Beguiled by the Borghese

Posted: 8 February 2011 in Travel.
Tags: , , , ,

Original Post Date:   12 April 2010

On the afternoon of Palm Sunday in Rome, after enjoying a macchiato in the shadow of the Pantheon, I met up with a new friend from the writers’ conference from which I’d just come.  The sunshine was glorious, illuminating the white dome of a cathedral, glinting off Hadrian’s Elephant, toasting our cheeks and shoulders.  Church-goers ambled through the cobblestone streets holding olive branches aloft while tourists squinted at maps and caroused souvenir shops.

We could have easily whiled the day away in a cafe, talking and drinking and people-watching, while the sun showered us with its love, but we were on our way to the Galleria Borghese (www.galleriaborghese.it), which houses a majority of the art collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a nephew of Pope Paul V.   Sciopione apparently had very good taste, having been an early patron of Bernini and a collector of works by Caravaggio, Rubens, Raphael and many others.

Gail and I started on the second floor, an accidental but serendipitous strategy since the museum entry is timed and everyone else began on the first floor–meaning that, for a while anyway, we had the galleries to ourselves.

One room of jaw-dropping paintings gave on to another and we went from one to the next to the next craning our necks at the elaborately frescoed ceilings, pointing at this painting by Titian and that painting by Raphael.  The Caravaggios were on loan to a special exhibition going on over at the Quirinale, but there was still gaping to be done over Jacopo Bassano’s The Last Supper and Domenichino’s Diana.

But the real oohing and aahing was still to come.  Already dizzy from the collection of paintings, we made our way down the spiral staircase to the ground floor where the sculpture rooms beckoned.

Mostly, the Borghese, like much of Rome, is all about Bernini, yet Canova’s white marble statue of Paolina Bonaparte reclining on a mattress is every bit as worthy.  I admit to knowing very little about art, and so I cannot speak to what makes art “good” or “bad,” but as a sentient human being, I was moved by the wrinkles in the mattress which looked like anything but stone, and by the utter tranquility of Paolina’s pose and facial expression.

That said, if it had been the case that the Borghese had room for only a few pieces of art, we would have been satisifed with three particular Berninis.  The fierce expression of determination on the face of Bernini’s David as he confronts Goliath compells you while the chiseled indentations of Pluto’s grip on his victim in The Rape of Proserpine takes your breath away.  To think that both of these masterpieces were finished before the sculptor was 25 years old is almost incomprehensible.

It was his Apollo and Daphne, though, that truly moved me.

Gail and I moved in slow, trancelike circles around this statue that depicts the virgin nymph Daphne turning into a laurel tree in order to escape Apollo.  There is bark where skin should be, her fingers and toes are morphing to twigs, leaves grow within her hair.  Her desperation is physical.  The facial expressions, the opposing textures of tree and human flesh–how this could have been fashioned out of a slab of rock is mind-boggling.  Again, my art education is dismal, but even I know a masterpiece when I see one.

I fantasized about curling up at Daphne’s feet, taking a nap and then waking up an hour later to gaze at her all over again, but it was time to go.  Gail and I took a final circle around, trying to take it all in, to etch it into our memories so we could recall it at any moment.

And to be doubly safe, we made a beeline for the gift shop and bought postcards.


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