Enjoying the heart-shaped Villa Borghese is a “must-do” when visiting Rome.
In the beginning of the 17th century, Cardinal Scipione Borghese began the immense project of converting this former vineyard into a glorious park. Eventually acquired by the commune of Rome in the 19th century, it includes 148 acres of lush grounds and is now open to the public.
Set in the historical center of Rome, this park reaches from Piazza del Popolo (Pincian Terrace) and Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps) to one of the city’s most luxurious districts surrounding Via Vittorio Veneto. On the northern border, Rome’s zoo, the Bioparco, also adjoins the park.
Although the gardens have changed over the centuries, the site of the current Villa Borghese has been a growing garden since the late Roman republic, when a portion of the land was the location for the gardens of Lucullus starting in 60 BC. The gardens continued to grow through the Roman empire, but some areas became a bit of a jungle during the Middle Ages.
But in 1580, the Borghese family moved to the site, where they started a small vineyard. A short time later, in 1605, Cardinal Scipione Borghese set out to turn the land into a series of extravagant gardens, the most elegant since ancient Rome. As the gardens were created, the Borghese family purchased the nearby land to expand their estate.
Along with the Borghese Gardens, the Villa Borghese Pinciana was built in 1633, mainly to house the art collections of the Borghese family, better known today as the Borghese Gallery.
In 1903 the formally private Villa Borghese gardens were bought by the city of Rome and made the Villa Borghese gardens a public park.
Designed in a traditional English style, Villa Borghese is now home to elegant gardens, multiple lakes, a collection of temples, columns, fountains, arches, and pavilions, a wide range of recreational activities, a few restaurants and bars, a cinema and theater, and of course the much-loved Borghese Gallery.
Visitors can explore the gardens in many different ways. Some might start a simple stroll, go for a morning run, or take an easygoing bike ride to see what beauty the gardens have to offer. Regardless of the type of transportation, the gardens certainly have much to discover.
The Temple of Asclepius, one of the Villa Borghese gardens’ most famous sites, is a small but popular feature in the gardens. Although this might appear to be a temple from ancient times, the structure was actually built in the late 18th century by Antonio Asprucci. Today, visitors can view its beauty either from the surrounding gardens, or by taking a romantic boat ride on the lake of Villa Borghese, right in front of the temple.
Along with the many forms of plant life in the gardens, there is also a place where visitors can see animals from around the world in one place. The Bioparco of Rome, located at the northern end of the park, is a zoo that was founded in 1908. Around 1,100 animals are kept here, with an amazing 222 species to see in the zoo.
Hidden at the center of the gardens is a replica of the Globe Theater, most famously associated with the plays of William Shakespeare. Although the original theater is located in London, visitors in Rome can discover this 2003 recreation, and even see a Shakespeare performance for themselves during certain times of the year.
The Borghese Gallery provides the pulse for the heart-shaped park. The Gallery was formerly the Villa Borghese Pinciana, a highly adorned party house for the Borghese family. It was designed by the noted architect Flaminio Ponzio in the early 17th century. As Cardinal Borghese was a great art-lover, the Gallery is home to a magnificent selection of sculptures, paintings, and ornately decorated rooms from artists including Bernini, Canova, Caravaggio, Raphael, and Titian.
Villa Borghese park: open to the public, Monday - Sunday - Always Open
The Borghese Gallery: requires a reservation (available Tuesday through Sunday)
For more information, contact Walks Inside Rome today.
“Apollo and Daphne” by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Completed in 1625 by Bernini, this sculpture was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese himself, and remains one of the most famous pieces in the Borghese Gallery, for good reason.
The story behind the two central figures shows the mythical nymph Daphne turning into a laurel tree as the god Apollo follows after her. As it was a Christian that commissioned this piece of art, Pope Urban VIII would later justify the creation of the sculpture, because it represents the pursuit of “fleeting forms of pleasure”.
Although a masterpiece on its own, it is clear that Bernini did take inspiration from both antique sculptures, such as Apollo of Belvedere, now on display at the Vatican Museums, to create his own representation of Apollo, and also the works of more modern painters, including Guido Reni. These inspirations come together to create a masterful sculpture that displays much movement and passion within the work.
“Pluto and Persephone” by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Another well regarded sculpture by Bernini at the Borghese Gallery, “Pluto and Persephone” was the sculpture Bernini finished before “Apollo and Daphne”, but both sculptures were commissioned by Cardinal Borghese.
The sculpture shows the mythical scene of Pluto taking Persephone with him into the underworld. Pluto had seen Persephone, a daughter of Jupiter, and fallen in love with her. Bernini takes a snapshot of what he believed would be the climactic moment, and each character’s emotion is clearly seen.
Similar to “Apollo and Daphne”, this sculpture of Pluto and Persephone displays the movement and the emotion associated with the story, specifically this scene. With these two pieces in the Borghese Gallery, Bernini shows his mastery over marble, making the stone marble appear like soft dough.
“Venus Victrix” by Antonio Canova
This sculpture of the goddess Venus was sculpted by Canova between 1805 and 1808. It was commissioned by Camillo Borghese, and his wife, Pauline Bonaparte, was said to be the model for the famous goddess.
The “Venus Victrix” (“Venus Victorious”) shows the goddess reclining on a couch. Holding an apple in her hand, Canova hints at the victory of Aphrodite in the Judgement of Paris, an event that would over time lead to the foundation of Rome.
The depiction of Venus at the Borghese Gallery is not much of a surprise in a couple of ways. Primarily, the Borghese family mythical ancestry was supposedly traced back to Venus and her son Aeneas. Pauline Bonaparte also insisted that the subject be Venus, and not Diana, a chaste goddess.
“The Deposition” by Raphael
Not all of the masterpieces in the Borghese Gallery are made of marble. This oil painting created by Raphael was completed in 1507, and was a part of a larger altarpiece for Atalanta Baglioni of Perugia, a Perugian noblewoman.
This part of the painting portrays Jesus after his crucifixion, being laid in the tomb. Raphael paints the sorrowful surrounding crowd in despair, with Mary the mother of Jesus swooning on the right side of the painting (referencing the painting’s patron).
As one of Raphael’s earlier works, this altarpiece helped the painter to form his mature style which he is so famous for today. The critically acclaimed painting travelled to multiple places before its final location at the Borghese Gallery in 1815, including an exhibition at the Louvre (at the time the Napoleon Museum) in Paris.
“Boy with a Basket of Fruit” by Caravaggio
From one famous painter to another, next is “Boy with a Basket of Fruit”, painted by Caravaggio around 1593. This was when the painter was still attempting to make a name for himself in the competitive artistic scene in Rome, and this is where he shows his range and skill for such a seemingly simple image.
The painting, in the process of creating the image of a boy and his fruit basket, Caravaggio is able to develop his skills as a painter, from the vibrant colors of the fruit to the difficult textures of the basket and the boy’s robe. It is in these impressive exercises in technique that the painter developed his signature style that can be seen all around Rome.
“Sacred and Profane Love” by Titian
“Sacred and Profane Love” is an oil painting created in 1514 by Titan. Although known for his other works in the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, this early work by the artist shows his own style from the early days in his career.
Unlike some of the other works in the Borghese Gallery, “Sacred and Profane Love” does not have one definitive meaning, and has been interpreted in many ways over the years. One of the most popular interpretations is the idea of “Twin Venuses”, where each woman represented is meant to symbolize either the earthly or more spiritual (higher) form of love. What is your interpretation of this famous painting?