Let’s Critique: Artwork at the Borghese Gallery

Cardinal Scipione Borghese @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy

Roman art museums: Bloodier than “Die Hard” and more beefcake per square inch than an NFL locker room.

Our first order of business for today was the Borghese gallery. Having purchased tickets the night before, our hotel was kind enough to print the vouchers for us. The vouchers said the tickets had to be picked up by 11 so we booked it out of there and figured we could grab breakfast at Termini.

Roman Rooftops @ Rome, Italy, Europe
No such luck! There really wasn’t much to choose from. I quickly ate a panini while she went off in search of something more substantial.

Rome Taxi Scams

Taxis in Rome @ Piazza Venezia, Rome, Italy, Europe
We had heard a lot about how taxi drivers in Rome will rip you off. This morning we discovered how this happens. When you approach the taxi stand, before you get there you’re going to be solicited by someone who appears to be a taxi driver. “Do you need a taxi? Where are you going?”

If you engage them, he’ll converse with his buddies for a few seconds and then come back to you with a price. “20 Euros.”

“20 Euros? To the Borghese gallery? Ha!”

There’s a reason these guys are intercepting you before you get to the actual taxi queue. You’re getting fleeced before you even get in the cab. If you get in line like you’re supposed to and have a clue what your money is worth, you’ll find the actual fare should only cost a mere €7.

Villa Borghese

The driver dropped us off at the gate to a park. There were no signs anywhere. Like the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, I knew the Borghese gallery was in the middle of some park, so we entered and started walking. And walking. And walking.

It wasn’t even 11 yet and already the heat and humidity were getting to us. Being in a rush didn’t help. In our haste to get in the cab, I forgot to cap my bottle of Coke and it spilled in my shorts.

We had no idea where we were going. Finally we started seeing signs that pointed us within eyesight of where we started.

It was 11:05 now. Fuck.

We ran the rest of the way to the doors of the Villa. Thankfully they redeemed our ticket without incident, and we now had a few hours to enjoy the art of the Villa Borghese.

Borghese Gallery

There are two floors to the gallery. We decided to go all the way upstairs first and work our way down.

One of the first things you’ll notice about the upper floor is that there are a lot of paintings. A lot.

Don’t get so caught up in what’s on the walls that you miss what’s on the ceilings. Some of the more impressive frescoes are found there.

Ceiling Fresco @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
A weird thing we noticed was that amongst centuries-old paintings and busts there were random dress-forms scattered about with modern dresses on display. These are part of Azzedine Alaia’s Couture/Sculpture exhibition.

While some of the dresses were interesting, they were very out of place in a gallery such as this.

Unknown @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy, Europe
We don’t care much for painting as a medium but we can appreciate a finely-crafted canvas when we see one.

Case in point: one of the first paintings that we saw was of dudes in clouds sprinkling sunshine on some soldiers and causing their horses to trample them. The interesting part was how vivid the blues were in the painting– absolutely surreal. It’s no trick of photography; those deep, deep blues are achieved by grinding lapis lazuli into powder and mixing it into the paint.

Simon de Chalons - L'Addolorata @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
It wasn’t long before the depressing Catholic stuff I remember from my formative years started popping up. We were in its homeland after all.

Jesus @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
It wasn’t long before we started seeing some familiar names. On display is a copy of Leonardo’s “Leda and the Swan,” though it implies Leonardo was the creator. More than likely it was done by Il Sodoma (Giovannia Bazzi).

Il Sodoma / Giovanni Bazzi - Leonardo - Leda and the Swan @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
I love morbid Catholic art. My darling pointed out that nobody can paint a corpse like artists in the service of Catholicism. Dead and ill people are just so sickly green in contrast to the bold, vivid colors of the living around them.

Dead Catholic Guy @ Galleria Borghese, Rome, ItalyIl Sodoma / Giovanni Bazzi - Leonardo - Leda and the Swan @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
My wife loves historical fiction books. Whereas romance novels always put a picture of some rippling meathead on the cover, hers generally have pictures of famous artwork (she’s classy like that). Thus she was excited to discover a work she’d seen on the cover of one of her books.

Raffaelino del Colle - La Fornarina @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
“La Fornarina” was painted by Raffaelino del Colle, an understudy of the more well-known Raphael. By the end of this trip we will have seen works by all of the Ninja Turtles’ namesakes, dammit.

Another Dead Jesus @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
A lot of the color in some of these works has held up amazingly well over the centuries. While I took some liberties in enhancing the color for many of our pictures, the natural color really is that vibrant in person.

Perugino - San Sebastino (Saint Sebastian) @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
No way. It’s this guy. Saint Sebastian was the one who haunted my childhood dreams. I remember tortured images of Christ on the cross and always misattributed this image to being Jesus, but I can never scrub the memory of Saint Sebastian’s birdlike face from my brain, the image of his body bleeding from the mortal penetration of a half-dozen arrow shafts.

Most classrooms have children’s construction paper scribbles adorning the walls. The alphabet perhaps. Numbers. Colors. The days of the week.

Mine had Saint Sebastian’s lifeless, naked corpse on it.

Pinturicchio @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
Hey, look– it’s a Pinturicchio. Our main interest in him lies in the fact that he was more or less the official painter for the Borgia Pope but it’s easy to see why he was overlooked in his prime. He has good command of color but his overall compositional style does seem dated when compared to more progressive works of the era. It’s like he’s trying to tell three different stories on one canvas rather than masterfully telling a single one. Christ dies while some idiot casually converses with a midget on his shoulder.

Anonimo del XVI Secolo - Cavaspina @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
Here we have a finely-crafted marble replica statue of a boy picking at his feet. It’s an example of how some creators dared defy convention by depicting people engaged in more natural activities, like the statue of David’s contrapposto slouch.

I’m still waiting to see a statue of someone picking their nose.

Raphael - Lucrezia @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
I almost entirely missed this classic portrait of Lucrezia Borgia. Thankfully my observant wife brought it to my attention.

The glare was terrible that day and I hate Photoshop but I’m glad we got to see this work by Raphael.

Another Dead Woman @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
Not too sure what’s going on in this painting but I love the colors. A woman is dying in another’s arms while the nearest spectator has an untimely wardrobe malfunction.

Remember what I said about the ceilings? They are absolutely gorgeous throughout the entire gallery and must not be missed. I wish I had more information about them. There might have been but I had my hands too full for additional pamphlets.

I couldn’t settle on which lens I would want/need for this occasion so I ended up dual-wielding two cameras instead. Hence, hands full.

Statue @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
Here we have a tale of two babies– one already dead, the other about to be carved in half.

Pier Francesco Foschi - Il Giudizio di Salomone @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
This is just grotesque on so many levels.

Content notwithstanding, there’s so much going on here. There’s a dude standing in the middle of the square about to mince a baby and nobody around is paying them any mind– least of all the authority figure in the throne. They’re all too busy making out with each other. And if people aren’t making out, they’re toting around babies of their own.

I think this is supposed to tell the tale of Solomon. Straight from the studio of medieval Jerry Springer, two women disputing the maternity of a baby state their case before King Solomon. Since DNA testing wasn’t available back then he does the next best thing and orders the baby cut in half so each mother can have an equal portion of baby meat. One of the women conceded custody to spare the life of the child, so Solomon assumed she was the real mother and awarded it to her.

There is an odd symmetry going on with this painting where everything that is happening on one side is mirrored on the other, so the dead baby may just be part of that mirror image. I suppose Solomon’s decision could have gone either way and this painting reflects that duality.

Girolamo da Treviso il Giovane - Venere Dormiente @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, ItalyNot too sure what’s going on here. Her posture reminded me a little of Ingres’ Grande Odilesque but predates it by almost 300 years. Just like rappers, artists have always bit each others’ styles. Ingres did spend quite a bit of time in Rome…

Anyway, the lesson here is that when the Visigoths are sacking and burning your city to the ground, calmly make your way to the nearest grassy knoll, take off all your clothes, and have a nap. It’ll be over soon.

Ceiling @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
Bearing in mind that this was a former Cardinal’s house, I must say we were pleased with the amount of imagery related to the ancient Roman gods that still graced its walls and ceilings. This painting on the ceiling was so richly colored that it seemed less a painting and more a window to the heavens. Note the use of shadow toward the bottom of the frame, and the legs of the cupids appearing to come out of the frame altogether. Very impressive!

Lelio Orsi - I Santi Cecilia e Valeriano @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
I don’t like this painting of Saint Cecelia and Valerian.

First of all, saints have always struck me as the “expanded universe” of Catholicism. It’s like someone realized that the Bible had more plot holes than a Dan Brown novel so they wrote a bunch of Pain Olympics fanfiction to please the masses. The stories of the saints are the most interesting thing about Christianity in general so it’s a shame no other sects dignify or honor them.

Anyway this is Saint Cecilia, the patroness of music. Forced into marriage but never consummated, the Romans tried to behead her but she survived several such attempts and clung to life for a while. That’s pretty hardcore.

Less admirable is her shameful treatment of that violin, just leaving it on the floor like that. This from the patroness of music?

Azzedine Alaia - Couture/Sculpture @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
She didn’t care much for the couture exhibition but some of the dresses were truly impressive. I loved the ruffles on this one. The entire thing looks like it was painstakingly hand-crafted, the sort of thing there might only be a few of in the world. A prom dress this isn’t.

Years ago for our wedding in Tokyo we bought a custom dress from Bibian Blue. Similar in style, it was pricey but worth every penny. My wife looked stunning. A wedding dress it wasn’t, and with a little tailoring here and there is perfectly reusable for looking fabulous around the world.

Beauty is underrated in America these days. Everybody’s taken to wearing spandex and waxing over whatever abstract fuckness “feminism” means to this generation.

Brescianino - Venere tra due amorini @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
The coloring on Brescianino’s “Venere tra due amorini” is very well done, and its sharp contrasts and pronounced gradients hint at somewhat futurist aesthetic. Futurism officially hit the scene 400 years after this image was created and saw its inception here in Italy. Severini’s “Armored Train” (at the Guggenheim?) was my first impression of futurism and I’ve loved it ever since.

Elements of futurism found their way into the 1920s-1930s art deco aesthetic (think “The Great Gatsby,” “Bioshock” or “Batman”) and a more refined form later served as the official style for failing Communist and Fascist empires’ propaganda posters in the 1940s-1950s. By the 2000s KMFDM kept the style alive by using it almost exclusively for all their album covers.

How else can you keep morale up for a populace decimated by war fatigue and failed economic policy? Improving conditions would be too much to ask, so investment in emotionally interesting artwork is a sensible way to go.

Anyway, to you it may just be another naked woman. But to me, it’s validation of my decision to not major in art.

Andrea del Sarto - Madonna col Bambino e San Giovannino @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
So this is the Madonna with child and a chibi Saint John. It’s depressing to see scenes of elation like this, as according to the stories, both boys will grow up to meet grisly fates.

It’s a perspective we don’t see very often that makes these characters just a little more human. Jesus Christ and Saint John were both just little happy babies before they became the movers and shakers of Christianity.

Giovan Francesco Guerrieri - Lot e le figlie @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
When we came across this one, I mistakenly thought it was a Caravaggio. It’s not; it’s by Guerrieri. The bold color and masterful use of shadow really make this painting pop. My picture doesn’t do it justice.

This scene is of Lot and his daughters. In the Bible, they found themselves in one of those post-apocalyptic situations that all of science fiction has devolved into these days. God had just wiped Sodom and Gomorrah off the map but an angel tipped off Lot and his family, allowing them to flee just in time. His wife would have made it if she hadn’t disobeyed God’s orders to not look back at the wreckage, so he turned her into a pillar of salt as punishment.

At camp, faced with the knowledge that they were the only survivors of the human race, Lot’s daughters plied him with drinks and got themselves pregnant. Pretty sure Noah’s story ended the same way too but when it comes to teaching Noah’s Ark at Sunday School the focus is always more on the animals and less on the incest.

Remember those plot holes I was talking about? Christianity is supposedly all about how God’s gift to us was our own free will, leaving us free to make our own mistakes and as long as we’re sorry about it and we believe in him, we’ll be forgiven and allowed into Heaven, unless you eat the apple or look back at the Sodomites. Every now and then he’ll kill everybody on the planet like a deranged World of Warcraft admin but that’s cool because “it’s part of his plan” but when there’s just you and your daughters left and you have to make some tough decisions, it’s time to go off-script. If Lot’s daughters hadn’t seduced him, humanity would have ended. But if that was what God wanted, why permit an angel to warn Lot at all? Does he not have control over his own agents?

Denial is a powerful drug. There are no answers to these questions because the premise is flawed, but theologists and the types of people who watch public access television will continue to debate it until the End of Days is truly upon us. It’s no wonder schizophrenics become obsessed with Biblical matters. Once you start down the K-hole of religion, even a sound mind can’t make sense of the circular logic.

Man as Architecture @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
In the main room of the top floor, the ceilings are lined with frescoes(?) of mostly-nude men holding up the roof.

Bear in mind this is a former Cardinal’s residence. It is absolutely fabulous. One might question why a Cardinal’s house is decorated with naked men, but consider this–

You awaken in the night to an awful cracking sound. You look upward; dust and a cloud of falling debris pelts your face. The roof is collapsing around you. You try to call for help but draw in dust with your breath; no sound escapes your dry lips. Paralyzed with mortal fear, any second now you will be buried beneath tons of falling rock.

Your life flashes before your eyes. A childhood too brief. Acquaintances made, loves lost. This can’t be how it ends. You’re one of God’s representatives, ordained to do his work on earth. As you contemplate your last moments alive, you reach out into the darkness. Blind. Scared. Desperate.

Flailing wildly, your hand brushes against the only thing within reach– a troupe of naked men.

Sometimes, you just have to make do with the tools you have at hand. Pun intended.

Honestly, the whole “man-as-architecture” thing makes sense. They’re the support beams of the room, carved from marble just the same as any Corinthian column. Any negative emotional reaction beyond that is a personal issue best worked out somewhere other than an art gallery.

If you can tear your eyes away from Cho Aniki Wonderland, take a minute to look at the actual ceiling of the same room.

Roman Gods on Ceiling @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
The ceiling is a massive panorama of the pantheon of ancient Roman gods. We sat for a bit and tried to identify as many as we could. Each of them has a unique characteristic that identifies them.

I think there are a couple random peasant characters in there as well so perhaps not all of them can be identified.

In this same room were another few of Azzedine Alaia’s dresses.

The Borghese Gallery houses a particularly large collection of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s statues, due in no small part to the fact that Cardinal Borghese was one of Bernini’s earliest patrons. Bernini is an amazing sculptor. All of the works of his we’ve seen have been absolutely flawless.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Bozzetto per il monumento equestre del Re Luigi XIV @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
Here’s another tableau of naked men getting trampled by horses. Not sure who the rider is.

Naked Men Trampled by Horse @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
Suddenly, an announcement was made in Italian over the PA system and a nearby usher started herding everybody out.

“What the hell? I didn’t even get to see the floor with the statues!”

“Maybe they’re just kicking everybody out of the painting rooms. For maintenance.”

We went down to the second floor but got shooed out of there too.

It turns out the tickets are only good for two hours. And we had spent two hours just looking at the paintings alone. Shit.

To be continued…?


Pro-family and anti-drug, when he's not too busy living with four beautiful ladies, he likes long walks on the beach and poking dead things with sticks.

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