When my friend and I visited Rome this spring, we went to some places that were new to me, but we also had to visit some of my old favorites. After all, no trip to Rome is complete without a stop at Del Teatro, one of (if not the) best gelaterie around. Furthermore, it was my friend’s first time in the city, and I felt like I had to show her exactly why I left my heart there when I studied abroad.
When I was there in college, my parents came to visit, and one of my professors suggested that I take them to the Galleria Borghese. Before I went, all I knew was that it was an art museum. That, and if this professor recommended it, it had to be well worth the entrance fee.
Back in the day, the Borghese family was one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Italy. Originally from Siena, they came into their own as politicians and Church officials. In the 16th century, they moved to Rome, which only served to improve their position in society: Once Camillo Borghese was elected Pope Paul V in 1604, several members of his family also rose up the ranks in the Church, and became cardinals. Other family members continued the tradition of being politicians and diplomats, and, in so doing, carved out a prestigious spot in the Roman social hierarchy.
Along with fame (and in those days, Church positions) comes wealth, and the Borghese family was no exception to that rule. It was understood that such affluent people would patronize the arts, and like many of Europe’s leading families, the Borghese clan funded an astounding number of artistic commissions. Unlike most of Europe’s leading families, though, the Borghese were able to find one of the most brilliant sculptors of their time: Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Many people believe that Bernini is the natural successor of Michelangelo, who began a movement away from the rigid and perfect proportions of antiquity and into a more sensuous form of sculpting. I think there can be little doubt that without the patronage of wealthy families like the Borghese or the Pope (Pope Urban VII contracted Bernini to do a great amount of work on the then-new St. Peter’s Basilica) that Bernini wouldn’t have had the resources or – in the world of artwork done on commission – the freedom to do the things that he wanted to artistically.
The gardens around the grand Borghese home extended over the years, and they now cover a huge swath of land just outside the city center of Rome, up the hill from the Scala Spagna. The grounds were sold to the Italian government in 1902 and, in keeping with the fine tradition of patronizing the arts as set down by the Borghese greats, the house was turned into an art museum.
This is one of the best art museums in Rome, in my opinion. The collection may not be as large as other famous galleries, but there are certainly enough Raphaels, Caravaggios, Reubens, and Berninis to make up for it. The ground floor is almost entirely sculpture, and almost entirely by Bernini. Upon visiting the gallery the first time, Bernini quickly became one of my favorite artists. One look at his rendition of David should show you why.
The upper floor is almost wholly dedicated to painting, and it is absolutely beautiful – after all, what else would you expect in a place that slaps a Raphael up on the wall next to Caravaggio without a second thought?
Part of the appeal of visiting the Galleria Borghese is the stroll through the park – the Villa Borghese – to get there. If you come into the park via the Scala Spagna, the Galleria is at the far back corner of the gardens, and it’s a nice stroll to get back there. In the gardens, you can rent bicycles for one, two, or even six people, enjoy some carnival games, sit in a café, or even visit the zoo.
Visiting the Galleria Borghese:
Getting there: The Villa Borghese is easily reached from either Piazza Spagna (climb the Scala Spagna and turn left) or Piazza del Popolo (climb the stairs and there you are). Once you’re up there, follow the signs for the Galleria. Bus lines which run to the Villa Borghese can be found on the “Info e Orari” page of their website.
Admission: Tickets must be booked in advance, either online or in-person. All tickets have an entry time and an exit time, so you’ll have two hours in the museum (this is to distribute foot traffic and protect both the building and the art). Tickets cost 18€, the only reduction being for EU citizens between the ages of 18 and 25 (sorry, fellow Americans). Audio guides that explain the artwork are available to rent, and cost 5€.
Opening hours: The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 AM to 5 PM. However, due to large numbers of visitors, people are admitted to the gallery only at set times: 9 AM to 11 AM, 11 AM to 1 PM, 1 PM to 3 PM, and 3 PM to 5 PM. On Thursdays, there is an additional time slot from 7 PM to 9 PM.
Website: You can visit the Galleria Borghese website here.
Good to know: All bags have to be checked before entering the Galleria. You’re allowed to keep cellphones, wallets, and cameras, which means you can take pictures of the Berninis as you stroll through the museum.