In Rome, a human-scale masterpiece at the Borghese

Times Staff Writer

I've been collecting the great museums of Europe, but there was an empty space on my charm bracelet for the Borghese Gallery in Rome. Every time I visited the city, I wandered into Villa Borghese park, on the heights east of the Tiber River, but the museum was always boarded up or under construction. It remained so for more than a decade, mysterious and tantalizing. The gallery reopened in 1997, and I finally got a chance to see it last month when I was in Rome.

People started calling the Borghese a perfect museum almost as soon as it was built at the beginning of the 17th century by Cardinal Scipione Caffarelli Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V. The museum is housed in an elegant Empire-style villa, and the collection showcases primarily Italian art from ancient times to the 19th century, particularly emphasizing late Renaissance, Baroque and Mannerist works. It has at least one of everything great and Italian you would want to see, as well as a singularly rich gathering of Caravaggios and Berninis.

Visiting the Borghese also gave me the opportunity to study the art of going to a museum, which can tax even the most enthusiastic. After a summer in Italy and a surfeit of Nativities, Crucifixions and sacre conversazioni, my then-10-year-old niece told her parents she wouldn't care if she never saw another museum. Understanding how she felt, I carefully planned my visit to the Borghese.

I ate first. This is vital, because the stomach must not be allowed to compete with painting and sculpture. It was a beautiful autumn Sunday, and I had no worries, only great art in my future.

Reservations are required for the Borghese, which is small compared with the Hermitage or Louvre. My ticket was for 3 p.m.

In previous visits to Rome, I had climbed to the Pincio, which provides a heavenly view of the Eternal City and bounds Villa Borghese park on the southwest. But I had never ventured deep into the park. Patrician country villas clustered here in ancient times, then fell into romantic ruins during Rome's chaotic Middle Ages. Around 1600, rich Roman families such as the Borgheses rediscovered the area, building houses and gardens, turning it into a suburban Elysium.

The park is now owned by the city of Rome, and the fountains, heroic statues, gardens and greenswards have a slightly shaggy air, making it a fine place for getting lost, as I did. But with the help of my internal compass and the infrequent sign, I found my way to the Villa Borghese, which, finally freed from scaffolding, revealed itself to be white and symmetrical.

At the ticket counter on the lower level, where there's also a cloakroom, cafe and gift shop, I decided against the audio tour but bought a Borghese Gallery guidebook in English, then sat on the stairs outside the entrance until my group of about 100 was admitted.

An exuberantly frescoed ceiling and delicately stuccoed wall panels adorn the entrance hall, devoted largely to antique sculpture gathered by Cardinal Scipione to celebrate the reemergence of Rome as a center of civilization after the Dark Ages. In front of me Roman hero Marcus Curtius seemed to be charging on horseback out of the wall, a statue from the 1st or 2nd century, with elaborations by Pietro Bernini, Gian Lorenzo's father. A 19th century Borghese installed wondrous 4th century mosaics on the floor, depicting gladiators fighting lions that look about as fierce as Labrador retrievers.

To avoid the crowd, I toured the first-floor rooms in reverse, starting in No. 8, graced by six Caravaggios. From the next room there were views of the Secret Garden, a walled-in lost paradise adjoining the villa, then one breathtaking statue after another by Gian Lorenzo Bernini: his determined "David," caught in the act of stretching his slingshot; "Apollo and Daphne," with the nymph's hands turning into laurel branches as the god pursues her; and Pluto ravishing Proserpina as tears fall across her lovely white marble cheek.

Each room had laminated cards in Italian and English, describing the works of art therein. Holding one, a confused man near me said, "And that's supposed to be in this room?" Others wore earphones, listening to the audio guide. Another couple toured the museum with no apparent guidance at all, which took bravado, I thought. I laughed aloud when the man pointed to a painting and said, "Yeah, I kinda like that," as if he were shopping for shoes.

The second floor is the museum's picture gallery, climaxing in Titian's "Sacred and Profane Love" (1512-15), a title attached to the painting of two women, one naked, the other fully clothed, in the late 18th century, giving it a moralistic meaning the painter never intended, my guidebook said.

I bought a postcard of that when the two allotted hours were up and sat outside feeling a little sad because my tour had been so brief and superficial. Then my stomach spoke, and I starting thinking about dinner. By the time I reached the Pincio, the sky was a frescoed ceiling over the city, with clouds and setting sun, and the day was already enshrined in my memory like a sacra conversazione.

Borghese Gallery, 5 Piazzale del Museo Borghese, 00197 Rome, 011-39-06-32810,

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World