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5 must-see masterpieces in the Borghese Gallery in Rome

7th Nov 2016

In the heart of the gardens of the Villa Borghese is one of the greatest private art collections in the world. The cardinal Scipione Borghese was an avid (and ruthless) art collector, who would stop at nothing to get his hands on a masterpiece. He even had Raphael’s Deposition removed from a church in Perugia so it could be displayed in his own villa.

Here are five of the greatest artworks in the Borghese Gallery:

1. The Sleeping Hermaphrodite

Depending on the angle, the marble figure sleeping on a bed could be a man or a woman. It is in fact a hermaphrodite – the son of Hermes and Aphrodite. The nymph Salmacis fell in love with him and prayed to be united with him forever. Her wish was granted, and the bodies of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis were transformed into one, androgynous form.

The Sleeping Hermaphrodite is one of the most beautiful and evocative statues in the Borghese Gallery, appealing not only because of its androgyny, but also because of the ambiguous facial expression. The figure on the bed seems to be both male and female, peaceful and troubled. The intriguing ambivalence of the hermaphrodite could explain why it seems to hold a particular fascination for visitors.

This 2nd century Roman statue is not the original – the version that was originally displayed in the Borghese Gallery, with a mattress sculpted by Bernini, is now in the Louvre – but it’s considered to to be one of the best representations of the subject. The fact that there are at least twenty versions of TheSleeping Hermaphrodite is a testament to the sensuous allure of the original statue.

2. Young Woman with a Unicorn by Raphael

This unusual portrait is one of the most mysterious of Raphael’s paintings. It’s almost as mysterious as the painting that inspired it, the Mona Lisa, as we know nothing about the identity of the subject. Who is the woman, and why is she holding a unicorn? The unicorn is typically a symbol of purity, but this unicorn wasn’t always a unicorn. Analysis has shown that the woman was originally holding a dog, symbolising fidelity. One theory is that the woman was originally a bride-to-be, so the dog represents her loyalty to her future husband. When the marriage was called off, the dog was replaced with a unicorn.

Many of Raphael’s most famous works are in the Vatican Museums, but on our tours of the Borghese Gallery you’ll see some of his other masterpieces, including The Deposition and Portrait of Pope Julius II.

3. Apollo and Daphne by Bernini

To understand why Bernini is considered by many to be one of the greatest artists of the seventeenth century, stand in front of Apollo and Daphne and then slowly walk around it. The statue depicts a myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when the nymph Daphne transforms into a tree in order to escape from Apollo. Bernini skilfully captures the exact moment of this transformation, as Daphne’s skin turns to bark and leaves grow from her fingers. It’s one of the few marble sculptures that seems to transcend its own weight and convey a moment of swift movement and change. The energy of his statues is one of Bernini’s greatest strengths as as sculptor, as you’ll see from his other works in the Borghese Gallery. The Rape of Proserpina shows Proserpina frantically trying to escape from Hades, while Bernini’s David, though less famous than Michelangelo’s version, is much more dynamic.

4. David with the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio

One of several great works by Caravaggio in the Borghese Gallery, this has many of the artist’s trademarks – biblical subject, dark background,chiaroscuro, and a violent theme. After the battle, David holds up the severed head of Goliath, as if for the viewer’s inspection. It’s a subject that’s been portrayed countless times, but Caravaggio’s interpretation is unique and unsettling. David is not triumphant but pensive, even seeming to feel a little pity for his victim, while the head of Goliath bears a striking resemblance to Caravaggio himself. It has been interpreted as a double self-portrait, with the young artist holding the head of the adult Caravaggio.

In the words of Through Eternity tour guide Thomas, “Presenting us with a David who pities rather than scorns the man he has just slain, and giving his own face to the giant’s severed head, Caravaggio proclaims his own wretchedness while begging for underserved mercy.”

5. Sacred and Profane Love by Titian

A beautiful painting becomes even more interesting when there’s a puzzle. No one can agree exactly how to interpret this work by Titian. Does the nude woman represent “sacred love” or “profane love”? Is she Venus or Ceres? The woman in the white dress could be a goddess, but some critics believe she is the young wife of Niccolò Aurelio, a secretary to the Venetian Council of Ten who may have commissioned the painting. Some people have become obsessed with trying to unravel its true meaning; Paul Doughton offers an extremely in-depth astrological analysis, and concludes that the painting was a collaboration between Giorgione and Titian.

While some have devoted their lives to understanding Sacred and Profane Love, others have been more interested in possessing the painting. In 1899 the Rothschild family tried to buy it for 4 million lire (approximately €2.6 million) – more than the value of the entire Borghese Gallery building and collection put together. Their offer was refused, and Titian’s masterpiece remains in the gallery.

Allegories and financial value aside, Sacred and Profane Love is one of the highlights of the collection, and the gallery proudly states that the painting “has virtually become the symbol of the Borghese Gallery itself”. 

Borghese Gallery tour with one of our skilled guides is the perfect way to get the most to this magnificent art collction, appreciating Roman sculptures as well as masterpieces of the Renaissance and Baroque.

~by Alexandra Turney~