Rome's Galleria Borghese is one of Italy's best art museums, filled with pieces by Raphael, Rubens, Titian, Caravaggio and Bernini… to name a few. But it tends not to be on most first-time tourist itineraries. Even though skipping the Borghese is like visiting Paris and dismissing the Musee d'Orsay. If that's you, stop here: maybe art just ain't your thing. And that's okay.
For those who love this kind of stuff, though, you can't miss it. First, there's the building itself. The Villa Borghese, built in the 17th century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, is a rare gem: Never used as a home, it was built with the express purpose of showing off Scipione's art collection. With art and architecture intertwined, taking in the collection itself is a pleasant, unified experience. Look above you, and frescoes echo the themes of the pieces beneath. Look before you, and ancient and 17th-century sculptures of the same subjects intermingle.
But if there's any broad generalization you can make about the collection, it's that it was certainly borne out of passion: Borghese was such an avid collector that he had Domenechino jailed so he could get his hands on "Diana Hunting," sent henchmen to steal Raphael's "Entombment" from Perugia in the dead of night, and bargained so hard with Caravaggio in a game of 17th-century papal justice known as "Paintings for a Pardon" that he may have helped cause the artist's death. And it has the masterpieces to prove it.
Love Bernini's supple sculptures? Then you'll be blown away by the pieces here, some of the earliest and most famous from his long career: the "Apollo and Daphne," then thought impossible to render in stone (and so beautifully done that, I'll admit, it brought tears to my eyes); the "David," a self-portrait of the artist as he takes on critics and, perhaps, even Michelangelo's own world-famous "David;" "Aeneas and Anchises," done when Bernini was just 21 years old; the "Rape of Proserpina," so realistic you can see how Pluto's fingers indent Proserpina's plush skin — and feel her fear as he carries her to the underworld. Except that it happens to be marble. Right.
But Bernini's not the only hotshot at the Borghese. Caravaggio, that 17th-century scofflaw who split his time between brawling, barfights and Baroque art, has gotten renewed attention this year with the 400th anniversary of his death. But at the Borghese, he's always been a big deal. One of his earliest patrons was Scipione Borghese, and the villa has his "Sick Bacchus," "Boy with a Basket of Fruit," and "Madonna of the Snakes," among other pieces.
That's not to mention the collection's pieces by Rubens. Raphael. Correggio. Lucas Cranach the Elder. The list keeps going.
The Borghese: There's a reason why it's my first post. It's fantastic.
Just remember that if you go, you must (must!) book in advance, as entrances are only on every odd hour (9am, 11am, 1pm, and so on). Do it a couple of days ahead of time as slots fill up quickly, especially in the high season. You can do it online here for an extra booking fee, or call 0039 06 8413979. A slight hassle? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely.
The Borghese is located at Piazzale del Museo Borghese, 5.