The Borghese Gallery was one of the best museums PJ and I visited while in Italy last month. We reserved a time on the last afternoon that we were in Rome, which turned out to be my birthday. Visiting this museum was a great way to spend the afternoon.

One of the things I’ve learned about myself in the past few years is that I really enjoy house museums. The Borghese Gallery is housed in a seventeenth-century villa owned by the Borgheses, one of Rome’s wealthiest and most powerful families at this time. The family moved to Rome in 1541 and came to the fore of Roman society when Camillo Borghese was elected pope in 1605. He took the name Pope Paul V. Construction of the villa began in 1612 and was completed in 1620. It’s an amazing house, and the collection is equally impressive.

The highlight of the collection for me was Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, which was completed in 1625. This was one of the most impressive sculptures I saw during our trip to Italy. It is an amazing piece of art, especially in its intricate details and complexity.

The myth that this piece depicts is the moment that Daphne prays to the gods to deliver her from the pursuit of Apollo. Apollo had offended Eros, so the god of love shot him with a golden arrow, causing him to fall in love with Daphne. But Eros shot Daphne with a lead arrow, causing her to hate her pursuer.

When Apollo was just about to catch the woman of his affections, she cried out to her father, a river god, to deliver her. In order to do so, he transformed her into a laurel tree, which Apollo took as his official tree from then on.

Bernini’s statue captures the moment in which Daphne is transformed. In his statue, she is part human and part tree. Her fingers are sprouting leaves and her feet are taking root into the ground.

Part of what stands out about this work is the delicacy of the leaves and roots, which contrast with Apollo’s movement. Her movement is one of transformation into statis, while his is still moving toward her. It’s an amazing accomplishment.

I also appreciate how beautiful Bernini makes his two subjects. Daphne is femininity personified, and Apollo is young and handsome. It’s hard to imagine that this statue once graced someone’s home. In fact, the family had to defend the work. They did so by claiming that it taught an important Christian moral: not to pursue earthly delights.

Bernini also sculpted my other favorite statue from this trip, which also happens to be housed in the Borghese, David. I’ll probably blog later about all the Davids we saw on this trip, but I’ll note here that this one is my favorite. This picture on the left is from the Borghese website.

I love the intense look of concentration of this David’s face. He’s also nude under his cloak. I was interested to see that from the side, this David has partially exposed genitals. Not to sound like nudity is all that matters, but getting this little peek at David’s junk augments this statue’s complexity. It shows that Bernini was a master of detail and subtlety.

I also really admired the way Bernini shows David’s rib. It emphasizes the strain of preparing to shoot the slingshot. Again, Bernini is able to capture action and statis at the same time. It’s a great work of art.

PJ and I liked Bernini’s work so much that we bought a book about him at the museum. I can’t say that I’ve ever had a favorite sculptor before; now I do. All of his work that we saw during this trip–at St. Peter’s, his fountain in Piazza Navona, a special exhibit of his busts in the Bargello in Florence–is amazing. We started looking for Berninis and were never disappointed when we found one.

One of my favorite paintings in this museum was Correggio’s Danäe, which was completed in 1531. It depicts the scene in which Danäe is visited by Jupiter, disguised as a shower of gold.

We also saw several paintings depicting this scene. One of the things the stands out is the variation in how erotic the painters make the scene. This one’s not the most explicit, but I like that she’s definitely aware that something good is going on under the sheet. I also like that Cupid’s there to lend a hand.

There are lots of other great works at the Borghese Gallery, including Canova’s racy statue of Pauline Bonaparte (the pillows are so realistic looking), paintings of the deposition of Christ by Raphael and Rubens, and Bernini’s Pluto and Proserpina. You can see a lot of these works on their website.

I definitely recommend it, but reserve a time in advance. Only a set number of people are allowed into the museum at a time. Your ticket allows you to stay for two hours, which is plenty of time to see the house, works of art, and the gardens.

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