Scipione Borghese  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1576 – 2 october, 1633) was an Italian Renaissance prelate, art collector and member of the noble Borghese family.


Art collector

The Cardinal was a great collector of modern and ancient art: he built the Villa Borghese and improved the Villa Mondragone to house his collection.

The Borghese Collection began around a collection of paintings by Caravaggio, Raphael, and Titian, and of ancient Roman art. Scipione also bought widely from leading painters and sculptors of his day, and his commissions include two portrait busts by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

His collection was poetically described as early as 1613 by Scipione Francucci. In 1607, the Pope gave the Cardinal 107 paintings which had been confiscated from the studio of the painter Cavalier D'Arpino. In the following year, Raphael's Deposition was secretely removed from the Baglioni Chapel in the church of San Francesco in Perugia and transported to Rome to be given to Scipione through a papal motu proprio, though it later had to be returned.

Art Collector

Borghese utilized the immense wealth that he acquired as Cardinal Nephew to assemble one of the largest and most impressive art collections in Europe. Even though later generations dispersed some of his acquisitions through sales and diplomatic gifts, the works that he assembled form the core of the holdings of the Galleria Borghese (Rome), a museum housed in the villa commissioned by Scipione (1613-15) from the architect Giovanni Vasanzio.

The Satyr and Dolphin (Roman marble copy of lost Greek bronze, 4th century B.C.E.) typifies the elegant and sensual depictions of young male figures that were prominently featured in Borghese's collection. One of his most prized works was the Hermaphrodite (now in the Louvre, Paris, Roman copy after Greek original of 2nd century B.C.E.). From the young sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Scipione commissioned in 1620 a realistically rendered mattress on which to lay this sensuous nude figure. Borghese is reported to have kept this statue in a specially made wooden cupboard, which he would open with a theatrical flourish to the amusement of his close friends.

Pope Paul V willingly assisted his nephew's efforts to obtain the art works that aroused his interest. For instance, through the influence of his uncle, Borghese secured the cooperation of the parish priest in arranging to have Raphael's famous Deposition stolen from the Baglioni family chapel in San Francesco, Perugia, for which it had been commissioned a century before.


On July 31, 1607, Paul V ordered 105 pictures confiscated from the artist Cavaliere d'Arpino (1568-1640), who had been unable to pay his full tax bill, and he had them delivered to his nephew. Among the pictures that Borghese acquired through this seizure were two important early works by Caravaggio (both 1593, still in Galleria Borghese): a probable self-portrait, usually called Sick Bacchus, and A Boy with a Basket of Fruit, an overtly homoerotic image of a youth extending a large basket of fruit seductively toward the viewer.

Borghese also greatly admired Caravaggio's naturalistic and psychologically complex later religious paintings, such as the brooding (but still sensual) youthful Saint John the Baptist (1605/6), which the collector acquired from the artist's estate shortly after his death, and the intense David with the Head of Goliath (1609/10), which represents the Biblical hero extending outwards a decapitated head with the features of the artist

Borghese appropriated Caravaggio's Madonna and Child with St. Anne, a large altarpiece commissioned in 1605 for a chapel in the Basilica of Saint Peter's, but rejected by the College of Cardinals because of its earthly realism and unconventional iconography. Recent archival research has established that Borghese intended from the early stages of the commission that the altarpiece would end up in his own collection.

Patronage of Bernini

Borghese's early patronage of Bernini helped to establish him as the leading Italian sculptor and architect of the seventeenth century. Between 1618 and 1624, Bernini worked primarily for the Cardinal, creating for him innovative pieces that served to define Baroque principles in sculpture. For the decoration of the Villa Borghese, Bernini produced a life-sized figure of David (1623), originally displayed to create the impression that he was hurling a stone directly at the spectator, and three sculptural groups with mythological themes.

The culminating work in this series that Bernini created for Borghese, Apollo and Daphne (1623-25), represents an incident popular in Italian poetry of the early seventeenth century, and ultimately derived from the Metamorphoses by the ancient Roman poet Ovid. Bernini depicts Apollo reaching out toward the river nymph Daphne just as she is transformed into a laurel tree by her father in order to prevent her from being burned by the touch of the god of the sun. Understood within its original intellectual context, this group represents frustrated desire and enduring despair and pain, provoked by love.

These meanings may have had special resonance for Borghese, who, at the time, was widely ridiculed for his attraction to other men. The specific moment depicted by Bernini also was thought in the early seventeenth century to signify the fusion of genders, more explicitly depicted in the Hermaphrodite also in the Cardinal's collection.

In 1632 Bernini executed two marble portrait busts of Borghese (both Galleria Borghese). These works capture the exuberance that the Cardinal's friends admired and which his critics decried as frivolity inappropriate to his office.

Collection as a Whole

Within the scope of a brief entry, it is impossible to acknowledge fully the breadth of Borghese's collection. Although he is most associated with the development of the Baroque, he also eagerly collected works of many artists of quite different styles.

Borghese's collection includes works as diverse as Early Renaissance altarpieces such as Fra Angelico's Last Judgment (ca 1450); examples of northern art such as two paintings of Venus (early 1500s) by Lucas Cranach; sixteenth-century Venetian paintings such as Titian's Sacred and Profane Love (1514); and classicizing pictures such as Domenichino's Diana (1616/7). The Cardinal even owned a very uncharacteristic work by Michelangelo, a depiction of Cupid now called "The Manhattan Marble".

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Scipione Borghese" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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