"Secrets of Villa Borghese" Top 5 Page for this destination Rome Travelogue by icunme

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Rome's largest expanse of space & best kept secret

We recently moved and are now living just below the Villa Borghese Via Veneto entrance. I'm seldom home these days as it feels as if the park is our backyard. I spend hours there with books and, of course, my little camera. The time is always peaceful, serene and surrounded by extraordinary beauty.
You can while away an entire day from sunrise to sunset - drift from time past to present - restricted only by your own imagination - and if you read and research just a little, the history of Villa Borghese entwined within the social fabric of Italy will serve you well.

The Borghese Gardens became known as Villa Borghese due to the imposing presence of the famous villa-museum, built in the early 17th century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese. The architect of the Casino was actually a Dutchman, Jan Van Santen, also known as Giovanni Vasanzio. He completed a design by Flaminio Ponzio.

Villa Borghese's nine kilometers includes BioPark and the Zoo. According to historical accounts, until 1902 Villa Borghese was the private property of the Borghese family from Siena. It then was effectively nationalized by the state, and in 1903 the gardens were handed over to Rome's municipality, inaugurating a public park.

The steady accumulation of property and influence of the Borghese family peaked in 1605, when Camillo Borghese was elected to the papacy, taking the name Paul V. In the same year he designated his nephew and heir, Scipione, a cardinal. Scipione's wealth through patronage of the Pope enabled him to amass one of the greatest art collections ever assembled. Between 1606 and 1619, he built Villa Borghese to display his acquisitions, which included classical sculptures, paintings by all the major Renaissance artists and numerous works by the cardinal's leading contemporaries, notably Bernini and Caravaggio. Borghese Gallery is the only art facility in the world to boats six original Caravaggio canvasses.

Most research and writing has focused on this golden age of Villa Borghese. It was later that the Villa and its gardens ceased to be a playground for the privileged and became more fully part of the life of the city as a whole.

1. Catch Metro A, stop at Barberini, then catch Bus 116 to Porta Pinciana, and get off at bus-stop Canonica.
2. Catch Metro A, stop at Spagna, walk up the hill - inside Villa Borghese - following the direction signs and pick up a good map from the bicycle rental shops.
3. Catch Tram 3 or 19, get off at Galleria Arte Moderna, walk up the big steps across from Galleria Arte Moderna to Villa Borghese - following the direction signs.

*Photos and reference material by permission from Roberto Piperno for non-commercial purpose only.

Gallery Museum today

This is where tourists gravitate and, rightfully so, given the stunninng beauty of the building itself, the architecture, the interior floors, walls, ceilings and then, of course, the art works on display. The Gallery initiated me to Villa Borghese Park and it could not have been a more elaborate introduction.

Scipione Borghese's act was difficult to follow. However, in the second half of the 18th century, Prince Marcantonio IV committed plentiful funds toward an update of the Villa. Creator of the Trevi Fountain, Architect Antonio Asprucci initiated the refurbishment in 1775 that was to continue throughout the next 20 years. They recruited talented Italian and foreign artists residing in Rome and the result was with one of the most extensive and aesthetic neoclassical interiors.

The brief and tumultuous episode of the Roman Republic did not halt progress at Villa Borghese, even with the pope imprisoned and carried off to France (and the French General Berthier took up residence at Villa Poniatowski). Numerous accounts place the Borghese as enthusiastic supporters of the revolution, renouncing their titles, publicly trampling on the family's coat of arms and participating in the burning of the Golden Book of the Nobility. The scene for this ceremony was a specially erected stage-set in the Piazza di Spagna. This solemn symbolic occasion descended into farce when a sudden rain storm wrought havoc with the scenery, which had been constructed out of wood, canvas and papier-mache, and dislodged the unstable upraised arm of a flimsey Statue of Truth.

TIP - Your Galleria Borghese permits a 2-hour visit. Stay until the end of your two hour window at the Borghese Gallery. Most people leave in the last half hour - it is magical to revisit all of the rooms with no one in them - you will now know where each work is that you want to see again!

The Borghese - Boneparte connection

Camillo Borghese's marriage in 1803 to Pauline Boneparte, Napoleon's sister, would have vast consequences affecting Italy's art treasures. In 1791 Gavin Hamilton persuaded Marcantonio IV to excavate the site of the ancient city of Gabii on a Borghese estate. Hamilton funded the dig and was to receive a third of the finds. The dig rendered stunning results and a quantity of high-quality classical sculptures, reliefs and other fragments. These discoveries prompted the planning for a fine new museum to contain the antiquities.

However, in 1807 Napoleon and Pauline cajoled and bribed his brother-in-law Camillo into parting with almost the whole Gabii treasure - more than 500 pieces. Following the rigerous task of packing and shipping which took over two years, these treasures were sent to Paris, where they became the cornerstone of the Louvre's classical collection. The transfer appears to total far more than you will see today in the Louvre "Borghese Collection." Fortunately for Rome, Napoleon seemed uninterested in Old Masters.

Cardinal Scipione had taken an interest in both ancient and modern art. However, the later Borghese commissioned and purchased few works from their own times. Although Camillo did call on Canova to execute what was to become the sculptor's single most celebrated "Venus Victorious," his marble figure of Pauline Borghese, reclining semi-nude on a couch. In fact, Camillo probably spent a great deal more time with this sculpture than he did with its subject. Camillo and Pauline's relationship ended within months of their marriage. She returned to France in 1804, and when she did reappear in Rome some 10 years later she was unwelcome. She scandalizing local Roman opinion by taking younger lovers until her death in 1825.

Serenity in the City - Tempio di Esculapio

The international roots of Villa Borghese were evident even in the 1780's when Marcantonio IV employed the Scottish landscape painter Jacob More to transform part of the park into an English garden, repleat with lake and temple. While noted critics were rather indifferent to More's handiwork, it was an instant success with the Romans at large.
This little pond with a temple to Esculapio (Aesculapius) is a late XVIIIth century addition to Villa Borghese.

My favorite spot is here on one of the many stone benches by the pond watching the parade of swans, geese, ducks and an occasional row boat.

If your muse has been evasive, call her up while here - she'll surely join you.

Vasca Ovale - Oval Pond

The park of the people of Rome

You will surely see tourists taking photos - but you will also see the people of Rome - young lovers, local residents walking their dogs, enjoying family picnics, sitting on one of the many benches readily available reading newspapers, playing checkers, gathering for bocce, debating the politics of the day. People do engage and if you speak Italian and sit just awhile, a conversation will likely develop.

Photo courtesy of Roberto Piperno

Internationalism in the Eternal City

J. W. Goethe was one of the many foreigners who enjoyed walking in the gardens. In particular he liked to sit in a spot near the aviary, which is called after him Rotonda di Goethe. In 1903 the German Emperor William II commissioned a statue to commemorate the Roman sojourn of Goethe and this was placed in Villa Borghese.

Goethe wrote: "Everything flourishes here in vigour and health, the sun is bright and hot, and one can believe again in a God. ... when, immediately after sunset, the loud shrill of crickets is heard, I feel at home in the world, neither a stranger nor an exile. I enjoy everything as if I had been born and bred here and had just returned from a whaling expedition to Greenland" (Italian Journey September 11, 1786).

Indeed, Villa Borghese is also a symbol in Rome of the internationalism of the eternal city. The architect who took an Italian name was Dutch, the landscape designer was Scottish. You will find statuary and busts throughout the park - the busts constitute a nightmare for the maintenance of the park as their noses are a prime target of vandals. Numerous internationally renowned artists and writers are represented in addition to the imposing statue of Goethe - the poets Persian Firdousi and Egyptian Shawky. Then, of course, you have the daily trek of international tourists topping it all off!

Rome's own little United Nations - and in an ideal setting, no less........

Spring has sprung throughout Parco Villa Borghese

To bring us back to the present, Villa Borghese is stunning in its blend of natural beauty, art treasures, cultural history and sheer size.

The Borghese Gallery has a collection of books in their Museum shop and it is well worth browsing there. Your added information will always be most welcome as I have acquired an abiding interest in this part of Rome.

  • Page Updated Nov 2, 2009
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