Honors in Rome - Summer 2006
Located to the north of Rome’s historic center, on the Pincian Hill, the Villa Borghese is featured prominently on local maps. The magnificent estate, with its lush gardens and scenic gravel paths, covers an area of 688 hectares, making it one of the largest public parks in Rome. However, its significance lies not in its size or its geography, but rather in its monumental status among scholars and historians of art. Housed within the Casino Borghese, unquestionably the centerpiece of the Villa, is one of most extensive and venerated collections of ancient, Renaissance, and Baroque art in the world. Paintings and statues, each utter manifestations of genius, find their homes along the walls, within niches, and upon pedestals in the many numbered rooms of the Casino, traversing millennia and civilizations. Some of the most impressive works in the collection, the statue groups by Bernini, are to be examined in the following sections. Also, it is important to discuss certain themes concerning the creation and function of the Villa Borghese within a historical context.
II. The Borghese Family
Such a context would not be complete without a brief biography of the family for whom the Villa Borghese is named. Originally lawyers from Siena, the Borghese, under the leadership of their patriarch Marcantonio I, made their way to Rome in the 16th century with the intent of shedding their modest roots and adorning themselves as Roman nobility. These ambitions were quickly realized in the first part of the 17th century when Camillo Borghese, son of the first Marcantonio, was elected pope in 1605, taking the name of Paul V. Once in power, Paul was quick to establish his family in both the secular and ecclesiastical realms. In casting the traditional role of a cardinal-nephew, he chose his sister’s son, Scipione Borghese, who was only 26 at the time. Scipione is famous as an infallibly astute judge of artistic talent and a prolific, if somewhat unscrupulous, collector of works, and also as the Baroque genius Bernini’s first patron. His cousin, Paul V’s other nephew, Marcantonio II, became the heir to the family fortune and the progenitor of the Borghese line, and was rewarded with princedoms and other titles. In the family’s ascent, largely guided by Cardinal Scipione, through the social hierarchy of Rome, the Borghese forged important alliances through marriages to well-established families, such as the Orsini, and invested heavily in land with the income from Scipione’s numerous church offices.
III. History of the Villa Borghese
In their claim to status, the Borghese found it necessary to engage in numerous and elaborate building projects. For Pope Paul V, these were mostly of a public, and aquatic, nature. On the other hand, Scipione applied himself more to the raising of private estates, in particular the Villa Borghese. In 1610, the Cardinal hired papal architect Flaminio Ponzio to begin the design and construction of the Villa on the Pincian Hill. Ponzio worked until his death in 1613, after which his duties were assumed by Giovanni Vasanzio, who completed the Villa in 1625. Nearly two centuries later, long after the death of Scipione Borghese, Prince Marcantonio IV, a descendant of Marcantonio II, initiated a huge renovation project under the direction of Antonio Asprucci. The two worked together between 1775 1790 to produce much of the Casino Borghese as it is known today. Under the stewardship of Marcantonio’s son Camillo, the Borghese collection suffered a great many losses as a result of his close connections to France and Napoleon Bonaparte, having married the French Emperor’s sister. Prince Camillo sold hundreds of priceless antiques to his brother-in-law, many of which are still housed in the Louvre in Paris. Indeed, the Louvre borrowed much from the Villa Borghese, such as the concept and organizational principles of the modern art gallery. In the early 20th century, financial ruin following the crash of the Bank of Italy forced Paolo Borghese to sell the Villa to the Italian state. Since then, it has been turned over to the municipality of Rome and opened to the public. The Casino is now known as the Museo or Galleria Borghese and entry is completely free, though Cardinal Scipione’s grand personal collection has undergone considerable modification over the centuries.
IV. Themes Surrounding the Villa Borghese
In its original form, the Villa Borghese represented several trends predominant in Cardinal Scipione’s time, in particular the concept of villaggiatura, which has to do with the lifestyle associated with the villa, the practice of collecting artwork, and patronage. Villaggiatura was actually popularized in the Renaissance period, following the general revival of classical thought and practices. Noble families adopted the idea of the villa from the ancient Romans, who distinguished “the society, affairs, and politics of the city (negotium)” from the “quiet and healthy moderation of the country (otium)." Villas were meant to be an escape from the distractions and worries of urban life, which took their tolls on the mind and body, in order to rejuvenate oneself. The character of the villa was marked by pleasure, both simple and sensual, and by the calculated juxtaposition of the natural and the artificial. Thus, the villa had three primary functions: relaxation, entertainment, and exhibition. It was a place where an aristocrat could find solace away from the city, invite and entertain guests of honor, and also display evidence of one’s fortune and erudition.
This last function is very much related to the notion of collecting, also descended from antiquity. In addition to the impressive architecture and tranquil gardens of Renaissance and Baroque villas, aristocrats of the period enhanced the effect of their estates by adorning them with ancient and modern masterpieces. Antiques in particular were revered, having “the power... to add luster to [their] owner by association." More generally, art was used and desired not merely for its aesthetic value, but as a means of conferring status upon a collector. The subject and symbology of a piece could, for instance, create connections between an aristocrat and some noble, or even divine, heritage. Moreover, the quality and quantity of a collection served to imply a certain level of cultivation and wealth.
Another practice common in the 17th century and earlier was that of patronage, which refers to a specific and exclusive relationship between an artist and a client, or patron. Traditionally, young, promising artists were discovered by wealthy individuals, who sponsored their artistic pursuits. In exchange, the artist would work only for the patron and his close friends until, if the artist was particularly gifted, he had built up a sufficient reputation to be able to continue his career independently. Patronage, then, was a type of investment, and the returns were quite substantial for those fortunate enough to happen upon genius. There was obviously the material benefit of having sole access to the talents of a master, as well as the prestige and fame that comes from having discovered the greatest artist of an entire epoch.
V. The Casino Borghese
Keeping in mind the ideas briefly describe above, as well as the history of the Villa and the Borghese, it is prudent to discuss the subject of the Casino Borghese and its priceless contents. As mentioned before, the present-day Galleria features some of the finest and most exquisite works from the Baroque period, perhaps most prominently those by Bernini, as well as by Caravaggio. Other periods are also well-represented: there is a small contingent of Raphael’s works, as well as a multitude of antique busts and statues. The collection in its entirety, and also certain pieces individually, have much to tell about the man who brought them to the Villa Borghese, Cardinal Scipione.
Of the works mentioned above, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s statue groups are perhaps the most visually exciting and evocative, including four masterpieces executed during the dawn of the artist’s career: David, Apollo and Daphne, Pluto and Proserpina, and Aeneas and Anchises. Bernini’s David (1623-1624), considered by some to be the epitome of Baroque style, which emphasizes dramatic movement and vivid emotion, is the centerpiece of the second room in the Casino, the Room of the Sun. Immediately apparent is the extreme stance of the biblical hero and the intense focus etched into his face, which is actually the self-portrait of a young Bernini. This contrasts starkly with Michelangelo’s iconic version of the same subject, which depicts a pensive, almost casual, young man. Beneath David lies the unused cuirass given to him by King Solomon and also a harp with an eagle’s head, a reference to the Borghese crest. Viewed at different angles, the sculpture gives varying impressions: from the right, most obvious is David’s movement as he prepares to fire; from the front, the pose is static in anticipation of the fatal climax; and diagonally, a balance is achieved between movement and stillness.
Aside from its brilliant aesthetic qualities, it is important to discuss what relevance this sculpture had in relation to Scipione, who commissioned it. First, consider the curious fact that it is one of the few works with a religious theme; most of the collection depicts classical and pagan subjects. Although Cardinal Scipione was not a particularly pious man, the David emphasizes his ecclesiastical position. Moreover, the story of David, a young shepherd boy divinely chosen to triumph over Goliath, is one that is personally close to Scipione, who also ascended from a modest background.
In the next room, fittingly called the Room of Apollo and Daphne, stands Bernini’s eponymous masterwork. Executed between 1622 and 1625, the marble Apollo and Daphne has never been removed from the room since the construction of the Villa, although it has been reoriented over the centuries. Originally, one would enter the room and see only the figure of Apollo from the rear. This very deliberate scheme forced the viewer to walk around the statue to appreciate it fully. As one circumambulates the piece, one witnesses the chapters of Apollo’s fruitless pursuit unfold in sequence: the impassioned god’s near success, the nymph Daphne’s vivid desperation, and finally her metamorphosis and salvation. In this way Bernini offers proof of his genius, by forcing the viewer to see how he has chiseled the very motion of time into cold, hard marble. Also, notice the impeccable attention to tactile quality that characterizes this and all of Bernini’s works: compare the rough and abrasive texture of the bark that begins to cover Daphne’s torso with the tender leaves sprouting from her fingertips or with the nymph’s smooth and supple skin.
Inscribed on the pedestal upon which the Apollo and Daphne sits, on the opposite side of a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphosis is a quote in Latin by Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, later Pope Urban VIII: “Quisquis amans sequitur fugitivae gaudia formae / fronde manus implet baccas sev carpit amaras” (Whoever under the influence of love pursues the joys of fugitive beauty is filling his hands with leaves or trying to pluck bitter berries). This passage essentially serves as a warning against the sensual pleasures of worldly frivolity, as opposed to the spiritual fulfillment found in a life devoted to the Church. In this sense, Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne promotes an image of Cardinal Scipione’s sanctity and piety, and also serves as a lesson to future Borghese scions.
The Gallery, or the Room of the Emperors, displays another of Bernini’s early statue groups, his Pluto and Proserpina (1621-1622). The twisting sculpture features the tearful Proserpina, daughter of the earth, being abducted by the god of the underworld, Pluto, accompanied by Cerberus, the three-headed dog. Bernini’s skill is convincingly evinced in the physical interaction between the struggling Proserpina and her persistently ardent captor: the soft flesh of her back and thigh is forced to yield under Pluto’s firm grip, while his face is contorted by her defiant hand. Like the Apollo and Daphne, one is again obliged to view the group from all sides. From left to right, one sees first the stride of Pluto towards the unfortunate Proserpina, then his triumph, and finally the frightened resistance of his beautiful victim. Thus, one is able to experience the myth as if the sculpture were alive in both physical and temporal dimensions.
Though the scene depicted in Pluto and Proserpina is one of victory for the god of Hades, there are other narratives and concepts present in the statue group and the myth that surrounds it. Ultimately the story of Persephone is a joyous one, as her mother Gea is able to free her from the underworld for six months of the year. This plot might be construed as the continuous conflict between innocence and sin or as the triumph of heaven over hell. Another important aspect is the origin of the seasons: Gea was so glad to have her daughter back that all the earth blossomed upon her return; hence, spring. Again, the theme of nature emphasizes the idea of villaggiatura and the role of the villa as an escape from urban life.
Aeneas and Anchises, the last of Bernini’s early statue groups in the Casino, marks the beginning of his extensive and illustrious career. Executed between 1618 and 1620 with the help of his father Pietro, Bernini’s Aeneas and Anchises portrays Virgil’s hero fleeing the burning Troy with his elderly father and young son. Anchises, a wrinkled and feeble figure on the weary shoulders of Aeneas, is carrying the family household gods, while the child Ascanius bears the sacred fire of the hearth. Even at a young age, the technical proficiency and artistic promise of Bernini is apparent.
The subject of this sculpture, a common one since antiquity, is rife with metaphors and inferences. For instance, the three figures, the man, his father, and his son, represent the three stages of life: youth, maturity, and old age; or they can be interpreted as the three stages of time: the past, present, and future. In this way, Scipione proclaims his noble ancestry, the power of his current offices, and, finally, the impending ‘golden age’ heralded by the Borghese reign. Another line of analysis connects the Cardinal with Aeneas, who Virgil describes as the founder of Rome, thus emphasizing and, in a sense, legitimizing the status of the Borghese family as Romans. Similarly, the family household gods that Anchises carries with him reference the coming of Marcantonio I and the Borghese to Rome, leaving behind their Sienese origins.
Aside from these four statue groups, which have been accorded the highest veneration due to their illuminating and intimate connection to both Bernini and Cardinal Scipione, the Casino contains no small fortune in masterpieces dating from antiquity and the Renaissance. Unfortunately, to discuss in detail, or even only briefly, every piece of aesthetic or historical significance would comprise volumes.
In sum, the Casino and the works amassed by Cardinal Scipione, in particular Bernini’s statue groups, contribute significantly to the themes of villaggiatura, collecting, and patronage discussed previously. The function of the villa as a place to entertain and to display one’s status is very much evident in the lavish decoration and invaluable art work that overwhelms visitors to the site. Additionally, the relationship between the natural and the artificial, which is essential to the notion of the villa, is seen in numerous sculptures, especially the Apollo and Daphne, in paintings and frescoes, as well as in the simple geography of the Villa Borghese. Cardinal Scipione’s deliberate selection of subjects to expound certain messages, as in the David,vindicates the power of artwork to confer favorable status on a collector. Moreover, the reverence and high appraisal of Bernini’s early works even now is a testament to his genius, and therefore also speaks to the qualities of Scipione as his patron.
Touring the meticulously organized rooms of the Casino Borghese is a vastly different experience from perusing through museum guides or wending through the green and serene avenues of the rest of the estate. Upon entering the Portico, one is immediately assaulted by the image of Marcus Curtius throwing himself into the chasm of the Roman Forum, as well as the numerous busts, statues, paintings, and the many decorative devices employed by the building’s designers. Indeed, this impressive and overwhelming scheme is common to most every room in the Casino, which very much fulfills the function of the villa as a mark of status and wealth. It is remarkably difficult, near impossible, to forget the significance and sophistication of Cardinal Scipione as one is humbled by the remnants of his legacy.
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