In the Villa Borghese Gardens in Rome, you can take a boat ride on the lake, admire the masterpieces of Caravaggio, Raphael and Rubens, among others, and contemplate splendid sculptures that will leave you in awe, including the Venus Victrix dedicated to Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon's sister.
Throughout the length and breadth of the art gallery and these English-style gardens, which exude romanticism on all four sides, you will find majestic sculptures presiding over every corner. Here is a list of the 10 best statues so that you don't miss any of them. Let's get down to business!
1. Apollo and Daphne by Bernini, the artist beloved by the Popes
Can you imagine rocks coming to life? If you don't believe in miracles, see in the Borghese Gallery the work of Apollo and Daphne, carved by the Neapolitan sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the favourite artist of the Popes in Italy and, according to experts, the last great creative genius of Rome.
How long did it take Bernini to complete the work?
To achieve this result, he spent...threeyears moulding it with his own hands! He finished it in 1625 with great care. In the sculpture of Apollo and Daphne, Bernini turned the poetics of the myth 'Ovid's Metamorphosis' into a single marble image.
What is the significance of this sculpture?
The work depicts a young Apollo, mad with passionate love, pursuing the nymph Daphne, who flees in anguish and begins to transform herself into a beautiful laurel tree before the astonished gaze of her stalker. I suggest that when you look at the sculpture, you walk around it because the perspective changes a lot depending on the location, Daphne's hands transformed into laurel branches will leave you open-mouthed!
2. The Rape of Proserpina, his most dramatic work
If we continue on our sculptural route through Bernini's works, we come across 'The Rape of Proserpina', an artistic ensemble that represents the tragic abduction of Pluto, god of the underworld, from Proserpina, daughter of Jupiter and Ceres. What impressed me most? In the sculpture, which gives a sense of drama, the characters seem to be flesh and blood.
Although Bernini was very young, only 23 years old when he moulded it, it has become one of his most famous pieces and an icon of art. It is part of the Baroque movement, which is characterised by an overloaded and exaggerated, almost theatrical aesthetic.
How tall is the sculpture?
With a height similar to that of a basketball player**(2.25 metres**), the piece is carved in Carrara marble, considered to be the most prestigious marble in the world due to its whiteness and fine floury appearance, ideal for simulating skin. This material comes from Tuscany and was historically used by ancient Roman builders and, more recently, by Renaissance artists.
3. Bernini's most human 'David
Another of Bernini's wonders that you can contemplate in the Borghese Gallery is the sculpture of the last representation of David, a figure that had been tackled in the previous two centuries by the greats of art such as Donatello and Michelangelo.
In particular, the piece represents the future King David, one of the characters of the Old Testament, who is able to defeat the giant Goliath by throwing a stone and with great effort. For the first time, it presents him as a man, with his virtues and faults, rather than as a victorious hero.
Bernini, ahead of his time
Bernini, as well as being a child prodigy capable of creating large-scale sculptures from an early age, was a pioneer of his time and introduced the theme of sport and young Greek athletes with this sculpture. And a very clear message: with sacrifice and struggle you can achieve anything you set your mind to.
Did you know that...?
The sculpture of David is unfinished on the back. It's not that Bernini was lazy and left it half finished, but it was meant to be hung on a wall and to be seen only from the front.
4. The splendid Venus Victrix
We are all familiar with the exploits of Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the most important figures in European history, but who was his sister Pauline? If you want to put a face to her, follow your tour of the Borghese Gallery, which exhibits the young Pauline Bonaparte transformed into a radiant goddess Venus through a mythologised portrait, which reminds me of Goya's 'The Naked Maja', but in a sculpture version.
What is so special about this work? The surprising thing about this piece is that to get it, Pauline Bonaparte posed as God brought her into the world for the masterpiece by the Italian neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova.
The sculpture arrived in the garden in 1838 and, according to legend, caused such a stir that there were queues at night to see the statue of the naked girl, one of the most beautiful and modern women of her time.
5. The Sleeping Hermaphrodite of the 2nd century
If you thought that after the beautiful Venus inspired by Bonaparte's sister, you had seen it all, you are very wrong. In the Borghese Gallery we will contemplate another spectacular goddess, who is lying completely naked and who has a surprise... She has a penis! Just as you read it.
It is the Sleeping Hermaphrodite, a sculpture dating from the 2nd century and found in Rome in 1609. In 1620, the flamboyant artist Bernini transformed the original marble support into a mattress on which the figure rests peacefully. It is so lifelike that it makes you want to lie on it!
However, I have a bit of bad news for you: the sculpture in the Borghese Gallery is a copy of the one I have explained to you. It was also made in the 2nd century and restored by Andrea Bergondi in the 13th century, who imitated Bernini's model by also creating a mattress. There are almost 20 versions of this masterpiece all over the world!
Contemplate the spectacular ceilings of the hall
After admiring the sculpture, look up (like the song) and contemplate the marvellous ceiling paintings, which depict the myth of Hermaphrodite, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite. According to Ovid's poetic account in his 'Metamorphoses', the young man's dual sex (male and female) was determined by his forced union with the nymph Salmacis.
6. Bust of Cardinal Scipione Borghese
In Villa Borghese, which, by the way, is shaped like a heart, you will find magnificent fountains, ponds and bridges. But who is the creator of this marvel? Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a nephew and secretary of Pope Paul V, who became a patron of the arts thanks to his enormous fortune.
As well as being the founder of these beautiful gardens, he was the discoverer of Bernini, who commissioned the sculptures I have mentioned. Among them, a very special one: his own bust. It is very special because, unlike other pieces, this sculpture seems to be talking. Pay attention to its mouth!
Perfectionist to the core
When he was 56 years old, Cardinal Scipione Borghese commissioned his bust from the young Bernini, whom he considered a new Michelangelo. Filippo Baldinucci (1682) recounts that, once the work was finished, the sculptor noticed that a flaw in the granite block had caused a crack that is still visible on the cardinal's head. To fix it, the artist made a copy of the bust in fifteen nights. An anecdote that illustrates Bernini's virtuosity and great gifts.
7. The statue of Goethe, the German Shakespeare
If you are an inveterate lover of romantic Rome, I suggest you explore the gardens of Villa Borghese carefully because it is dotted with some of the hidden treasures you can find in Rome. Among them, the monument (in Carrara marble) dedicated to the novelist, playwright and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the most important figures of modern literature.
The first writer in the Gardens
This sculpture is highly symbolic because it was the first to be installed in the park to pay homage to a writer who, in this case, had a strong connection with the city. The poet fell in love with the Eternal City, to which he dedicated some beautiful words: "comparing my state of mind when I was in Rome, I have never been happier since". Can you relate?
The Goethe monument, which measures no less than 8 metres, was a gift to Italy from Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany. It was cast in Berlin in the studio of Valentino Casali and installed in the gardens in 1904 in the presence of King Vittorio Emanuele III.
8. The statue of the adventurer and eccentric Lord Byron
If it only took Audrey Hepburn 24 hours to fall in love with the Eternal City and, of course, its handmade ice creams, it took the English poet Lord Byron a few more, 22 days, which is how long he lived in Rome's Piazza Spagna. Enough to leave him spellbound.
The statue of Lord Byron in Villa Borghese was erected in 1959. It is a copy of the sculpture made in Rome, which was commissioned by the writer himself in 1831 from Bertel Thorwaldsen, and which now rests in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, UK.
A sculpture by request and a little too cheerful
It was Lord Byron himself who, during his stay in the Italian capital, went to the workshop of the sculptor Thorvaldsen in a cape to have a bust made to measure.
For this, the writer took the pose of the heroic characters in his novels, to which the artist replied: "Wouldn't you prefer to sit more comfortably? It is not necessary for you to adopt that expression. -It's mine," replied the poet. Finally, on finishing the torso, the litterateur was disappointed: "It doesn't look like me. I have the most unhappy air."
9. La Verità, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Bernini is the great sculptor of the Borghese Gallery and, in addition to the four masterpieces I have mentioned, you should stop to admire others such as La Verità and the bust of Pope Paul V. Why is the La Verità piece so important?
Because it was created during a very difficult period in his career, which ended with the demolition of one of the bell towers he designed for St. Peter's Basilica. The sculpture of Truth is depicted as a smiling, naked girl sitting on a rock, holding the sun in her right hand and resting her left leg on the globe.
The work is part of a sculptural group that would represent the allegory of truth revealed by time, which was never completed. When the artist died, his heirs sold the large marble sculpture.
10. Fountain of the Seahorses
Some of the most splendid sculptures in the Villa Borghese are installed in the fountains scattered throughout the gardens. In particular, in the centre of a small square where four tree-lined avenues intersect is the Seahorses fountain, one of my favourites for its elegance and originality. I recommend you look for it!
The fountain was built between 1790 and 1791 to replace the previous fountain, the Fontana del Mascherone, which was destroyed during work to transform the park. Inside the fountain you can see a sculpture of four seahorses holding the fountain with their heads, their bodies in the shape of fish. Impressive!