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Of Beauty, Bernini, Organizational Bizzarie and Broken Elevators PDF Print E-mail
Jan 21, 2008 at 03:40 PM

Image Anyone will tell you that a visitor to Rome must absolutely make a point of going to, or returning to, the Galleria Borghese. And whether or not you’ve heard that caveat a million times,  believe me it is true. The Galleria, open daily except for Mondays from 9.00 alle 19.00 (call 06.32810 for obligatory reservations)  is an unparalleled gem.  This doesn’t mean that visiting it is easy. In fact, in more than one way the Borghese Gallery can be seen as a microcosm of Italy; gloriously rich in art and sorely lacking in solid, practical organization.

        In Italy, as anyone who has spent any time here will know, beauty is everywhere. But at the same time, there is often an organizational deficit that interferes with your ability to enjoy what is spread out before you. The Galleria Borghese is an example of this prime Italian paradox and has been as long as one can remember; it was that way before it's long, costly renovation, and  it is that way - although, admittedly, to a far lesser degree - since it reopened so that if you are unprepared, not in a good mood, or tetchy by nature as I tend to be, a visit to this wonderful venue can be trying!

        First of all, even allowing for the constraints imposed by the Villa’s architectural structure, there is something really bizarre in the admissions procedures. Visitors first must take the stairs to the downstairs area and stand on a line to pick up, and pay for, their reserved tickets at the desk to the far right. After this, they must stand on a second line, also in the downstairs area, to check all objects at the guardaroba, which means women’s purses of more or less any size but NOT their coats (or those of their husbands). This has two implications. Women visitors unaccompanied by men, unless they have remembered to put some money in a pocket, will be out of luck if, at the last minute, they decide they want to buy a guidebook or a cup of coffee at the bookstore or the cafè, also on this level, or rent an audio guide.

      In addition, and far more serious for anyone elderly or for someone with any physical problems (my back always acts up during museum visits unless I keep them short)  this means that in the winter months a visitor to the Villa is forced to carry or wear his or her coat throughout the two-hour time allotment.  And to make confusion complete, to actually gain admission to the Villa as museum one must now re-exit the building and walk up  one of the two outside  staircases to wait, in an unorganized clump of fellow visitors, to be allowed in (visits are scheduled at 9 and 11 a.m. 1, 3 and 5 p.m.)  Futhermore, although I can assure you that the situation has greatly improved since the pre-1984 days when few of the art works even had labels (!),  the internal organization of the paintings and sculptures is still somewhat, shall we say “perplexing”,  making the purchase of a guidebook or of an audio-guide a must. Finally, people with difficulty walking or climbing stairs should be advised that the building’s one tiny elevator does not always work and at present writing has been out of order for over three months.

         I am an impatient type and during my last visit in November I was feeling rather annoyed. - despite the fact that after 30 years in Rome I should be used to all this. There are still some works in the museum that are not clearly labelled and at more than one juncture, the direction to take for the now-concluded Canova exhibit was not at all clear. But then the microcosm theory occured to me and I was able to put it all into a better context.  Of course, this does not answer the question of why Italians often can't get their act together. But watch these columns because this is an issue we will be coming back to and  - I am sure - more than once.

          That said, it can't be ignored that the Villa currently houses the principal jewels of the Borghese collection, those which survived Count Camillo Borghese’s much criticized decision in 1807 to give in to financial difficulties and the urgings of his new brother-in-law, Napoleon Bonaparte, and sell for a pittance some 344 pieces to the French (many of which are now in the Louvre). Fortunately, there is still plenty for today’s visitors to the Gallery  to enjoy; the works on regular exhibit include Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne and his The Rape of Persephone, Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, Caravaggio’s David and the Head of Goliath, Lucus Cranach’s Venus and Cupid, Antonello da Messina’s Portrait of a Man, Raphael’s Deposition of Christ and Jacopo Bassano’s Last Supper.

      From time to time, evviva!  there are special exhibitions; over the last few months visitors were treated to the second of the ten planned super mostre: the first was Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the second that dedicated to the 18th century neoclassical sculptor, Antonio Canova, best known for his sensual statue of the reclining Paolina Borghese  as Venus Vincitrix. That exhibition, which ended on February 3rd, was designed to highlight the complex relations between Canova, Paolina’s husband,  Prince Camillo Borghese, and the Bonaparte family. Don’t forget that Camillo’s new wife, Paolina, was Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister.

         Whatever the special events, however, the real “star” is the building itself, built in the early 1600’s  to house the burgeoning art collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, Pope Paul V’s nephew and personal secretary and then more or less the  Vatican chief of government. Every square inch of the palazzo, recently restored (at great expense) during  a 13-year shut-down that began in 1984 and lasted until 1997, is a sight for the eyes. There are trompe l’oeils, faux marbre decorations, painted and sculpted friezes, glorious marble pavements with – on the ground floor – several priceless, inlaid Roman mosaics, not to mention unparalleled ceiling frescoes such as Giovanni Lanfranco’s thrilling Council of the Gods in the vault of Room XIV on the second floor. Rarely has so much beauty been amassed in so small a space and I feel compelled to return regularly even though next time I will make sure I have some cash in my bra and that the weather is warm enough to do without a coat. 


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