So, you’ve eaten more pizza than your body can handle, dodged the impossibly small hatchbacks going impossibly fast on cobblestone roads, and wrangled the crowds of the Coliseum, Vatican, and Pantheon. But, no bonafide trip to Rome is complete without a visit to the Borghese Gallery.
Arguably Rome’s best art museum, the Borghese Gallery and its public gardens provide a break from the delightful chaos of Rome. But before you pack your day-bag and buy Galleria Borghese tickets, there are some things to know about visiting this centuries-old garden villa.
A short history of Galleria Borghese
Smack in the middle of a forested park in the heart of Rome is an unassuming art museum that’s visited by some 6 million art lovers each year. The villa and its gardens were commissioned in 1613 by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who apart from being a hotshot Italian Cardinal and the nephew of Pope Paul V (reign 1Photos by Jordan Brierley and Antônia Felipe 605-1621), was also an early patron of Bernini. Scipione Borghese commissioned the sculptor to produce works for the villa when he was still in his early teens. But the art-loving cardinal didn’t only have eyes for Bernini – world-famous pieces by Titian, Caravaggio, Raphael, Veronese adorn the walls of this magnificent villa.
The rich and powerful Borgheses rooted themselves in Roman society and lived the high life for many centuries. However, in the early 19th century, they ran into a bout of bad luck. After a financial downfall, Prince Camillo Borghese was forced to sell a good portion of the Borghese Collection to the French State, which was under Napoleon Bonaparte at the time. This is why the Louvre in Paris has a Borghese Collection.
Fun fact: Other famous Borgheses include Pauline Borghese Bonaparte (of Napoleon fame), Princess Marcella Borghese who founded Borghese Cosmetics (the only-known cosmetics brand known to be blessed by a pope – talk about connections!), and Prince Lorenzo Borghese who was in Season 9 of The Bachelor.
The entire Borghese estate was acquired by the Roman government in 1902. The main house, with all its precious art, was turned into an art museum and its lush parkland was decreed a public green space.
5 must-see Borghese Gallery highlights: Sculptures
1. Two Busts of Cardinal Scipione Borghese
By: Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Location: Room 14 – Lanfranco Loggia
Let’s start where it all began, with the man himself: Scipione Borghese. The cardinal commissioned the marble bust to help promote his princelike public image, as a patron of men of letters.
But why are there two busts of Cardinal Scipione Borghese? There are many different accounts as to why Bernini created two busts but the commonly accepted story is that, upon completion of the first version, the allustratori (polishers) found a significant fracture on the bust’s forehead. Appalled, Bernini whipped up the second version in just three days!
Rumor has it that the first version, which effortlessly captured the Cardinal’s physiognomy and has the readiness of movement so intrinsic to baroque aesthetics, is regarded as the superior bust. When you’re at the Galleria Borghese, take note of the delicate differences between the two busts, and try to discern the crack in the marble that had Bernini doing one of his greatest rush jobs.
By: Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Location: Room 2 – David Room
Bernini’s sculpture of David looks like he’s about to throw a fastball straight at you. Note the tension in his muscles, the look of extreme focus, and his contorted body that bursts into the space of the viewer as he is barely a microsecond away from firing his slingshot and defeating Goliath.
Standing before this pinnacle of baroque art almost awakens something in your legs that begs you to move out of the way. It’s said that to capture the distorted and realistic look on David’s face, Bernini’s friend Maffeo Barberini held up a mirror to the sculptor as he carved away at the marble.
This isn’t Michelangelo’s poignant rendering of David, caught in a moment of contemplation as he stares at Goliath, nor is it Donatello’s placidly, post-victorious David standing atop Goliath’s head. Bernini’s version is humanistic, raw, and bodily. It portrays a pregnant moment in art that invites the viewer to ask questions about what led to this moment, what the outcome will be, and where do we go from here. These are all fundamental questions integral to the artistic and intellectual revolution we call the Renaissance.
3. Marcus Curtius Throwing Himself into the Chasm
By: Horse, Unknown / Rider, Pietro Bernini
Created: Horse, Replica dating from the Early Roman Empire (1st or 2nd-century BC) / Rider, Added by Pietro Bernini circa 1617
Location: Salone of the Borghese Gallery
Marcus Curtius Throwing Himself into the Chasm is an easily overlooked Pentelic marble bas-relief that’s located near the ceiling of the Salone of Borghese Gallery in Rome. What makes this sculpture unique is that when you’re looking at it, you’re actually looking at a two-part artwork.
The first is the horse itself, which dates back to Antiquity. The second is the rider, Marcus Curtius, that was added by Pietro Bernini – father of the more popular Gian Lorenzo Bernini – centuries later.
The practice of reusing antique works of art to complement nouveau, ornamental pieces was very much in-vogue among Rome’s 16th-century elites. Before Bernini junior, Pietro Bernini had already done his fair share of art restoration work around Galleria Borghese. When Cardinal Scipione ‘sacrificed’ his riches to help the victims of the Tiber flood in 1606, Pietro Bernini honored him by carving him atop the horse, as if to throw himself into the chasm for the greater good of Rome.
You see, Marcus Curtius was a selfless hero who sacrificed himself for his beloved city. The story goes that in 362 BC, a colossal earthquake caused a deep pit to open up in the heart of the Roman Forum. Romans relentlessly tried to fill the pit, but all efforts were in vain. Perplexed, the elders consulted with an augur, who told them in order to close the pit, the gods demanded they feed it the thing most precious to Rome. The Roman elders struggled with the question – and at this juncture, a young soldier named Marcus Curtius claimed that the brave soldiers of Rome were the nation’s most valuable possessions. He mounted his horse – with full-on soldier gear – and jumped into the pit, which has remained closed forever.
Perhaps, it was just a horse the gods wanted. But, we’ll never know. What we do know is that Pietro Bernini had to lower the position of the horse to create the illusion of the hero throwing himself into a chasm.
4. Statue of the Sleeping Hermaphroditus
By: Sleeping Hermaphroditus, Unknown / Mattress, Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Created: Sleeping Hermaphrodite, 1st or 2nd-century BC / Mattress, 1620
Location: Room 5 – Hermaphroditus Room
Another melange of marble is the Statue of the Sleeping Hermaphroditus, found in Room V of the Borghese Gallery. If you think you might have seen this before (say, in the Uffizi Gallery, the Vatican Museums, the Louvre, or elsewhere), don’t feel like you’ve been fooled. There are almost 20 versions of this masterpiece, and they’re all ancient and invaluable (or valued at 800,000 if Christie’s has any say in the matter).
The half male, half female offspring of Aphrodite and Hermes continues to disrupt the art world and culture today. But according to mythology, Hermaphroditus wasn’t always… well, a hermaphrodite. Born too beautiful for this world, he caught the unwanted attention of the water nymph Salmacis, who clung to him and prayed to the gods for them to be united forever.
The gods of the pantheon were a bit too literal when it came to answering Salmacis’ prayer , and melded the two into a single body, with a double sex. In Greco-Roman art, Hermaphroditus is always depicted as a female with male genitalia.
Walking into the Hermaphroditus Room of the Borghese Museum almost feels as if you’ve accidentally walked into a real person’s bedroom. The lifelike statue lays listlessly and seductively on a marble mattress that looks so soft, you can’t help but want to reach out and press it – just to see if it would bounce back up like a real mattress would. This pedestal on which Hermaphroditus rests is an understated masterpiece by Bernini.
5. Rape of Proserpina
By: Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Location: Room 4 – Room of the Emperors
This unmissable Borghese Gallery highlight is a jarringly beautiful marble sculpture that depicts the abduction and rape of a woman/goddess.
The story goes that when Pluto – the god of the underworld – set eyes upon Proserpina – the daughter of Ceres and Jupiter – he immediately fell in love and wanted her to join him in his undead realm. In a brutal act of love, he carried her off to the underworld, kicking and screaming.
Bernini painstakingly sculpted this life-size mythological scene to capture the profound emotion and violence in true baroque form. Very different from the Borghese’s other sexually/romantically questionable Apollo and Daphne (1622-1625) sculpture – which is far more delicate in its depiction of unrequited love and capture – the Rape of Proserpina does not shy away from showing the forceful fury of Pluto and the dynamic helplessness of Proserpina.
Notice how she shrinks away from her captor, as he digs his fingers into her life-like thighs. Tears roll down her face as a smug Pluto smiles at his victory. On making the statue, Bernini himself said that it was as if the marble turned to wax in his hand, allowing him to render realistic, human elements to the priceless slab of rock.
5 Must-See Borghese Gallery highlights: Paintings
1. The Hunt of Diana
Location: Room 19 – Helen and Paris Room
If Diana was the goddess of the hunt, then Scipione Borghese was the god of theft. He forcefully stole this piece by Domenichino that was intended for the nephew of his arch nemesis, Pope Clement VIII.
The subject of this huge oil on canvas is that of a mythological scene depicting the Diana, goddess of the hunt, surrounded by her nymphs in the moonlight. Also present in the forest setting are prying men, bows and arrows, and animals. The painting is notable for its delicate use of light and graceful balance of chaos and beauty.
Diana is front and center, depicted by an upside-down crescent moon above her head. The huntress is wielding a bow, while a delicate mess of well-placed arrows pierce through objects, trees, and even a bird (incoming from the left!). Notice the nymph at the bottom of the painting, she’s looking directly at you. This was Domenichino’s way of breaking the fourth wall and inviting the viewer into the world of the nymphs.
In this scene of fierce women celebrating, the men are allegories of dark and voyeuristic things like lust and risk. They serve to show the danger these women are putting themselves in by celebrating outside, having fun, disturbing no one – it would be a damn shame if one of those men accidentally walked into the path of a stray arrow.
2. The Young Sick Bacchus
Created: 1593 – 1594
Location: Room 8 – Silenus Room
This early self-portrait was apparently painted by Caravaggio using a mirror during a period of extreme illness. Records suggest that the artist spent six months in the Santa Maria della Consolazione hospital soon after his arrival in Rome.
Some 416 years later, an article in the American medical publication Clinical Infectious Diseases diagnosed the subject’s illness as malaria, due to the jaundiced appearance of Bacchus’ skin and the icterus in the eyes.
It’s believed that, despite his illness (which was life-threatening back in the day), Caravaggio made the painting to market himself and assert his role as the rebel painter who would take the Renaissance by storm.
Drink-loving Caravaggio, had a knack for painting the wine god Bacchus, with another notable and less-jaundiced version hanging in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. The Young Sick Bacchus – another one of Scipione Borghese’s artful thefts – while being an autobiographical record of the artist’s illness, also shows his ability to paint classical figures of antiquity, still life, and baroque expression.
By: Dosso Dossi
Location: Room 3 – Apollo and Daphne Room
Before we dive into why this painting is a Borghese Gallery highlight let’s take a moment to appreciate the dog. In this strange, Renaissance-style face-swap, Dossi has rendered the dog’s face with human elements, akin to the grotesque man-babies of medieval paintings.
Now that that’s out of the way, we can focus on the subject of this painting, Homer’s sorceress Circa, aka Melissa. Follow her gaze towards the objects hanging from the tree. These humanoid shapes are said to a small group of warriors that were reduced to puppets by Alcina, the mistress of enchantments. Melissa sits in a magic circle unaffected by the spell, surrounded by gentle lashings of rich and exotic colors.
The painting is vague and not very popular on a whole – but just look at that dog though.
4. David with the Head of Goliath
Created: 1609 – 1610
Location: Room 8 – Silenus Room
For Caravaggio, violence and death were central elements to his most profound paintings. From the fiery posthumous expression of his decapitated Medusa (1597), to Salome’s somber, yet subtle satisfaction as she holds the head of John the Baptist on a platter (1607-1610), and not to forget Judith’s determined decapitation of Holofernes (1598-1599). Beheading seems to be a trend here.
So, naturally, when it came to depicting David with the Head of Goliath (c. 1610) Caravaggio – a master of dark humor – modelled the dead Goliath’s head in his own likeness.
Later in his life, Caravaggio was dealing with the actions of his younger self. Apart from violence and fights, it’s widely speculated and accepted that he engaged in homosexuality. Based on other self-portraits, it’s possible that David with the Head of Goliath is a double self-portrait. The young Caravaggio dejectedly holds the head of the adult Caravaggio; the riotous days of his youth has destroyed his life as an adult, leaving him with enemies around every corner. Studies on the artist suggest that he eventually died after suffering a stab wound in a brawl, his face disfigured beyond recognition.
5. Cupid complaining to Venus
By: Lucas Cranach the Elder
Location: Room 10 – Hercules Room
Lucas Cranach the Elder was a leading figure of the German and Northern Renaissance. If you’re a fan this period, you’ll probably recognize his more popular, two-panel depiction of Adam and Eve (1528).
This playful painting of Cupid being attacked by honeybees has an underlying moralistic message – as do most German Renaissance paintings. Little Cupid gave in to temptation and grabbed the honeycomb from the tree. Venus, the goddess of love, looks on smugly. The painting has been interpreted as an allegory for love, pain, and even as a warning of venereal disease.
Amid all this flesh and nudity, the deeply religious Cranach thought it only appropriate to inscribe a message alongside the painting:
“While little Cupid stole from a beehive a honeycomb, a bee stung the thief’s finger. Such is the short-lived lust we strive for: harmful and mixed with bitter sorrow.”
The addition of the inscription helped to relieve the religious authorities of the time of any qualms that may arise regarding the morality of the subject. Morality aside, this larger-than-life painting is exemplary of a wholly different Renaissance movement happening in a different corner of Europe – albeit one less dramatic than the baroque of Bernini and Caravaggio.
Planning your Borghese Gallery visit
Villa Borghese or the Borghese Gallery?
First things first, you should know that Villa Borghese and the Borghese Gallery are not the same things.
The Borghese Gallery is an art museum, which is widely considered to be one of the best art galleries in Rome. It’s famous for its vast collection of Bernini sculptures. All visits must be booked and paid for in advance, either on-site or online.
Villa Borghese is the public park surrounding the museum. Villa Borghese’s gardens are a separate tourist attraction. It’s free to visit at any time of the year.
How to get to Galleria Borghese
Located at Piazzale Scipione Borghese 5, the Borghese Museum is easy to reach by foot (if you want to get your steps in), by metro, bike, or tiny car.
- Take Line A and get out at Spagna or Flaminio. If you get out at Flaminio, take the Piazza del Popolo entrance and climb the short flight of stairs towards Pincio Hill – you’ll reach the gallery in 10 minutes.
- If you arrive at Spagna, go up the Spanish Steps and take the first left towards the Borghese Gardens. It’s a bit of a longer walk, but a beautiful one nonetheless.
- You can take either bus 116 and get off at Galleria Borghese, or 910 (from Termini Station) and get off at Pinciana/Museo Borghese.
By tiny car:
- Rome has a Zona a traffico limitato (ZTL) to protect its historic city center. Rome also has drivers that likely are out to maim you. Park your tiny car somewhere outside the ZTL and take a bus or metro to the Borghese Gallery. Don’t fight us on this.
Borghese Gallery tickets
Entrance to the Borghese Gallery is always by timed entry. Visitors are admitted in waves every two hours. Tickets are available for purchase online and at the venue on the day of your visit.
The timed-entry blocks are as follows:
Sure, you can buy timed-entry Borghese Gallery tickets on-site, but you best get there early because the crowds at this famous art museum in Rome are notoriously large. In the height of summer, you’d be lucky to get a ticket on-site at all!
Don’t waste your precious moments in Rome standing pointlessly in line; get your Borghese Gallery tickets online here and secure your preferred timeslot beforehand. Just show up 15 minutes before your reserved timeslot and pick up your paper ticket at the ticket office. It doesn’t quite cut out all the lines, but it’s more convenient spending hours in line for tickets for a timeslot that isn’t guaranteed.
If you join a Borghese Gallery tour, you can also benefit from skip-the-line entry and a fully guided tour of all the artworks in the museum.
Borghese Gallery audio guide
You can rent audio guides for €5.00 on-site, and take your own Borghese Gallery tour. This is not included in your ticket cost, but it makes for a great self-guided tour. Live-guided tours tend to cost a lot more than €5.00, so paying the extra bit for an audio guide is the best way to see the Borghese Gallery highlights.
There is minimal information about the artworks on display; the audio guide helps paint a more vivid picture of the artworks. How else will you know that Cardinal Borghese Scipione stole and seized paintings from their original owners for his personal collection? Though, we doubt that information will be in your audio guide.
Do you need tickets for the Borghese Gardens?
The Borghese Gardens are free to enter all day, every day. In fact, most Romans use the park for picnics, their evening jogs (there are almost 5 kilometers of running paths), and to take their pets out for an evening stroll.
Sprawl out and relax in Rome’s green lung as the locals do, amid ancient oaks, cedars, and pines. You can give your Rome city trip a twist of nature when you start walking to Borghese Gardens from the city center, across the Tiber. Take the entrance at Piazza del Popolo or the Spanish steps.
If your legs are weary from all the walking you did on your Rome city trip, then explore this 80-hectare park via a rental bike or paddle about the man-made lake on a rental boat. The lake, Villa Borghese’s central feature, is home to the iconic Temple of Asclepius, which was built in 1786.
The two-hour time limit in Borghese Gallery
There is a two-hour time limit to visit the entirety of the Galleria Borghese. The venue keeps track of this by making each exit in the museum’s circuit mandatory.
Only 360 visitors are allowed into the museum at any given time. This policy lets you explore Borghese Gallery’s highlights unperturbed, much like its founder Scipione Borghese did centuries ago. There’s simply no justice in seeing Bernini sculptures shrouded by hordes of tourists.
Tips for maximizing your two-hour visit of the Borghese Gallery
While it may not sound like a lot, two hours is sufficient time to see everything in the collection if you follow the circuit. The museum is planned in such a way that visitors will walk through each room in the gallery.
But don’t be carried away by the shuffling, you can still take your time to marvel at the unmissable Borghese Gallery highlights. Lower down in this post, you can find a list of must-see statues and paintings at the Borghese Gallery – but first, your gameplan:
- Check your bags first, before picking up your tickets
The bag check line gets really long, and you risk losing your entry time if you’re waiting in another line after you’ve already picked up your ticket.
- Start upstairs and make your way down
There are 20 frescoed rooms in the Borghese Gallery, and most visitors start from the ground up. Play it smart and begin your tour from the upper level (paintings), if possible. This means that when you eventually arrive downstairs (sculptures), the other museumgoers will be upstairs, where you started! This strategy allows you to have entire galleries almost all to yourself (not discounting other savvy visitors, of course!).
- Don’t skip restroom breaks
Restrooms are few and far between here, so go when you see one. You wouldn’t want your once-in-a-lifetime Borghese Gallery visit to be impeded by something as silly as a full bladder.
- Plan your tour of the Borghese Gallery highlights using the floor plan
Pick up a Borghese Gallery brochure in your preferred language near the entrance. It’ll help you plan an efficient course of action to see the best statues and paintings in the Borghese Gallery. Each room is marked by it’s most famous pieces, art movement, or theme; David, Ferrara School, or Egyptian. The Borghese Gallery tour via the audio guide also lets you systematically see the gallery’s highlights.
PS: Don’t worry too much about the two-hour limit – you’re unlikely to get kicked out if you overstay your visit by an extra 15-20 minutes.
After your visit to the Borghese Gallery
Where to eat near the Borghese Gallery?
Feeling famished after your two-hour art exploration? Curb your hunger at some of the cafes and restaurants near the Borghese Gallery. From pizza to gelato and a big old pint of beer, there’s a ton of food options at the Cardinal’s doorstep.
Pizzeria San Marco
Address: Via Sardegna, 38/g, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
Incredible food, a modern interior, and lots of seating, all within a stone’s throw of the Borghese Gallery – what more could you want? This place is notoriously good for pizzas, and guests also recommend the calamari. But, apart from being slightly pricey, also be aware of the time it takes for your food to arrive at your table. Wait times can be up to an hour, so don’t attempt to have a quick lunch here before your timeslot.
Address: Piazza Regina Margherita, 28, 00198 Roma RM, Italy
This cozy, unassuming establishment might not look fancy – but it’s fair prices and variety of traditional dishes are a huge draw for visitors travelling on a budget. You could order a large beer and sit for hours here, as frenzied waiters rush about delivering mouthwatering dishes you wished you had ordered, to tables that are not yours. But, you really can’t go wrong here – everything from the scrumptious meat dishes to the juiciest looking mozzarella plopped onto a fresh plate of salad will make this place your go-to restaurant in Rome.
Address: Via Isonzo, 11, 00198 Roma RM, Italy
Frequented by young locals, with a casual albeit noisy interior, this place is a great option to eat-in or to grab a pizza on-the-go. Here, the atmosphere is casual, prices are comparatively cheap, and the beers are big.
Address: Viale Regina Margherita, 168, 00198 Roma RM, Italy
Sometimes, the unthinkable happens: you get bored of pizza (please, don’t hurt us for saying that!). Sambaki, just a few minute’s walk from the Galleria Borghese, is a great place to give yourself a break from bread and cheese. Feast on delicious Japanese and Brazilian fusion cuisine in a trendy and uncrowded atmosphere that feels a bit like an oasis after the bustle of pizzerias.