Museo and Galleria Borghese
If you only have time (or inclination) for one art gallery in Rome, make it this one. Not only is it exquisite, but it provides the perfect introduction to Renaissance and baroque art without being overwhelming. To limit numbers, visitors are admitted at two-hourly intervals, so you’ll need to call to pre-book, and enter at an allotted entry time – but trust us, it’s worth it.
The collection, which includes works by Caravaggio, Bernini, Botticelli, Rubens, Raphael and Titian, was formed by Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1579–1633), the most knowledgeable and ruthless art collector of his day. It’s housed in the Casino Borghese, whose neoclassical look is the result of a 17th-century revamp of Scipione’s original villa.
The villa is divided into two parts: the ground-floor gallery, with its superb sculptures, intricate Roman floor mosaics and over-the-top frescoes; and the upstairs picture gallery.
Things get off to a cracking start in the entrance hall, decorated with 4th-century floor mosaics of fighting gladiators and a gravity-defying bas-relief, Marco Curzio a Cavallo, of a horse and rider falling into the void, by Pietro Bernini (Gian Lorenzo’s father).
Sala I is centred on Antonio Canova’s daring depiction of Napoleon’s sister, Paolina Bonaparte Borghese, reclining topless as Venere vincitrice (Conquering Venus; 1805–08). Yet it’s Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s spectacular sculptures – flamboyant depictions of pagan myths – that really steal the show. Just look at Daphne’s hands morphing into leaves in the swirling Apollo e Dafne (1622–25) in Sala III, or Pluto’s hand pressing into the seemingly soft flesh of Persephone’s thigh in the Ratto di Proserpina (Rape of Persephone; 1621–22) in Sala IV.
Caravaggio dominates Sala VIII. There’s a dissipated-looking Bacchus (1592–95), the strangely beautiful La Madonna dei Palafenieri (Madonna with Serpent; 1605–06) and San Giovanni Battista (St John the Baptist; 1609–10), probably Caravaggio’s last work. Then there’s the much-loved Ragazzo col Canestro di Frutta (Boy with a Basket of Fruit; 1593–95) and the dramatic Davide con la Testa di Golia (David with the Head of Goliath; 1609–10) – Goliath’s severed head is said to be a self-portrait.
Upstairs, the pinacoteca offers a wonderful snapshot of European Renaissance art. Don’t miss Raphael’s extraordinary La Deposizione di Cristo (The Deposition; 1507) in Sala IX, and his Dama con Liocorno (Lady with a Unicorn; 1506). In the same room is the superb Adorazione del Bambino (Adoration of the Christ Child; 1495) by Fra Bartolomeo and Perugino’s Madonna con Bambino (Madonna and Child; first quarter of the 16th century).
Other highlights include Correggio’s erotic Danae (1530–31) in Sala X, Bernini’s self-portraits in Sala XIV and Titian’s early masterpiece, Amor Sacro e Amor Profano (Sacred and Profane Love; 1514) in Sala XX.