Here’s a look at five magnificent sculptures you can’t miss at the Borghese Gallery in Rome.
The Borghese Gallery, located inside the Villa Borghese Pinciana in Rome, is one of the world’s most important museums, revered in particular for its Bernini and Caravaggio masterpieces. Its rooms adorned with spectacular white marble sculptures can really take your breath away. The lakes, exotic plants and temples found in the garden are truly enchanting, making the park an ideal place to relax and perhaps even read some poetry while absorbing the artistic inspiration surrounding you.
Every statue and painting in the Borghese Gallery is worth a look—but if you happen to be pressed for time, here are the five sculptures that you definitely shouldn’t miss.
1. Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix (1804-1808)
One of the gallery’s most famous sculptures as Camillo Borghese himself commissioned this to Antonio Canova to celebrate his marriage to Napoleon’s sister, Pauline Bonaparte. Canova portrays Pauline in the tradition of the ‘Venus Victorious’: the goddess of beauty reclining on a couch with a proud look, topless and with the lower part of her body concealed by a very light garment, which gives the sculpture a powerful eroticism. Fun fact: Antonio Canova put a special pink pigment on the sculpture’s skin, to make Pauline’s figure livelier and ‘more human’.
2. Apollo and Daphne (1622-1625)
Overwhelmed with passion for the nymph Daphne, Apollo chases her, but she doesn’t reciprocate the god’s feelings and calls on her father, the river Peneus, to save her by transforming her into something that would put her out of Apollo’s advances. Her father obeys and turns her into a laurel tree. Bernini carved the exact moment when Apollo catches up to Daphne and she begins her metamorphosis into a tree. The terrified expression on her face is a counterpoint to the delicacy of her fingers that are transforming into intricate and highly detailed leaves.
3. The Rape of Proserpina (1621-1622)
Poor Proserpina was even less fortunate than Daphne. Despite being the daughter of Ceres, the goddess of earth and fertility, and having connections in the highest places–no less than Jupiter himself–, she couldn’t escape Pluto’s violent advances. The most she was able to get was six months of the year away from her tormenter. Bernini portrays the moment of her kidnapping by designing the sculpture with a spiral movement. Pluto is depicted with a crown, a symbol of his power, while Proserpina’s pose is fearful and underscores the drama of the harrowing scene. She tries wriggling away from her assailant with all her might, pushing his face away with her hands, but her physical weakness, which points to her ultimate defeat in the struggle, is subtly emphasized by the detail of Pluto’s hand, with his strong grip sinking into her soft and defenseless flesh—a detail that also highlights Bernini’s incredible talent.
4. Sleeping Hermaphroditus
Despite being a copy (the original is at the Louvre), this Bernini sculpture shows extraordinary beauty and realism. The work represents a sleeping hermaphrodite, a popular subject both in the Hellenistic period and ancient Rome, derived both from the feminized representations of Dionysus/Bacchus and depictions of Venus.
5. David (1623-1624)
Like in many others of his works, Bernini chose a particularly tense moment to portray the scene: David is not shown relaxed and content after defeating Goliath, but in the moment just before he launches the stone with a concentrated and tense expression on his face. Fun fact: David’s heel is not made of marble, but of stucco. The reason for this is unknown, but it is likely that the statue was originally placed against a wall.