The Cardinal’s Project
If you’ve been following this blog for a while (or have read past posts), you may recall that I had visited Rome once before, and had made the mistake of not purchasing tickets for the Galleria Borghese ahead of time, so that I was not able to visit it. I found this, as you may also recall, deeply traumatizing. Which is why as soon as the flights to Rome were booked, I ran to get tickets to this museum right away. I present to you, then (finally,) the Galleria Borghese and the marvels therein.
The gallery is housed in the former Villa Borghese Pinciana, which is itself located in the Villa Borghese gardens. The collection housed within its walls was begun by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V. Flaminio Ponzio served as architect, having developed his design from sketches by Scipione Borghese himself, though it was completed by Giovanni Vasanzio. Once finished, its owner used it as villa suburbana, which was a typology of villa that sat at the outskirts of a great city without being too far away from its urban center.
The museum’s collection contains both ancient and modern sculptures, as well as paintings covering the 15th-19th centuries. It includes work by Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, Bernini, and Canova. And it’s marvelous. Additionally, Scipione Borghese was not only an avid collector, but also an active patron, and he was particularly fond of the work of Caravaggio and Bernini, whose numerous oeuvre populates the museum’s halls.
The Rape of Proserpina depicts the abduction of Proserpina (the Roman version of Persephone) by Pluto (or, Hades). The tale serves as the origin story for the seasons, since after Proserpina’s mother, Ceres (Demeter), goddess of the harvest, discovered that her daughter was missing, she ceased to allow the earth to produce food for its inhabitants. Jupiter (Zeus, and also Proserpina’s father) intercedes on her behalf, and after tricking Proserpina with a pomegranate seed, Pluto allows her to return to her mother for half the year, having to spend the other half with her husband in the Underworld. It is during those months that Proserpina is below that we experience the cold of winter, and with her return, the arrival of spring.
I remember seeing a picture of this sculpture in an art history book when I was a teenager and knowing that I needed to see this in person. I fell in love in that moment with Bernini’s work, the awe-inspiring way in which he made it so that the flesh of Proserpina looked real, substantial enough that it sank under Pluto’s rapacious fingers, and so her anguish became that much more palpable. Seeing this in person is not an experience I will soon forget, how the flesh on them both looks buttery and dynamic, frozen in motion and not like cold marble at all.
The sculpture was commissioned by Scipione Borghese in 1621, and the work was completed a year later. The sculpture was then given as a gift to Ludovico Ludovisi, who had just been appointed Cardinal-nephew by Pope Gregory XV. A clear inspiration for the work is Giambologna’s Rape of a Sabine Woman, which is at the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence. Another is the Laocoön, which is at the Musei Vaticani, and which Bernini had previously restored.
Bernini’s David depicts the moment before the eponymous character throws a stone at the head of the giant Goliath, who was ready to fight the Israelite army of King Saul. David eventually became King himself, and is, according to biblical tradition, an ancestor of Jesus Christ.
Though the narrative is the same as in Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia, the Florentine sculpture depicts the shepherd in the moment just before slinging the stone, in a bout of serene contemplation of what is to come. Bernini’s work, by contrast, shows the moment, frozen in time, right before David throws the stone. He bites his lip, the muscles of his torso are tense with energy, and he gazes beyond the viewer, at a Goliath that stands just behind us.
This sculpture depicts one of those lovely stories of a god attempting to get something from a woman (in this case a nymph) that she does not want to give. In this case, the god in question is Apollo, and the nymph, Daphne. As he pursues her longer and longer, and the nymph grows more and more desperate, she begs her father, the river deity Peneus, to come to her aid. He does, turning her into a laurel tree, which is the moment shown in this work, that instant where Daphne is both nymph and tree, just caught by Apollo but forever out of his lusty grasp. It is his “love” for Daphne that drives him to make the laurel tree his own, which is why he is usually depicted wearing laurel leaves.
The sculpture was created by Bernini in 1622-1625, commissioned, of course, by Scipione Borghese, in the wake of having gifted The Rape of Proserpina to Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi. It had originally been placed by a doorway, a location which Bernini took into account when designing the sculpture. The intent had been to have the viewer first gaze upon both Apollo’s and Daphne’s faces at the same time, thus revealing both of their reactions instantly. Today, however, the sculpture sits at the center of the room.
These two busts of Cardinal Scipione Borghese were both created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1632. The reason for there being two of them is because the first one (on the left) was discovered to have a crack across the forehead as it was being polished. A second bust was then commissioned, which took, depending on the account, either three or fifteen days to complete.
Piazza del Popolo
While this square’s name translates to “People’s Square,” its name actually derives from the word for “poplar,” which is where the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, located on the square, takes its name. This square was the beginning of an important road to Ariminum (present-day Rimini), so that it was for a long time the first view visitors had of Rome. It later became a site for public executions, the last of which took place in 1826.
The Egyptian obelisk which sits at its center once stood in Heliopolis, until it was brought to Rome by the order of Augustus and set up in the Circus Maximus. Three of its sides were carved by Seti I, who the obelisk first belonged to, with the last being carved during the reign of his son Rameses II, who eventually erected it. It is one of thirteen ancient obelisks in Rome, and is the second-oldest, as well as one of the tallest.