Immediately above Piazza del Popolo, the Pincio Gardens were laid out by Valadier in the early nineteenth century, and, fringed with dilapidated busts of classical and Italian heroes, give fine views over the roofs, domes and TV antennae of central Rome, right across to St Peter’s and the Janiculum Hill. It’s also a good place to rent bikes and and trikes to tour Rome’s largest central open space, the Villa Borghese, which lies just beyond, and whose woods, lakes and lawns offer respite from the bustle of the city centre, and any number of attractions – including some of the city’s finest museums – for those who want to do more than just stroll or sunbathe.
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On the far eastern edge of the Villa Borghese park, the wonderful Galleria Borghese was built in the early seventeenth century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, and turned over to the state in 1902. Today it’s one of Rome’s great treasure-houses of art and should not be missed.
The ground floor
The ground floor contains mainly sculpture: a mixture of ancient Roman items and seventeenth-century works, roughly linked together with late eighteenth-century ceiling paintings showing scenes from the Trojan War. Highlights include, in the first room off the entrance hall, Canova’s famously erotic statue Paolina Borghese – sister of Napoleon and married (reluctantly) to the reigning Prince Borghese – posed as Venus. Next door, there’s a marvellous statue of David by Bernini, the face of which is a self-portrait of the sculptor, and, further on, a dramatic, poised statue of Apollo and Daphne that captures the split second when Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree, with her fingers becoming leaves and her legs tree-trunks. Next door, the Room of the Emperors has another Bernini sculpture, The Rape of Persephone, dating from 1622, a coolly virtuosic work that shows in melodramatic form the story of the abduction to the underworld of the beautiful nymph Persephone. Finally, the so-called Room of Silenus contains a variety of paintings by Cardinal Scipione’s protégé Caravaggio, notably the Madonna of the Grooms from 1605, a painting that at the time was considered to have depicted Christ far too realistically to hang in a central Rome church. Look also at St Jerome, captured writing at a table lit only by a source of light that streams in from the upper left of the picture, and his David holding the head of Goliath, sent by Caravaggio to Cardinal Scipione from exile in Malta, where he had fled to escape capital punishment for various crimes, and perhaps the last painting he ever did.
The first floor
The upstairs gallery is one of the richest small collections of paintings in the world. In the first room are several important paintings by Raphael, including his Deposition, painted in 1507 for a noble of Perugia in memory of her son. Look out also for Lady with a Unicorn and Portrait of a Man by Perugino, and a copy of the artist’s tired-out Julius II, painted in the last year of the pope’s life, 1513. In further rooms there are more early sixteenth-century paintings; prominent works include Cranach’s Venus and Cupid with a Honeycomb, Lorenzo Lotto’s touching Portrait of a Man, and in the opposite direction a series of self-portraits by Bernini at various stages of his long life. Next to these are a lifelike bust of Cardinal Scipione executed by Bernini in 1632, and a smaller bust of Pope Paul V, also by Bernini. Beyond here, in a further room, is a painting of Diana by Domechino, depicting the goddess and her attendants doing a bit of target practice, and Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, painted in 1514 when he was about 25 years old, to celebrate the marriage of the Venetian noble Niccolò Aurelio.
A ten-minute tram journey north of Piazza del Popolo, MAXXI opened to much fanfare in 2010 in a landmark building by the Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid – a great modern accompaniment to Renzo Piano’s nearby Auditorium complex. Built around a former military barracks, it’s primarily a venue for temporary exhibitions of contemporary art and architecture (though it does have small collections of its own), but the building, a simultaneously jagged and curvy affair, is worth a visit in its own right, with its long, unravelling galleries and a towering lobby encompassing the inevitable café and bookstore.