by Roderick Conway Morris

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Dorchester Collection
Villa Borghese

At Rome's heart, Villa Borghese

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 28 February 2004


Even in ancient Rome much of the population was accustomed to living cheek-by-jowl in multistory buildings. One contemporary wit complained of having his sleep disturbed nightly by the noise of overcrowded, jerry-built tenement blocks collapsing. The Romans of today remain gregarious, relish being part of a throng and, one suspects, many of them would suffer panic attacks if they found themselves stranded in a non-urban environment.

But there is one open space that has a special place in Roman hearts, the scene of fondly remembered childhood frolics and youthful romances and where pensioners slowly stroll musing on times past. This is the Borghese Gardens, known as Villa Borghese because of the famous villa-museum, built in the early 17th century by the bon vivant connoisseur Cardinal Scipione Borghese.

Until 1902 Villa Borghese, which has a circumference of nine kilometers, was still the Borghese family's private property. In that year it was effectively nationalized by the state, and in the following year the gardens were handed over to Rome's municipality, becoming a public park. To mark the centennial of the event, 'Villa Borghese: Princes, Arts and the City in the 18th and 19th Centuries,' is being held at the newly restored Villa Poniatowski on the western edge of the gardens. This is the first exhibition to be hosted by this attractive venue, and it continues until March 21.

The Borghese originated in Siena and their steady accumulation of property and influence was crowned in 1605, when Camillo Borghese was elected to the papacy, taking the name Paul V. In the same year he made his nephew Scipione a cardinal, designating him as his heir. Over his 16-year reign, Paul heaped favors on his nephew, who used his newfound wealth to amass one of the greatest art collections ever made and, between 1606 and 1619, to build Villa Borghese expressly to display his acquisitions, which included classical sculptures, paintings by all the major Renaissance artists and numerous works by the cardinal's leading contemporaries, notably Bernini and Caravaggio.

Understandably, most research and writing has focused on this, the golden age of Villa Borghese, but the story, of course, did not end there. Indeed, it was in the later periods that the Villa and its gardens ceased to be a playground for the privileged and became more fully part of the life of the city as a whole.

Scipione Borghese's was a difficult act to follow. Nonetheless, in the second half of the 18th century, Prince Marcantonio IV decided that the Villa was in need of an update, on which he came to lavish prodigious sums. He began his program for the radical refurbishment of the villa in 1775, under the direction of the architect Antonio Asprucci (who had trained under Nicola Salvi, the creator of the Trevi Fountain). The project, which employed many of the most prominent artists resident in Rome at the time, both Italian and foreign, and lasted the best part of 20 years, left Rome with one of the most extensive and harmonious of neoclassical interiors.

Work was not even interrupted by the brief and tumultuous episode of the Roman Republic, during which the pope was imprisoned and carried off to France (and the French General Berthier took up residence at Villa Poniatowski). The Borghese were enthusiastic supporters of the revolution, renouncing their titles, publicly trampling on the family's coat of arms and participating in the burning of the Golden Book of the Nobility. The scene for this ceremony was a specially erected stage-set in the Piazza di Spagna. But this solemn symbolic occasion descended into farce when a sudden rain storm wrought havoc with the scenery, which had been constructed out of wood, canvas and papier-mâché, and the magisterially upraised arm of a flimsily built Statue of Truth fell off.

The Roman Republic itself proved hardly more durable. While embraced by a considerable number of aristocrats, professionals and intellectuals, it never gained any currency with the lower orders, who hankered after the previous regime, with its gaudily magnificent religious processions, interminable masses, and papal largesse, and after a mere 18 months the entire enterprise imploded.

More significant for the fate of the Borghese collection was Camillo's marriage in 1803 to Napoleon's sister, Pauline. In 1791 Gavin Hamilton had persuaded Marcantonio IV to excavate a promising area on one of the Borghese estates near Rome, identified as the site of the ancient city of Gabii. Hamilton bore all the costs, in exchange for one third of the finds. The dig produced a spectacular quantity of high-quality classical sculptures, reliefs and other fragments. These discoveries stimulated Marcantonio to begin the planning for a fine new museum to contain the antiquities.

However, the Borghese association with the Bonapartes intervened. In 1807 Napoleon cajoled and bribed his brother-in-law Camillo into parting with almost the whole Gabii treasure, well more than 500 pieces in all. It took two years to pack them and ship them to Paris, where they became the cornerstone of the Louvre's classical collection. Happily for Rome, Napoleon seemed indifferent to the Borghese Old Masters.

Unlike Cardinal Scipione, the collection's founder, who took an equal interest in ancient and modern art, the later Borghese commissioned and purchased relatively few works from their own times. The exception was Camillo's calling on Canova to execute what was to become the sculptor's single most celebrated piece, his portrait figure of Pauline Borghese, reclining semi-naked on a couch as 'Venus Victorious.' In fact, Camillo got to spend a great deal more time with this sculpture than he did with its subject in the flesh.

Within months of their nuptials, Camillo and Pauline's relationship had soured. In 1804 she decamped to France, not to reappear in Rome for a decade, by which time she was far from welcome.

But she stayed on in Italy, scandalizing local opinion by taking younger lovers and so on, until her death in 1825.

Although the later Borghese were greatly influenced by French culture and taste, in the 1780s Marcantonio IV entrusted the Scottish landscape painter Jacob More with the task of transforming part of the park into an English garden, complete with lake and temple. (This decade also saw the first cricket match to be played by visiting English gentlemen and resident artists in the gardens.) While the local critics were rather sniffy about More's handiwork, it was an instant success with the Romans at large, and in due course provided the backdrop for hundreds of portraits by local and visiting artists.

To bring the story of the Villa Borghese up to the present day, the exhibition's organizers had the splendid idea of asking the public to submit family photographs snapped in the gardens over the last hundred years. The response outran expectations. And the diverting selection from over a thousand entries makes a satisfying conclusion to this enjoyable and informative exhibition.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024