A bitter sweet revisit – Rome: Galleria Borghese featuring Bernini (and Ovid)

The reason for revisiting this blog post is twofold. As I sit here in lockdown, in the middle of winter it is a reminder of a visit in the summer of 2017 – ah Roma, how we miss you. It was so hot, walking through the gardens to the Borghese we had to stop several times under shady trees not to mention sampling the odd Gelato – I can feel the heat now. Secondly, last year was horrible and it was capped off by the tragic news that two outstanding study buddies from my postgraduate years but more than this friends, were lost. This blog, my first ever effort, made a guest appearance on one of these friend’s established blog, so some may remember it from there. I hope it is a fitting tribute.

The Galleria Borghese is situated in the original Villa Borghese which was the villa suburbana, a country villa, owned by Pope Paul V’s nephew Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Cardinal Borghese was a patron of Bernini and the Galleria houses a significant amount of his secular output, many displayed in the position they were originally intended to be viewed.

The Villa is set in extensive formal gardens which themselves are a tourist attraction and can be accessed from several entrances.  One is a long stroll from the Pician Hill with its superb and extensive views across Rome towards St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican.

View from the Pincian Hill

For people yet to visit, a little about the gallery. It is wheelchair friendly with ramps and a (small) lift to both exhibition floors. For the weary traveller who cannot face a walk back through the grounds there are buses and a taxi layby (although you might have to wait to hail a taxi for a while) within 100 metres on the Via Piciana. The staff are possibly the most world weary and unengaging of all the attractions I visited, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt as, while I was waiting to pick up my ticket, at least five other people walked past the ‘sold out’ sign to ask if there were any tickets. I have checked today and there is no availability for five days: so pre-booking well in advance is a necessity. You have to leave bags (including handbags) in the cloakroom and, because the tickets are timed with people arriving and leaving at the same time it is a bit of a melee. Word of warning: although the tickets are timed the chap tearing off the stubs and letting you into the gallery doesn’t take much notice. Ours were for 3pm-5pm, we arrived in the gallery at 2.55 and it was a bit disconcerting listening to the message to clear the galleries and all the doors of the separate display rooms being shut until the next allotted time and being asked to leave. We had to show our tickets to at least three different people to stay on site.

However, it is all worthwhile.

“when Pluto espied her, no sooner espied than he loved her and swept her away, so impatient in passion. In panic, Proserpina desperately cried out for her mother and friends, more often her mother. Her dress had been torn at the top, all the flowers she had picked fell out of her loosened tunic, which only served to increase her distress, poor innocent girl!” Ovid, Metamorphoses 5.394-400

Bernini – The Rape of Proserpina

Nothing prepares the visitor for the first sight of this statue and words simply cannot do it justice. From every angle it just leaves the viewer awestruck and breathless with its composition, detail, fluidity, softness and yet permanence, capturing the moment perfectly.

The detail, as with all Bernini, is superb: it’s possible to ‘feel’ the fingers gripping and dimpling Proposerpina’s leg and the fur on the hound.

“Her strength exhausted, the girl grew pale, then overcome By the effort of running, she saw Penteus’ waters before her; ‘Help me, Father!’ she pleaded. ‘If rivers have power over nature, mar the beauty which made me admired too well, by changing my form!’ She had hardly ended her prayer when a heavy numbness came over her body; her soft white bosom was ringed in a layer of bark, her hair was turned into foliage, her arms into branches”. Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.543-550

Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne – one of those images I have seen so many times in books and now in the flesh, and it doesn’t disappoint.

Again, Bernini captures the moment with amazing skill and detail from Apollo’s calm confidence juxtaposing Daphne’s plea etched on her face to Apollo’s sandal.

“Yet destiny wouldn’t allow Troy’s hopes to be overturned along with her walls. Aeneas, the hero whose mother was Venus, rescued the household gods and, through the flames, on his shoulders he carried a burden as sacred, his venerable father Anchises. These, with his own dear son Ascanius, formed the spoil with Aeneas the dutiful chose to salvage from his possessions.” Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.622-627

The tale of Aeneas is one of the foundation myths of the birth of Rome and an image often used on frescoes, friezes and coins by emperors to establish their lineage and the subject of Virgil’s The Aeneid, the opening lines of which are:  Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris Italiam fatoprofugus Lavinaque venit litora. I sing of the arms and the man, who first by fate was exiled from Troy’s coast, came to Italy and Lavina’s shores.

In Bernini’s representation (Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius shown below), it is possible to see the defeat and suffering in their faces and the detail of the veins in the arms of Aeneas, the ‘old man’ skin on the stomach, veins in the legs and creases across the knees of Anchises is superb. The saving of the household gods is taking pride of place.

Whilst the figures are taken from Roman mythology and, as can be seen, heavily influenced by Ovid, a figure taken from the Bible is definitely worth including.  It is David of David and Goliath fame. I have always pictured David as a small youth probably intimidated and scared facing a giant of a man. Yet Bernini portrays him as determined and fearless. This is probably nearer the truth as slingshots were used by the Roman army and they were, indeed, formidable weapons.

Bernini’s David

Although I have concentrated on Bernini, there is so much more to the Borghese. There is a room with a fabulous collection of Roman Gladiator mosaics which, as you can see, was completely deserted.

There are also beautiful artworks by Caravaggio, Titian and Reubens to name a few which shouldn’t be missed; however it is difficult to fit it all in within a two-hour slot.

I hope this encourages you to visit, if you haven’t already. To be frank I am jealous of anyone who plans to visit for the first time because you will get that massive emotional impact. Should you have been before I hope my pictures and musings will bring back good memories.

Either way – read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, there are so many myths, some which are obscure, and he brings Bernini’s vision and talent to life.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this was a guest blog and I would urge you to follow this link to Minerva’s Pencil Case. Marilyn’s knowledge of the Eternal City was second to none, with several suggestions ‘off the beaten track’. So many beautiful photographs, so much enthusiasm, she is sadly missed.

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