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Lazily stretching out across the northern perimeter of the city walls, the Villa Borghese looks down upon the Piazza del Popolo and the trio of busy thoroughfares that flow into the centre of town. Once the lavish gardens of the 17th-century cardinal who bequeathed the park its name, Villa Borghese has long been Rome’s favourite place to escape the heat of the streets. Long winding alleys wrap themselves around copses of trees, under which sit relaxing Romans of every stripe – lovesick couples, furiously smoking old men with shirts open to their waist, groups of teenagers licking gelato. This is where the city comes to keep fit too – joggers, cyclists and strollers keep the avenues moving throughout the day.
But this is Rome, and even in a place as laid back as this, high culture can’t help making an appearance. Villa Borghese is home to some of the city’s finest museums – the Museo e Galleria Borghese, housed in the Borghese Villa itself, showcases one of the best collections of Renaissance and Baroque art in the world. In particular, the marble sculptures by Bernini on display are some of the very best.
Another treat is the once-scandalous sculpture of Cardinal Borghese’s wife, Pauline, the sister of Napoleon. The statue of her carved by Antonio Canova, in which she insisted on being depicted naked as a goddess of love, caused the cardinal so much embarrassment that he not only refused to allow it to be displayed in public, but would only show it to close acquaintances by torchlight. As with most cultural artefacts that are censored, the statue – and its subject – gained legendary status amongst the Roman public, much to the cardinal’s chagrin.
The sculptures extend out into the park surrounding the villa too. Busts and statues from 1,000 years of the city’s great and good are scattered throughout, the unlucky with their noses broken off and the favourites covered in lipstick kisses. The grounds of Villa Borghese are also where Rome turns its cultural attention to the wider world. Ever since the German polymath Johann Wolfgang Goethe took a holiday here – a visit that the German government commemorated in 1903 by commissioning a statue of the great man to stand forever in the park – foreign governments have been rushing to donate statues of their own literary and artistic geniuses. So, in a 10-minute stroll, you’ll pass the likes of Pushkin, Byron and Victor Hugo.
Just as the Roman Empire spread its influence across half the planet, and the artists and architects of the Renaissance showed the world what art could be, so at last, in some small way, the debt is being acknowledged and the favour returned.
- The Museo e Galleria Borghese is so popular that it’s difficult to just turn up and get in – you’ll need to ring ahead and book a ticket at least two hours in advance (entry £9).