by Roderick Conway Morris

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Borghese Gallery Reopens


By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 28 June 1997

 

A unique purpose-built treasure-house of masterpieces, containing works from Titian's 'Sacred and Profane Love' and Raphael's 'Deposition', to Caravaggio's 'Jerome' and Bernini's 'Apollo and Daphne', the Borghese Gallery, having been, for close on four centuries, one of the primary reasons for visiting Rome, shut its doors early in 1984, and has been largely inaccessible ever since.

The initial reason for the closure was the fall of some plaster in one of the gallery's ceilings, but further investigations revealed that the entire edifice was resting on an unstable honeycomb of subterranean grottoes and watercourses, and was in danger of collapse. Since then the years have passed, operations to consolidate the building have proceeded at a snail's pace, and as the exterior became progressively more dilapidated, the surrounding gardens sadder and scruffier, a growing generation has had to content itself with increasingly hazy descriptions of the past wonders of the interiors from its elders, and those over a certain age to reconcile themselves to going to their graves without ever seeing the glory that was the Borghese again.

Last August, however, the newly-appointed, center-left deputy-Prime Minister and Cultural Heritage Minister Walter Veltroni, decreed that the Borghese would reopen this June, come what may.

'I decided the only solution was to fix a date and say that's when it's going to happen,' said 42-year-old Veltroni in an interview. 'because the Borghese seemed to me the symbol of the Italian paradox - of a country with the most concentrated cultural riches in the world, but which is capable of treating them so badly. And also because one of the most important museums in the world had been allowed to remain closed for nearly 14 years, which was an absolute scandal that had to be confronted.'

During the intervening period Veltroni, like an anxious, latter-day Solomon overseeing the refurbishment of his temple, has created something of a living legend by his often daily visits to the Borghese to inspect, cajole and extol the army of restorers, craftsmen and workers. The building, cleaned, polished, buffed-up, retouched inside and out, fitted with modern acclimatization systems, basement bookshop and cafe, and with even the once fabled gardens looking on the road to recovery, is due to be inaugurated on Saturday.

The Gallery's founder, Scipione Borghese, lived, in collector's terms, in an extraordinary epoch, and had the means, connections, and lack of scruples to exploit his advantages to the hilt. In 1605, when Scipione's uncle Camillo became Pope Paul V and made his nephew a cardinal and heir in the same year, the market was awash with 16th-century masters, and Caravaggio had just come on the scene. By the time of his death in 1633, Scipione had also managed to acquire Bernini's early sculptures - and had had himself brilliantly immortalized by the same baroque artist, the pleasure-loving Cardinal's lively face comfortably cushioned on his double chin, his discerning, roving eye frozen for all time in its search for the good things in this life rather than the next.

While the original villa, built between 1606 and 1619, set in the extensive private parklands, which are now the public Borghese Gardens, had a small suite of personal apartments, it was essentially conceived of as a museum from the outset, making it one of the earliest created. And its owner-curator became notorious for the means he was prepared to employ to obtain pieces that took his fancy. Some paintings were spirited out the Vatican museums, others confiscated by dubious judicial proceedings, and others still, as in the case, of Domenichino and Cavalier D'Arpino, secured by the simple expedient of imprisoning their owners until they saw sense.

Scipione's heirs were sometimes neglectful of the vigorous efforts their forbear had put into amassing the collection, and some key works were dispersed, among them, during the 18th century, several by Raphael and Caravaggio.

The greatest outflow came, however, after Napoleon Bonaparte's sister Pauline married Camillo Borghese, who, in 1807, sold the lion's share of the ancient collection, including 159 sculptures, 170 bass-reliefs and numerous other archeological finds to his brother-in-law (most of which are still at the Louvre). Camillo acquired, meanwhile, Correggio's 'Danae', but his main contribution to the present collection was the result of his commissioning of Canova's life-size sculpture of his wife in the pose of Venus Victorious. This scantily-draped, neo-classical reclining figure, exquisitely capturing Pauline unashamedly basking in her own charms,, was once coated with a fine layer of pink wax which has long since disappeared, and it has now been cleaned of the subsequent yellowish grime that had settled on it. The mechanism that Camillo had made so that it could be rotated and admired from every angle has also been restored. (When asked by a lady friend if she did not feel uncomfortable posing for the artist in a near-naked state, Pauline is reputed to have replied: 'Why should I? The studio is heated'.)

One of the principal innovations, apart from the cleaning of many sculptures and pictures, are is the gathering together in a room on the ground floor of the museums half dozen Caravaggios. Otherwise, most of the paintings are still on the upper floor, the stylish staircase to which spirals up around an old-world, Jules-Verneish cylindrical elevator.

To protect the elaborate painted and gilded interiors and the works themselves, no more than 300 visitors will be allowed on the ground floor, and 90 on the upper floor at one time (to avoid having to install a disfiguring external fire-escape on the outside of the building), making pre-booking well-nigh essential.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016