern sculpture of the eternal Greek truth of repose from which the art had so wildly wandered.
Ceiling of the Hall of Hercules by Cristoforo Unterberger who designed also Fontana dei Cavalli Marini in the public gardens. The painting depicts the Death of Hercules
Prince Marcantonio IV was one of the many Roman noblemen (e.g. Cardinal Alessandro Farnese) who identified themselves with Hercules and one of the halls was dedicated to the mythical hero. It is maybe that where the heraldic symbols of the Borghese (eagles and dragons) are more evident.
Landscape paintings with ancient ruins in the foreground or in the background were very popular throughout Europe and a number of foreign painters in Rome earned their living by selling them in their home countries. These paintings became even more popular in the late XVIIIth century because of the renewed attention for the ancient monuments and the first archaeological excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii.
Bamboccianti i.e. makers of puppets, was the derogative term by which Italian painters referred to the foreign ones who specialized in small paintings portraying Roman scenes of life. Salvator Rosa, a painter of the XVIIth century complained that his customers requested scenes portraying rogues, cheats, pickpockets, bands of drunks and gluttons, scabby tobacconists, barbers, and other 'sordid' subjects (not to mention card sharps). The small paintings which decorate some doors of the casino belong to this genre. That showing Neapolitan buskers is interesting because it depicts a putipù (pron. pooh-teeh-pooh) a friction drum, consisting of a cylindrical sound box closed at the top by a stretched membrane, with a bamboo cane attached at the centre. It is still used by folk bands.
Decorative motifs which decorate some of the halls, that on the right brings to mind Villa Giulia
(left/centre) Statues of Dacian prisoners which decorated the façade of the casino: (right) porphyry exhibits
The statues of the Borghese Collection which were sold to Napoleon are at the Louvre Museum; many of them are grouped in a large gallery which is part of the Roman Antiquities Collection. Their origin is always stated in the labels near each item on display. Because there are so many other works of art at the Louvre the Borghese statues do not attract many visitors.
(left) Diana (it decorated a small round temple in the public gardens); (centre) Moorish Slave aka The Gypsy Girl; (right) The Old Angler or "Dying Seneca"
In some instances the ancient statues were so largely "restored" by sculptors of the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries that the Louvre Museum could place them in the Gallery of Italian Sculptures.
In the statues of Diana and of the Moorish Slave only the central section in alabaster or yellow marble is partially original. All the rest was made by a modern sculptor, in the case of the Moorish Slave Nicolas Cordier, a French sculptor in Rome who worked for the Borghese. A bust by him at S. Agnese was attributed to Michelangelo.
Seneca in the Bath; Prodigious Expression of a Weak Old Man! He has lost so much Blood that He can hardly support himself upon his Legs, which bend and give way under him. His Air is Savage, and very Disagreeable; for that if this Statue has any Fault, I think it is that he seems to be a Criminal that has been long kept in a Dungeon before his Execution; for his Hair is all neglected, and nasty and his Face and the whole Figure has an apparent want of dignity tho' perhaps something of this may be owing to the Colour of the Statue (which is Black) and the Alabaster Whites of the Eyes. Richardson
The Old Angler is recorded in a 1599 list of statues at Palazzo Altemps. It was heavily restored and placed in a dark basin in order to turn it into Seneca taking his last bath. You may wish to see a painting by Peter Paul Rubens based on this statue (it opens in another window).
Statues of the Borghese collection which are copies of Greek ones: (left) The "Borghese Gladiator"; (centre) Heracles with baby Telephus (similar to one found near Teatro di Pompeo); (right) the original M(useo) B(orghese) reference number on one of the statues
Gladiator going to strike his Adversary. For this purpose he springs forward, and gives himself the utmost Force that a Body so Robust, and Well fit as His is capable of. The Strength of the Hercules is of Another kind: He appears by his own Native Force to be able to crush any thing that resists him; and one is sure by only seeing That Figure, that whoever comes against him will be immediately Finish'd; But the Gladiator who is much Lighter built gives Himself such Activity and Elasticity, that all his Muscles seem to tremble with Eagerness: And tho' they would Equally be victorious Hercules would be so by the mere Lourd Weight of his Blow, but the Gladiator by that Vigorous Spring of His. Richardson
The statues, mainly white marbles, which can be associated with lost Greek originals are placed in the Greek Antiquities Collection. This section has many more visitors than that of the Roman antiquities, but only because of the Venus de Milo which is in the list of the ten must see exhibits.
Leda and the Swan (IIIrd century AD - very restored)
The enormous number of the statues assembled in the Palace of the Villa Borghese occasions a lively astonishment, when we learn the origin of so rich a gallery. When Prince Camillo Borghese had seen his collection depart for the Louvre, where it constitutes the museum of antiquities, he was seized in presence of his depopulated galleries with a very natural regret; then he had all his estates thoroughly explored, and they gave him, like the sowing of Cadmus (the founder of Thebes who sowed the teeth of a dragon he had killed in the ground, from which there sprang a race of fierce armed men), a second crop of men in marble, yet more abundant than the first. Such is the source of the present collection. What treasures must be hidden in a soil out of which, without leaving your own property, you extract a quarry of statues!
Francis Wey - Rome, its Churches, Monuments, Art, and Antiquities - 1903 English edition.
Sarcophagus depicting the Labours of Hercules, a "Sidamara type" sarcophagus i.e. with scenes inside niches or other frames (IInd century AD from today's Turkey - you may wish to see a page on the manufacturing of sarcophagi in the Roman Empire)
Some of the ancient works of art were arranged in order to obtain the maximum decorative effect. A sarcophagus decorated with the twelve Labours of Hercules was cut in order to obtain two long sides with five Labours each. These were then assembled with other reliefs on two opposite walls of the Hall of the Sun, but in the process the two Labours on the short sides were lost. This sarcophagus was described by Winckelmann so it was part of the old collection.
Mosaics representing sea deities (IIIrd century AD - very restored)
Perhaps the most important finding of the campaign launched by Prince Camillo to replenish his collections was a large mosaic depicting the deaths of a number of gladiators. It was found in 1834 at Torrenova, a Borghese estate not far from Tor Pignattara, along Via Casilina. You can see some details of it in the page covering that location. The Sleeping Hermaphroditus which was taken by Napoleon was replaced by a very similar one which was in the town palace.
Statues in the Entrance Hall: (left) Satyr throwing a shepherd stick (IInd century AD); (centre) Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, very similar to that found near S. Lucia in Selci; (right) Dionysus (IInd century AD)