Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bernini’s Private Commissions in the Villa Borghese

Andy Zhou
Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008

The Villa Borghese lies just to the north of city center and is one of the largest parks in Rome. Just like when it was built, it still offers a break from hectic urban life today. However, most visitors come to the Villa Borghese not for the beautiful gardens and peaceful environment, but for the incredible art collection in the Borghese Gallery. Built by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the Borghese Gallery houses a stunning variety of art from ancient Rome to the Baroque. Among all the great works of art, Bernini’s four life-size sculptures are arguably the most amazing pieces in the collection. These four sculptures exemplify Bernini’s Baroque style and relate closely to Scipione Borghese’s personal life.

Before discussing Bernini’s sculptures and how they relate to Scipione Borghese and his family, it is important to understand the background of both the Bernini and the Borghese family. The Borghese family originated from Sienna, but moved to Rome in 1541 under the head of the family, Marcantonio I. While in Rome, Marcantonio I was able to get his two sons, Camillo and Orazio involved in the church at a young age. The family quickly rose to prominent status when Camillo was elected Pope in 1605 and took the name Pope Paul V. At the time when Camillo came into power, nepotism was still very popular. He elevated his nephew Scipione Borghese to cardinal-nephew status, which turned out to be a very important move for the advancement of the Borghese family. Scipione Borghese had tremendous amounts of power as the cardinal-nephew and was able to bring in great fortunes to the Borghese family. Using these fortunes, he was able to develop his art collection and build Villa Borghese.

During Scipione’s time in the 17th century, villas were a popular trend among noble families. These villas served several purposes. The first was for relaxation. Noble families wanted to get away from the hectic city life and have a peaceful place to rest. Villas also had diplomatic and social functions, serving as places for receptions and gatherings. Finally, and maybe the most important, villas were a way for families to flaunt their status and fortune. For Scipione, the Villa Borghese was, from the beginning, a place to house and show off his collection of art.
Scipione was known as a determined and often ruthless collector of art. Many times in his life, he used his positions of power or even theft to gain pieces of art that he coveted. Despite his methods of obtaining his collection, he had an incredibly astute taste in art. He was the first patron of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who would go on to do major works in the Vatican under Pope Urban VII and would become one of the best sculptors of the Baroque era.

Bernini was born in Naples in 1598. At a young age, Bernini learned under his father Pietro, who was a successful Florentine sculptor in the Mannerist era. When Bernini was 6, his father was called to Rome by Pope Paul V to help work on the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. In Rome, Bernini was able to really start his education in art and begin his great career. He was introduced to successful artists such as Annibale Carracci and in his first three years in Rome, he supposedly spent every day in the Vatican studying and making sketches of paintings and sculptures that he saw. Bernini was known as a child prodigy. He was supposedly only 8 years old when he carved his first marble head and by the age of 10, he was introduced to Scipione Borghese and eventually to Pope Paul V. Bernini impressed Pope Paul V so much during their meeting that the Pope declared, “This child will be the Michelangelo of his age.” Whether a prophecy or an astute observation, his words could not have turned out to be more correct.

Aeneas and Anchises

Bernini was only 19 when Scipione commissioned Aeneas and Anchises¸ the first of the four life-size sculptures that Bernini would do for Scipione. Bernini started the sculpture in 1618 and finished just a year later. The sculpture depicts Aeneas, who is the legendary founder of Rome, carrying his father Anchises on his shoulder, with his son Ascanius following him as he flees Troy when it falls. Following the story, Bernini depicts Anchises carrying the penates, the household gods in Roman mythology, and Ascanius carrying a torch that would later become the sacred fire of Vesta. Since Bernini was still young when he did this sculpture, it shows the influences of his father’s mannerist style rather than the Baroque style Bernini is known for. The figures are organized into a single spiraling column, which was a trademark of mannerism. The sculpture was not truly mannerist, however, and shows the beginnings of the Baroque style. Though not as much as in his later works, Bernini portrays a sense of movement in the three figures. Aeneas’ muscles and tendons bulge under the skin as if he is about to carefully take his next step. In addition, the viewer is forced to move around the sculpture since there is no angle where all three figures can fully be seen. Bernini also displays incredible detail in the sculpture. The skin of Anchises is noticeably sagging in comparison to that of his son’s, whose muscles and veins bulge under the skin.

In general, the story of Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius symbolizes the three stages of a man’s life (childhood, adulthood, and old age) or more broadly the past, present, and future. However, for Scipione Borghese, this piece could have represented several ideas in his life. The first is his view of the Borghese family: noble ancestry, current power, and future success. It could also refer to the fact that the Borghese family moved from Sienna to Rome and became incredibly successful. Finally, it may represent the idea of devotion to the family and shows his gratitude to Pope Paul V for making him the cardinal-nephew.

Rape of Persephone

The second statue group that Scipione commissioned was the Rape of Persephone. This sculpture was completed from 1621-1622 when Bernini was only 23. It shows Pluto, the god of the underworld, abducting Persephone, and taking her to Hades past the three-headed dog, Cerberus, that guards the borders. As with his previous work, Bernini’s sculpture exhibits an unbelievable amount of detail and realism. Pluto’s face is distorted from the push of Persephone’s hand while her body twists as she tries to escape his grasp. Her skin also shows an incredibly natural depression as he grabs her with his hands. Furthermore, Bernini successfully captures the bewilderment in Pluto’s face and Persephone in the middle of a scream with tears flowing down her cheeks. With this sculpture, Bernini moved entirely into the Baroque style. The characteristic sense of movement in Baroque art is fully evident in this sculpture. The viewer can truly feel that Persephone is trying to escape Pluto’s firm grasp from her twisting body and flowing hair. Another important aspect of Baroque style, the forced movement of the viewer is also evident. Bernini designed the sculpture so that the viewer is forced to move around the sculpture in order to get the whole story. Bernini intended the sculpture to be first viewed from the left. At this angle, the viewer would only see Pluto’s right leg and powerful body. Moving slightly to the front of the sculpture, the viewer begins to notice Persephone’s involvement in the story. From this angle, the viewer sees Pluto’s facial expression and Persephone’s hand pushing his face as she tries to escape. Continuing to move around to the front of the sculpture, Persephone’s facial expression becomes visible and her urgency is felt. Finally, from the far right of the sculpture, Pluto can barely be seen at all and the focus is entirely on the Persephone’s struggle and anguish as she cries for help. The three-headed dog Cerberus also becomes fully visible, showing that Pluto is carrying Persephone to Hades.

By the time Bernini completed the Rape of Persephone, Pope Paul V had died and Scipione Borghese was no longer in power as the cardinal-nephew. Shortly after it was finished, Scipione Borghese actually gave the sculpture to the new cardinal-nephew as a gift and the sculpture was not returned to Villa Borghese until 1908. The pedestal on which the sculpture rests has an inscription written by Cardinal Barberini (future Pope Urban VIII) that says, “Oh you who, bending, pick the flowers of the earth, heed the one who was carried to the dwelling of wild Pluto.” With this gift, Scipione is telling his rival to be careful and that his power will eventually come to an end.

Apollo and Daphne

Bernini’s third statue group that he created for Scipione was Apollo and Daphne. Bernini started the sculpture in 1622 and finished in 1625, but work was suspended for 1 year in the middle so that Bernini could complete his sculpture of David. According to the Ovidian story, Cupid shot Apollo with a golden arrow so he fell love with Daphne and chased after her. However, Daphne was shot with a lead arrow so she repelled love and ran away from Apollo. As Apollo was finally about to catch Daphne, she screamed for help from her father, the river god Peneus, who turned her into a laurel tree to end her misery. Like with the Rape of Persephone, Bernini wanted the viewer to walk around the sculpture and watch the story unfold. Bernini intended the sculpture to first be viewed from Apollo’s back. From this point of view, the viewer can see that Apollo is in motion but it is unclear exactly what he is doing. Moving slightly to the right of the sculpture, it becomes clear that he is chasing after Daphne and reaching out his hand to grab her. At this angle, Daphne still appears to be mostly a woman. Continuing to the right of the sculpture, the viewer notices that Daphne is crying out and is beginning to turn into a tree. Her body begins to be covered with bark, her fingers are turning into leaves, and her feet are morphing into roots. From the far right of the sculpture, the viewer sees the stunned expression on Apollo’s face and notices he is actually grabbing a piece of bark and never actually touches Daphne.

The pedestal of the Apollo and Daphne also has an inscription by Cardinal Barberini. The inscription states, “Those who love to pursue fleeing forms of pleasure, in the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands.” Even though the sculpture depicts a Pagan story, Barberini’s passage ties the moral of the story back to Scipione’s religious background. It essentially warns against excess frivolity and promotes devotion to the Church.


The final commission that Bernini did for Scipione was David. It was commissioned after Apollo and Daphne but was actually finished beforehand. It took Bernini only seven months to complete the sculpture and he was only 25 when it was finished. The sculpture depicts David as he is preparing to shoot his slingshot. Like the previous two works, Bernini again illustrates a developing story as the viewer moves around the sculpture. Bernini intended this sculpture to be approached from the right side. From this angle, it is difficult to tell what the sculpture is about or what is happening. Moving slightly to the left, the viewer begins to see David’s tense muscles and the intense concentration and fierceness on his face. Continuing further to the left, the tightly-pulled slingshot becomes visible and the viewer gets a sense that the slingshot is about to be released. This sculpture is different from his previous three statues in that he only depicts one figure in the sculpture. Instead of seeing the whole story, the viewer must imagine what David is fighting. One can follow the gaze of David’s eyes and imagine the presence of a huge Goliath out in front of David. There are also several objects that lie beneath David. One is a lyre with an eagle’s head on it, the symbol of the Borghese family. There are also unused pieces of armor on the ground that were given to David by King Saul.

Another way to examine to Bernini’s Baroque style is to contrast it with Renaissance style. During the Renaissance, David was a popular subject among sculptors, with the most famous being Michelangelo’s masterpiece. Bernini’s David, however, is markedly different from Michelangelo’s David and other sculptures of the Renaissance. Bernini was the first to depict David in the middle of the battle in action. Renaissance sculptors usually depicted David after his victory or, as in the case with Michelangelo, before the fight with Goliath. Bernini’s sculpture also shows incredible emotion and movement, while Michelangelo’s shows David in a stationary, pensive state. The two sculptures really illustrate the contrast in styles between the Renaissance and the Baroque.

There are several connections that can be made between the David sculpture and Scipione. First, it is interesting to note that this culpture is one of the few works with a biblical reference in Scipione’s collection. The David, then, may have been a way for Scipione to highlight his relation to the church. Next, the story of a victorious underdog may symbolize the Church’s triumph over the pagans. Finally, the eagle (the symbol of the Borghese family) on the lyre beneath David’s feet, ties the Borghese family to a story of victory.

The last three sculptures that Scipione commissioned really showed why Bernini is considered the best sculptor in the Baroque era. However, he was not only the best, but the first to really embrace the Baroque style, setting the stage for future artists to follow in his footsteps. Even today, visitors of Borghese Gallery marvel at Bernini’s talent. Viewers are pulled in by the realism and feel the emotion and action of the characters as if they were part of the scene. His ability to instill movement and emotion into and tell stories through a still marble sculpture was truly astonishing. However, the David was the last major private commission that he completed. While he was still working on the David, Bernini’s good friend Maffeo Barberini was elected Pope Urban VIII and Bernini would enter a new period in his career. He would no longer have time for private commissions and his future works would be on a much grander scale.

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