Galleria Borghese, Rome: Five Favorites

On my one and only, very brief visit to Rome, I didn’t have time to visit the Borghese. Here’s why I mind.

Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633) and the Borghese Collection

The dominant school of painting in the late 16th century was Mannerism, a spin-off of works by Michelangelo such as the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. The Mannerists favored elegant, elongated, twisting, aristocratic figures: think Parmigianino, Rosso Fiorentino, Pontormo, Bronzino, and El Greco.

When Cardinal Sciopione Borghese began collecting art for his villa on the outskirts of Rome ca. 1605, he could have purchased works by Michelangelo, Raphael, or Leonardo, or commissioned works from established artists such as Annibale Caracci. Instead, he purchased works from two young and radical artists:  Caravaggio (1571-1610) and Bernini (1598-1680). Their painting and sculpture became the foundation of the Baroque style. Here’s a bit from Bernini’s Innovations to help set the context:

From about the mid-16th to the mid-17th centuries the Catholic Church, refurbished, reformed and reenergized by the Council of Trent, set out to reclaim the worshipers it had lost since 1517, when Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses kicked off the Protestant Reformation. As part of this effort, a succession of popes sponsored breathtaking art on a gargantuan scale – art meant to persuade by a direct appeal to the emotions, rather than by means of logic and reason. The Baroque style is the style of the “Counter-Reformation” ….

While the Counter-Reformation was under way, European intellectuals were making giant leaps forward in science and philosophy. Bernini’s life (1598-1680) overlaps that of Galileo (1564-1642), whose rigorous methodology earned him the title “Father of Modern Science.” Also writing at this period was Descartes (1596-1650), whose “I think, therefore I am” is the beginning of the modern Rationalist movement. Despite the intellectual ferment of the time and despite the fact that he was a major innovator in art, in his philosophy Bernini was thoroughly conventional: “Better a poor Catholic than a good heretic,” he’s quoted as saying. Not surprisingly, a series of popes commissioned major works from Bernini for St. Peter’s in Rome.

Also alive during Bernini’s lifetime were Shakespeare (1564-1616), Cervantes (1547-1616), and Corneille (1606-1684). Their works have an emotional impact as powerful as that of Bernini’s works. In fact, the Baroque is the go-to period for those who love grandeur combined with great emotion.

In 1632, Bernini sculpted a portrait of his patron that’s still at the Borghese. Yes, I am going to cheat by not counting this among the five favorites.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, 1632 (the second of two portraits). Rome, Galleria Borghese. Image: Wikipedia

 Caravaggio, St. Jerome Writing, ca. 1605-1606

On why Caravaggio was so innovative and so influential, see this post. The visual summary: Caravaggio’s St. Jerome next to El Greco’s Mannerist version of the saint.

Left: El Greco, St. Jerome as Scholar, ca. 1610. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975. Photo: Right: Caravaggio, St. Jerome Writing, ca. 1605-1606. Rome, Galleria Borghese. Image: Wikipedia

Bernini, Self-Portrait as a Young Man, ca. 1623

It’s fascinating to get a glimpse of how an artist sees himself. Perhaps I like this because I have a weakness for lean Italians. (Married to one for 31+ years.) The eyes askance are typical in self-portraits.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Self-Portrait as a Young Man, ca. 1623. Rome, Galleria Borghese. Image: Wikipedia

Bernini, Rape of Proserpina, 1621-1622

Bernini, Rape of Proserpina, 1621-1622. Rome, Galleria Borghese. Image: Alvesgaspar / Wikipedia

More from Bernini’s Innovationsbecause it applies to this work as well as his Faun Teased by Children at the Metropolitan Museum (see this post):

The work entices us to walk around it: the fiendishly complex design assures that from any given angle, only part of each figure is visible. In Innovators in Sculpture, we didn’t see a sculpture composed as well as this one since the Greek statuette of a dancer created ca. 200 B.C.  …

Bernini was a virtuoso at rendering textures in bronze or marble. Those textures aren’t mere window dressing: they help make his sculptures more vivid, more gripping. We look at works such as Faun Teased by Children more intently and for a longer time because every detail is fascinating. On why it’s crucial that an artist make a viewer linger in front of a work, see the introduction to Art History through Innovators.

For other views of the sculpture, see the Wikimedia page. The Khan Academy video is an excellent three-minute discussion of the sculpture in the Borghese, with many views of it. Like most of Bernini’s works at the Borghese, The Rape of Proserpina is still situated where Bernini put it – a rarity for sculpture that’s not attached to architecture.

Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-1625

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-1625. Rome, Galleria Borghese. Image: Alvesgaspar / Wikipedia

The Khan Academy video (5 1/2 mins.) tells the Apollo and Daphne story and shows many angles and details of the sculpture.Excellent as the video is, I really, really want to see this work in person: they say the leaves are so thin that you can see light coming through them. And yes, if the skill blows me away, I am quite capable of ignoring the oddity of the story represented. More still pics here.

Bernini, David, 1623-1624

Gianlorenzo Bernini, David, 1623-1624. Rome, Galleria Borghese. Image: Galleria Borghese / Wikipedia

The Khan Academy’s 5-minute video sets the historical context and has a very good discussion of the David as a work of art, in contrast with Michelangelo’s David and several much earlier examples.

I have three favorite sculptures of David: Donatello’s, Michelangelo’s, and Bernini’s. Each appeals to me in a different mood. I gave a talk about this more than a decade ago that’s on my list for a future blog post.


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