I recently went back to the Galleria Borghese, one of my favourite museums in Rome, to see a temporary exhibition of 16th century German painter Lucas Cranach, the Elder. Needless to praise the work of the great Northern European painter here, in my view, any opportunity to see work by Cranach is worth taking, so distinctive was his style. What was interesting though, was to see the German painter in an Italian context, and witness how far apart Renaissance Italy and Lutherian Germany were in their artistic expression. If the former was all about grace and classical beauty, the latter was about fantasy and power of expression. Today, we feel almost closer to Cranach’s world, than to the ideals of the Renaissance.
But there is no better place to enjoy the perfect harmony and utter beauty of the Renaissance and early Italian Baroque age, than the gallery Borghese itself. Built in the early 17th century, by cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V Borghese (Pope from 1605 to 1621), it is a masterpiece of harmony between classical, Renaissance and early Baroque art (which at the time was contemporary).
Cardinal Scipione Borghese was a determined and ruthless art collector, prepared to do anything to grab art work that came to his knowledge. He had a particular passion for Antique art. If an antique Roman villa was being excavated, he was the first one there to get his hand on the best mosaics and sculptures. His family were patrons to Caravaggio and the Berninis (the great Gian Lorenzo and his father Pietro), and as was the custom at the time, they used their influence on the Papal throne to enrich their art collection and gather priceless material goods. So, it is even more interesting to see the Lutherian Cranach exhibited in a cardinal’s villa, as if the two worlds that had violently clashed before, were now standing side by side, watched by the careless eye of history.
Still for art lovers, it is a feast: a room full of paintings by Caravaggio, with among others the renowned boy with a basket of flowers, some of the best sculptures by Bernini, including the extremely graceful Apollo and Daphnae; a very touching Sleeping Venus dating from the early Roman empire, and the equally skillful Venus by Canova, famous for representing Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, Pauline, whom he got to marry into the Borghese family.
Today, the ground floor of the villa is more or less as it was at the time of Cardinal Scipione, apart from the marble sculptures, which were originally in the gardens, and because of that, it is a very enjoyable place to see art. Unlike a large national museum, it is a relatively small and manageable space, where visitors can wander around freely and get a feel for the splendor of those times. Visits are restricted to a two-hour slot which is largerly sufficient to also see the first floor gallery, which presents in a more traditional way, Cardinal Borghese’s extensive painting collection (although the original collection has been altered over time by sales and acquisitions from following members of the illustrious family).