Honors in Rome - Summer 2007
For any art lover that comes to Rome, the Villa Borghese is a must-see. It lies just outside the historic city centro, and is a relaxing and quiet retreat from the noise and traffic. The entire estate covers almost 700 hectares, and it is one of the largest parks in Rome. Despite the beauty and calm of the tree lined park, the true value of the estate lies in the art collection housed in the central Casino Borghese. The majority of the collection reflects the exquisite taste and collecting ability of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who also build the Villa. His proficiency as a collector and patron is one of the major factors that have put the Borghese family on the map. The Casino Borghese houses a tremendous collection of art ranging from ancient Roman to Renaissance to Baroque. The organization of the Casino Borghese collection now serves as a model for the modern art gallery. Perhaps the most astounding works that the Villa boasts are the four statue groups by Gianlorenzo Bernini, all commissioned by Scipione. They serve as an important milestone in the Baroque artistic movement, and also as a reflection of the family who commissioned them.
II. History of the Borghese Family
The Borghese family came from humble roots. Originally from Siena, they rose in power based on ability demonstrated in civic administration as opposed to military success. The first important character in their rise to power is Marcantonio I, and ambitious patriarch who had ambitions of relocating his family to the eternal city. A natural diplomat, his break came when he became the Siennese ambassador to the Pope, which meant he spent the majority of his time living in the cosmopolitan Rome. He eventually was able to move his family and establish roots in Rome. In addition, his marriage to Flaminia Astalli, who was from an ancient noble Roman family, strengthened his arrival as new aristocracy. In 1554, he served as a conservator of Rome, one of the two highest ranking officials. His diplomatic skills also helped to keep his family in favor by remaining neutral when the power-hungry Medici conquered Siena. However, the true value Marcantonio’s success came in the placement of both his sons in the church. Both Camillo and Orazio Borghese entered the church at an early age, but only Camillo survived long enough to rise. In 1605, Cardinal Camillo Borghese was the surprise win in a heated papal election that favored two other candidates. As the new Pope Paul V, he worked on many projects to beautify the city. He also canonized six individuals during his reign.
But in terms of the rise of the Borghese family, his most important decision was to instate his nephew Scipione Borghese in the traditional role of the cardinal-nephew. Scipione was born to Ortensia Borghese in 1576, the sister of Pope Paul V. On his father’s side he was a Cafarelli, another noble Roman family. Scipione became Cardinal when he was only twenty-six years old, but his was ambitions and competent. Under his uncle’s reign, he held a number of lucrative church offices that brought wealth and prestige to his family. He was a proficient builder in both public and private realms, although his true successes came in the three private estates he built for his family. In public works, he restored several important churches, including San Sebastiano Fuori la Mura, and church built under the rule of Constantine. Despite the fact that San Sebastiano held the largest collection of relics at the time as well as its historical significance, Scipione’s taste was for modernization. He remodeled all the interior decorations and rebuilt the entire façade.
Scipione built three major private estates, aimed at glorifying the Borghese family and establishing their position in Roman society: Palazzo Pallavicini Rospigliosi, the Villa Borghese, and Palazzo Borghese, where the modern day family still resides. Following the death of his uncle in 1621, Scipione retired from public office and spent most of his time perfecting his art collection at the Villa Borghese. He was both tireless and ruthless in his acquisition of art, and did not refrain from using extortion and theft to complete his gallery. He held lavish courts and was a well known entertainer, and along with his jovial personality, earned himself the name “Delizia di Roma.” Despite this, he was instrumental in guiding the rise of his family amongst Roman nobility. His impeccably discerning taste in art and artists also established the Borghese as important art patrons in history. He was the first patron of the young Gianlorenzo Bernini, who went on to leave the largest mark of any single person on the city of Rome. Scipione was also shrewd enough to maintain good relations with the succeeding Pope Gregory, and in less than a year his friend Pope Urban VIII was elected, bringing Scipione back into favor and wealth.
After Scipione, the Borghese family never again attained the same heights of fame and power. Although the family later made a connection to the Bonaparte family through marriage, the relation was actually very detrimental and resulted in the loss of hundreds of pieces of art from the Borghese collection. Then, following the crash of the Bank of Italy, the family lost another large portion of their wealth. By the time of the fascist era, the Borghese name hardly wielded any more political power. Nonetheless, today the Borghese family is still respected as Roman nobility, and travel in the highest social circles. Perhaps after so many centuries, this would still be the greatest hope of the very first Marcantonio.
III. Villa Life in 17th Century Rome
The role of villa life in seventeenth century Rome was a continuation of a trend revived in the Renaissance. During this time, noble families looked back to the idea of the villa from antiquity, wanting to connect themselves with the ancient Rome. The villa often served as a seat of power for prominent families, as it did for the influential Lorenzo d’Medici in Tuscany. They were also an escape from hectic city life, but were often times within easy reach just outside the city walls. The sprawling estates provided relaxing space and rejuvenating country air for powerful and wealthy, who retreated here to frolic and socialize. Another purpose of the villa was to promote social status. Building a grandiose and lavish estate for seasonal retreat and pleasure helped ancient and rising families to display their fortune and status. At their villas, nobles could also host extravagant parties, entertain guests, and carry out important political dealings.
By the seventeenth century, villas also served another important function: as centers of both art collection and creation. Nobles of the baroque era strongly revived the ancient Roman practice of acquiring art, and coveted both ancient and contemporary works. Their villas, including Scipione Borghese’s, were adorned with ancient statues that were though to lend power and status to the properties. Art was collected as much for their value as a social symbol as for their artistic merit. In addition, collectors could use allusions and symbols in artwork to promote their own political agendas. Aristocrats also served important roles as patrons of rising young artists. They identified talent at a young age and sponsored the artist’s development in return for an exclusive bid for the art that was created. This practice allowed artists to create more freely and comfortably, and also provided seventeenth century villas with a ready supply of beautiful creations.
IV. History of Villa Borghese
Construction on Villa Borghese began in 1610. Cardinal Scipione wanted to build a villa that would fulfill all of the grand purposes of a magnificent country estate. He wanted to establish the Borghese family amongst noble Roman society and impress both his friends and rivals. While his uncle Paul V was more concerned with public building, Scipione knew the political value of prestigious private estates. He first hired papal architect Flaminio Ponzio to undertake the design and building. Ponzio worked on the estate until his death in 1613. Subsequently, construction continued under Giovanni Vasanzio until its completion in 1625. The villa then remained unchanged for one and a half centuries during which time the Borghese family produced no remarkable heirs. Finally in 1775, Prince Marcantonio IV undertook the renovation of the estate. The remodeling continued for fifteen years until 1790, and produced the Villa Borghese much as it stands now. The renovation also including the rearrangement of certain art pieces and the construction of new bases from a few Bernini statues, which is how we see them today. However, Marcantonio IV’s son Camillo would cause great losses to the gallery. His marriage to Paulina Bonaparte caused him to sell over three hundred priceless pieces of art to his brother-in-law, Napoleon Bonaparte. Today, these pieces form the central portion of the Louvre’s collection in Paris. In 1891, the Bank of Italy crashed, and Paolo Borghese was forced to sell the Villa to the Italian state, which then converted the property into a public museum, today called the Galleria Borghese.
V. Bernini Statue Groups in Villa Borghese
The Galleria Borghese is currently home to thousands of pieces of priceless artwork originals. However, the four statue groups done by Gianlorenzo Bernini form the nucleus of this amazing collection. In addition to being astounding works of art, they also reflect some of the political agenda’s of Scipione Borghese, as well as embody the style and aesthetic of the rising Baroque era.
Going backwards through the museum, the first statue group is Aeneas and Anchises, which also happens to be the earliest of the four. This first sculptures differs from the other three in that it is one of Bernini’s earliest works. As such, it shows a lot of the influence of his father, Pietro Bernini, as well as traces of Mannerism. Unlike his other three greatly baroque creations, this sculpture has less movement, and three characters are arranged in a single basic column. It was commissioned by Scipione Borghese in 1618, and finished in 1620. The sculpture depicts the strong Aeneas as he flees from Troy, carrying his elderly father and leading his young son. Anchises, the father, carries with him the household goods while his grandson Ascanius holds the sacred fire of the hearth.
The three characters of Anchises, Aeneas, and Ascanius represent the three stages of life: youth, maturity, and old age, as well as a more general idea of past, present, and future. In a sense, it also propagandistically reflects Scipione’s own ideas about his family: their noble ancestry, current power, and imminent continued success. The idea of uprooting from one city to another, especially founding and building up the new city, also fit into Scipione’s wish to relate his family and their move from Siena to Rome to Aeneas, the founder of Rome.
From 1621 to 1622, Bernini completed the statue group that occupies the next room, Pluto and Persephone. Scipione originally commissioned the statue as a gift for Cardinal Ludovisi to appease the new Cardinal nephew, but it was later bought by the Italian state and returned to the Villa in 1908. Even though Pluto and Persephone was completed very soon after Aeneas and Anchises, the differences between the two works is very striking. Pluto and Persephone is inspired by the Ovid story of Persephone being captured by Pluto and forced to live six months of the year in Hades. However, Persephone’s mother, Gea, is able to negotiate with Pluto to allow Persephone to spend the other six months on earth, which relates the ancient story to the changing seasons of the year.
The sculpture group by Bernini depicts three figures: Pluto, Persephone and the three headed dog that guards the gates of Hades. Frozen in marble is the moment in which Pluto grabs Persephone around the waist while she vainly tries to flee. Despite the hardness of the marble, Bernini’s development into full baroque style is evident in Pluto and Persephone as the sculpture is full of movement, and shows distinct images and moments in time as the viewer walks around it. Because of this, the originally placement of the statue was very deliberate to manipulate what the viewer saw first: the statue was indeed originally situated such that a viewer entering the room would only be able to see the left side of the statue first. From this angle, the first striking element is the aggressive stride of Pluto’s right leg. Only as the viewer walks around do they become aware of Persephone, and her involvement in the action. From the front, the viewer can see the expression on Pluto’s face: bewilderment, but also amusement. It is as though he is surprised that Persephone should struggle at all, so confident is he in his own power. The energy of the scene is evident as Persephone’s hand on Pluto’s face actually creases the skin as she tries to push away. From the angle, we also begin to understand Persephone’s struggle in the way her body twists away from her capture. Further to the right, however, the story moves entirely to her point of view. Viewed from the far right angle, Pluto is barely visible. Instead what we focus on is the anguish in Persephone’s gaze and the tear that is rolling down her face. From this angle, we can also see the three headed dog that was not visible from the left. Suddenly it is clear that they are at the gates of Hades, and that Persephone’s despair is absolute because she knows she is about to be taken back to the underworld. Pluto and Persephone is an important milestone in Bernini’s development into baroque style of dramatic movement. It has also been related to Giovanni Bologna’s Rape of the Sabine, due to a similar spiraling composition.
Bernini was a very prolific worker, and in 1622 he began work on his next masterpiece, Apollo and Daphne. The statue was also commissioned by Scipione and was completed in 1625. Unlike Pluto and Persephone, the sculpture of Apollo and Daphne has always stood inside the Villa Borghese, although its placement was moved during the renovation by Marcantonio IV. During this move, the statue also received a new base. The scene depicted also comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and shows the exact instant in which Apollo is about to catch the chaste nymph Daphne and she begins to turn into a laurel tree. The sculpture is also heavily influenced by the works of several of Bernini’s contemporaries, including a ceiling fresco by Annibale Carracci, and a poem by Giovanni Batista Marino called “Dafne”. The sculpture, like the poem, shows Apollo’s obvious frustration while he fails to notice the increasing allusions to Daphne’s eventual fate.
Like the Pluto and Persephone, the original placement of the Apollo and Daphne played an important role in directing the viewer’s approach to the story. After entering, the first angle that is meant to be seen is Apollo’s back on the left side of the sculpture. From this angle, it is clear that he is in swift movement, but not yet why. As we move around to the front, we see the frustrated pose of his body and facial expression, and also the first glimpse of Daphne, who we could not see from the back. From the front, Daphne is mostly woman, but we can see the beginning of the transformation in the roots that grow delicately from her toes. As we move more to the right, we notice that Apollo’s hand is curved around Daphne’s torso to grab her, but in the exact place where his hand is placed, the bark has already covered her skin. At the far right angle, Apollo is no longer visible and Daphne has almost completely melted into the illusion of a laurel tree. From the successive angles from left to right, Bernini is able to tell a story as if one piece of marble could show multiple points in time. After its completion, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who was a good friend of Scipione’s, added the engraving to the base:
“Those we love to pursue fleeing forms of pleasure, in the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands.”
Despite the pagan story that is depicted by the sculpture, this inscription ties the lesson and moral back to religious piety.
In chronological order, the last of the four statues is David, which was completed from 1623 and 1624. Despite the intricate detail of the statue, the work took Bernini only seven months to complete, when he was still only 25 years old. It was originally commissioned by Scipione for the centerpiece of a main room in the Villa, which is where it stood until the 1785 renovation. The statue depicts David just as he is about to loose his slingshot, at the moment when the action is most intense and his muscles and face are most taut. This contrasts heavily with Michelangelo’s David, who is shown before the action begins, with his weight back on one leg as he stands in thought.
The original placement of Bernini’s David forced the viewer to approach the statue from the right side. From this view, David’s action is ‘unintelligible’. It appears that he is hunched over, but it is clear that his muscles are straining in action. As we move around to the front, we begin to notice the tightness of his torso. We see that his face is furrowed in concentration, and even that he is biting his lip. More to the left, we can see how tight his sling shot is pulled and we can feel the imminent speed and action of its release. As the viewer moves around from right to left, they are forced to become involved in David’s emotional experience, and by the time they reach the left side of the statue, they can understand the dramatic feel of the sculpture.
This sculpture is one of the few commissioned by Scipione that held religious significance and depicted a biblical scene. The triumph of David can also be related to the Borghese family’s modest beginnings and their steady rise to power under Scipione. At David’s feet lies a harp, which is not biblically accurate. However, the inclusion of this piece is very important. First, it reflects both David’s and the Borghese’s connection to art and music. Further, the harp is adorned with an eagle, which is the symbol of the Borghese family. In this way, the family is propagandistically tied into the power of the sculpture.
Taken together, the four Bernini statue groups at the Villa Borghese are an astounding display of artwork, as well as the embodiment of Baroque style. They show drama and tension, and most importantly, movement. The sculptures are also an important portal into the aspirations and ideas of the Borghese family, and of one important player in particular, the immaculate collector and patron, Scipione Borghese.
Today, the Villa Borghese still stands as beautiful architectural structure and a priceless art gallery. The surrounding grounds provide a peaceful and relaxing retreat from the busy city. It is a treat for locals and travelers alike. It is also a fascinating piece of history, demonstrating the heights of power and wealth that the Borghese family once held in Rome. Specifically, the grandeur of the site is a testament to the artistic taste and collecting ability of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. His foresight and knack for picking talent has provided the Villa with the four priceless Bernini statues that are still housed there today. Furthermore, his patronage of the young Gianlorenzo has also influenced the shape of Rome in countless ways, as Bernini went on to do work for important churches and Popes, including the famous St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The Galleria Borghese is an important stop the true art connoisseur who comes through Rome, and for old regulars, it is a popular favorite.
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