Look at the Art - discuss the gallery later!

Antonio Canova's daring depiction of Napoleon's sister, Paolina Bonaparte Borghese

The Museo e Galleria Borghese. Who can visit Italy without beginning to ask questions about art galleries and museums as they appear on the 'to do’ list. Is it in a spectacular location? Is it easily accessible? Is the building iconic? How much will it cost to enter? What are the opening times? And then, what about the bigger questions? What makes an art ‘collection’? What informs choices in the modern gallery? What is the ideological agenda that sits behind the programs and commentary?

Today, it is often bureaucratic process, budget and artistic posturing that determines what we see and how we see it, with notable exceptions, of course. Edmund Capon (2009) sums it up beautifully in this remark, “The greater the dogma – the more diminished the experience.”

Yet, can we say it was any different in 16th century Italy when Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1579–1633) made his selections. Scipione, favourite nephew of Pope Paul V, was a vigorous collector, beginning his private collection with works of Caravaggio, Raphael and Titian, and also amassing ancient Roman art. He moved his acquisitions from the Cardinal’s residence at St Peter’s to his family villa in the 1620s. This included over 100 paintings given by Pope Paul V to Scipione Borghese that had been confiscated from Cavalier D’Arpino, including two by Caravaggio. Was it a tyrant’s hunger for power in a time when art was currency or the eye of an educated curator, or both, that motivated the initial gallery?

There are so many interesting topics to discuss here but ... this is not why we came to Italy - we came to look at the art! And what we can say about the Borghese is that the experience of viewing the art is not over-awed by the architecture or by the politics of art history ‘correctness’. The collection is various and temporally extensive. The building, and gardens, provide gentle, classic, and sumptious housing for the works, providing memory of period and style, of renovation and continued care.

We entered through the basement door at the side of the building – visitors are allowed to enter the gallery salons in groups of a controlled size; this limited the time of admission to two hours but ensures there is room to move around, to stand in front of paintings and sculptures, to ponder, to experience - the conditions art lovers love!

The 2nd floor gallery is visited first and then the sculptures on the ground level. As I entered the first room upstairs, the ceiling took my breath away. Allowing the eyes to scan across the colour, shape, lines and detail. It is soon apparent that not only the framed art is on display here, but the unfolding story of decoration within the Casino of the Villa Borghese Pinciana (often paired with the paintings).

It is a rich experience, ‘salon’ after ‘salon’; full of delightful surprises. E.g. who expects the elegance and softness of the textile folds, the subtlety of colour in such a limited palette, the intelligence of composition as San Gerolamo reaches with pen across his desk poising it in the view of the skull overseeing his work – you only have two hours to view this Caravaggio.

But you have to move on, the sculpture awaits, and to bypass Canova’s Paolina would be a crime. Also Correggio's Danae (1530–31) will take time to drink in the paleness of that flesh, to sink into those bedsheet folds or to ponder that angel's upward gaze (below 1.) while the juxtaposition of muscle strength with softness of gesture in Ragazzo col Canestro di Frutta (Boy with a Basket of Fruit; 1593–95) (below 2.) will capture the attention for more than a day. We are barely out the door when we want to go back.

References: Capon, E. I Blame Duchamp, Lantern, Australia, 2009.