This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.
The Borghese, pronounced borrrr-geh’-see-ah, was once a private estate originally owned by a cardinal who was the nephew of a pope. There was a lot of money to be made in the Catholic Church 500 years ago, which is partly what sparked the Reformation.
The gallery is one building in a sprawling complex. There was the villa itself, where successive owners lived before the last ones bequeathed it to the state. There were parks filled with statuary and fountains, and then there was the gallery. I didn’t see the villa, but I imagine it isn’t too shabby. So if you were lucky enough to live here in the 17th Century, the gallery was your own private art museum.
My group of a dozen New Yorkers, Floridians, Hoosiers, Ottowans, and one Dutch couple were led around efficiently by our guide, Mario, who said he was an art student. He was around 35, so I think he may have meant he was a lifelong student of art.
The first room featured a sculpture by Bernini, the Rape of Persephone (by Hades, the king of hell). According to Mario, they “lived happily ever after.” Really.
Despite the repulsive subject, I couldn’t help but marvel at the lifelike bodies carved out of a block of solid marble. Look at Hades’ fingers sinking into Persephone’s flesh.
The Rape was the centerpiece in the room, but every inch of the room was covered with art. Even the walls, floors, and doors were works of art because they had been painted to look like marble or other precious materials. I wondered how much just one of the friezes above the door would be worth, and what anonymous artist had produced it.
In a hallway, there were these 3D murals on the ceiling:
The next room featured another guy (Apollo), who couldn’t keep his hands off a woman (Daphne) who had said “No.” She pleaded for help to her father, the river god Ladon; and he turned her into a tree. How did Bernini know where to start? How did he carve the arms and fingers without cracking one off?
We passed through an enormous room that was closed for renovation, but we stopped to appreciate the ceiling; this is one small section:
There was a sculpture of Napolean’s sister Pauline, who was married to a Borghese for the political alliance. Note the wrinkles in the marble “mattress.”
Then there were the paintings by Caravaggio. This one had been banned because it depicted Mary with cleavage and was unflattering of her mother, Anne. Full frontal male nudity, I guess, was not a problem.
Continuing along the rape theme, there was this painting of Susanna being raped by the elders.
The painting below depicts a virtuous vs. sinful woman. It’s not what you think—the naked one is virtuous because she isn’t hiding anything. You know us women–always keeping important secrets from men.
After an hour and a half, Mario said we could walk around by ourselves until our timed ejection at 2pm. I had read about a statue by Bernini called The Hermaphrodite—female from behind, male in front. Mario had led us past it without comment and it was pushed against a wall—for modesty’s sake? Was male nudity deemed unseemly when it was an adult? But there were plenty of other statues of naked men throughout the gallery. Was it because of the gender fluidity of the statue?
I had not expected to encounter these themes of rape, of women being objects for barter and use by men, and of the mixed attitudes toward nudity. Aside from The Hermaphrodite, I didn’t go looking for any of these works; they were highlights of the gallery featured on the tour. Mario didn’t interpret or make any sociopolitical commentary.
Open a newspaper anywhere, any day, and there will be stories about rape and human trafficking and women being killed by stalkers. I’m not one to say “nothing ever changes.” The world is safer and saner in many ways than it was four hundred years ago. But art suggests that human nature, emotions, and impulses don’t change.