Let’s Critique: Statues at the Borghese Gallery

Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Apollo e Dafne @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy

Round 2 at the Borghese Gallery continues with the actual statuary!

To date, everything I know about religion and art, I learned from hyperviolent comic books. So I kinda expected to walk into this scene from GANTZ:

GANTZ Italian Mission
Well, perhaps without the black-ops team and the tentacle aliens. But the reality still blew my mind.

Hall of the Emperors

Julius Caesar @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
Holy shit, it’s Julius Caesar. His expression is rather blank but he looks like a reasonable guy. I think HBO did an excellent job with their casting for him in Rome.

Cieran Hinds, HBO - Rome
On his chestplate is the face of Medusa in homage to Minerva, goddess of wisdom. I get the impression the leadership would wear decorum honoring Minerva for her strategic qualities, while lower officers might wear images of Mars (god of war itself).

Then there’s Octavian/Augustus, his successor. He’s got a few more pounds on him than I thought he might (I always pictured him as more diminutive in stature, but that could just be a television construct).

Octavian Augustus Caesar @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
After that we’re guessing this is Scipio the African, so named because Africa became his second home owing to the number of successful military campaigns he led there.

Scipio Africanus @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
Not sure who that is on his chestplate but it’s obviously not Medusa. If the Medusa imagery is meant to instill fear in the enemy and turn them to stone, this one must be to instill disgust because it looks like he’s about to either eat or vomit on the viewer.

Other emperors lined the rest of the hall. We did our best to identify them; she’s much better at it than I am. I know we saw Nero, Caligula and Hadrian in the mix. I don’t think the collection was just limited to emperors either; I’m pretty sure we even saw Cicero in there too.

Gods and Goddesses

In between the busts of Roman leadership are alcoves housing full-sized statues of many Roman gods and goddesses.

Dionysus @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
There is something about fine art (and I mean truly fine art– not taking a picture of your junk using a Soviet-rejected surplus camera and slapping some Vaseline filters on it in Instagram) that I’ve always found moving. Someone put a hell of a lot of time and effort into carving absolute perfection out of a block of rock.

The end result is more human than human.

Unknown @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
Humans have flaws. Gods do not, at least not of the physical kind.

Statua ritratto di donna restaurata come Cerere @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
Contrast that with lomography, where the point is to take deliberately shitty pictures and the motto is “don’t think, just shoot.” It’s no wonder modern art fucking blows if that’s the prevailing mentality of today’s artists.

Dionysus @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
The Bible tells us God created man in his image. It also tells us mankind is flawed. So what does that say about God himself?

Furthermore, if man creates man in his image, and that image is perfect…what does that say about man?

Rape of Proserpine (Persephone)

It’s time to address the white elephant in the room. It’s right there in your face as soon as you enter the hall– a massive statue of a dude abducting a crying woman.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Rape of Proserpina @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
The word “rape” in this context is the clickbait of ancient etymology, designed to grab your attention while not accurately describing the scenario it depicts.

The way the story goes is that Hades (god of the underworld) had his eye on Persephone so one day he just popped up out of the ground and took her back down with him. Persephone’s mother Demeter was so distraught that she caused all the crops to wither until Zeus intervened and forced Hades to let Persephone go.

Hades, being a hospitable abductor, had offered Persephone some pomegranate seeds to eat while in captivity. But since she had eaten the fruit of the underworld, she could no longer ever truly leave it. She was permitted to leave Hades but every year, she had to return for four months (the winter months).

She may not have been physically violated, but she still lost something in the end.

There was a similar story told in the “Little Brother” episode of Adventure Time. The kids were watching it but I thought it was poignant and it came to mind as we saw the exhibit. From what I remember, a worm gets cut in half and his new half takes on a life of its own as his little brother. Little brother encounters an elusive (and literal) rat king in the woods and takes it upon himself to vanquish the evil he represents, so he pursues the rat king all the way to the underworld and gets himself injured there in the process. While being nursed back to health, he consumes the food of the underworld and is cursed to remain there.

Room of the Hermaphrodite

This is another Bernini work, one important enough to warrant its own room.

I’ve seen references to “hermaphrodite” and “herms” all over the place. In some contexts, I’ve been surprised to find the word doesn’t actually mean what we learned in 6th grade science class. In this one, it totally does.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Sleeping Hermaphroditus @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
This isn’t the most flattering picture but it’s the only one I could get; closer access was cordoned off. This sculpture was originally excavated in Italy, moved to the Louvre, and moved again to the Borghese Gallery.

Hermaphroditus was the child of Hermes and Aphrodite (hence the name) and was originally born male. He became the god of androgyny when he was bathing in a pond and encountered a very clingy water nymph. She beseeched the gods to never let them part, and her wish was granted– their bodies were fused and Hermaphroditus became so.

Of course, you wouldn’t know any of this just looking at it. At first glance this just appears to be a sleeping woman. I suppose the takeaway from this one is that anybody can be a girl when they’re face down.

Room of Aeneas and Anchises

Somehow we managed to blow right through this room.

Unknown @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
I wish we had spent more time in this room; I barely remember much about it.

Unknown @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
This one was pretty interesting, in as much as it looked as if it were carved from two different types of stone.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini - La Verita @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
As much as I admire Bernini’s skill, I find myself sometimes less than impressed with his faces. For some reason he doesn’t seem to handle brows very well so his faces can sometimes be a little wonked.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Aeneas and Anchise @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
In Virgil’s Aeneid, when Troy was sacked, Aeneas fled with his father Anchises on his shoulder and his son Ascanio at his heels (not pictured).

The interesting thing about this work is that when you look at Bernini’s other works that depict two or more figures, they’re generally of the same age bracket. Aeneas’ skin and muscle looks far more robust than his aged father’s; you can see every tendon in Anchises’ arms.

Room of the Egyptian

Don’t miss this room’s ceiling; it has paintings like the others, but it is also lined with statues of Egyptian dudes. Pretty cool to see in person.

Egyptian Room Ceiling @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
The centerpiece of this room is a dude who got his wang bit off by a dolphin.

Dolphin Lunch @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
It’s funny how with old statues of men, the older it is, the more likely it is that their penis will be broken.

So it goes for living men as well.

Sphinx @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
Hey, it’s an actual Sphinx.

Given the political instability in the region, this is probably the closest we’re going to get to Egypt for a very long time. Which is a shame, since all the interesting monuments there are falling to shit, and surely some radical Muslim group will destroy what’s left in the next decade or two.

Room of Faun

This room had some real treasures, including some very, very recognizable ones.

Aphrodite @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
Aphrodite is an interesting character. The goddess of love, beauty and orchestral manoeuvres in the dark, she has played important roles in the lives of god and man alike. It seems as though every character in mythology has crossed paths with her at least once. She’s like the Varys of the ancient world, though less modest.

Hermes @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
Hermes has always struck me as the sort of “convenience character” that just fills plot holes for Roman mythology. He flew around and did a lot of cool stuff, but he just always seemed to be in the right place at the right time way too often. Plus he’s a god of like, everything that didn’t quite fit the characterization for any of the other gods.

“Hey, we need an angel figure as an emissary between god and man.”

“Let Hermes do it.”

“We need someone to be a god of thievery.”

“Hermes can do that. Bastard took my sandwich.”

“God of athletics?”


“God of literature, poetry and wit?”

“Fuck it, just put Hermes down for the rest of this shit so we can go home.”

Unknown @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
No idea who this was, but he looks like Oscar Wilde, and is probably just as fabulous.

Now, for something really awesome:

Caravaggio - San Gerolamo @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
It’s a Caravaggio. Even if you don’t follow art, you probably know the name, or at least have seen this work or some other by him. They’re really hard to miss, and really something to behold in person.

In the last few hours we had seen a lot of paintings that have lifelike qualities to them, but Caravaggio truly demonstrates mastery of making an image “pop.”

Entrance Hall

Entrance Hall @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
There is a bit of absurdity in that the Entrance Hall is one of the last things we saw here. When approaching the building, you can either go down some stairs into the basement level (which is where the ticket counter is) or up the stairs to get to the statuary. The second floor (picture gallery) is only accessible via a spiral staircase inside the building.

Caravaggio - David and the Head of Goliath @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
This is an interesting interpretation by Caravaggio of the whole David and Goliath story.

As children, we’re led to believe that Goliath was literally a giant– we’re talking Shadow of the Colossus-level scale.

Quadratus - Shadow of the Colossus
But Caravaggio’s interpretation (and honestly, the Bible’s as well) only places Goliath in the ballpark of nine feet tall. That’s freakishly tall, kinda like Gregor Clegane in Game of Thrones, so his appearance was surely intimidating. But he is still a man, which means he can be killed, and his severed head would be only slightly larger than the average human’s– not something you can go crawling around the eye sockets of.

And thus David presents a severed head, only slightly larger than his own.

Hey, here’s a naked guy with an intact penis (pun intended!).

It’s not long for this world though. I wouldn’t want my dangly bits anywhere near a hungry dog.

Doggy Dinner @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
I’m thinking this is Diana. She looks like she’s reaching over her shoulder to draw an arrow from her quiver, but she’s missing her bow. Maybe that used to be part of the stick in her hand.

Diana @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, ItalyThere were at least a couple of statues of Pan. He looks nothing like he did in Pan’s Labyrinth.

The scale of some of the busts around here was insane. I know there are the pieces of a giant, giant statue of Constantine (and I do mean “giant” in the Shadow of the Colossus sense) at the Musei Capitolini but if there were a body at scale to go with some of these busts I’d probably shit myself.

Massive Bust @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
PROTIP: If you want your man to drown in your lust, you must, you must increase your bust.

Hadrian gets it. His bust is massive.

Room of Pauline

Antonio Canova - Pauline Bonaparte Borghese @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
This is one of the more impressive statues I’ve ever seen.

Those pillows are solid rock but look soft as balloons. We’ve seen some incredibly detailed stone fabric before (and even here) but the sheets hanging from her leg look real.

Behind Pauline sits this guy.

Pietro Bracci - Busto di Papa Clemente XII Corsini @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
That’s Pope Clemente XII. The bust was completed towards the end of his life, well after he was rendered blind and shortly before he died from gout.

Something about this bust really struck me but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I think what it is is that he’s obviously old; his face is wrinkled. But so is his collar. So are his clothes. I’d say it’s too much detail, but at the same time it’s quite fitting. Of course he’s not looking his best– his papacy was not terribly successful and now he’s about to die. Hard to look your best under those circumstances.

Fireplace @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy

Apollo and Daphne

Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Apollo e Dafne @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
The room of Apollo and Daphne brings us to the end of this tour, and the centerpiece of this room is apparently the only thing anybody ever seems to associate with this gallery.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Apollo e Dafne @ Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy
Apollo made fun of Eros’ dinky bow, so Eros decided to teach Apollo a lesson by shooting him with it.

Apollo was filled with lust, so he beelined for the first creature he saw– Daphne. Just for good measure, Eros shot Daphne with an arrow as well, except one that would caused her to absolutely reject Apollo.

He chased her all over the place and when she realized she’d never escape him, she begged her father (a god) to transform her into some other form that would allow her to escape him.

Most rational thinkers would transform her into something fast or elusive. A bird. A cheetah. A ray of light. This genius decided to transform her into an inanimate object– a tree. Bernini’s sculpture captures the beginnings of this transformation.

So that’s finally it for the Borghese Gallery. Now we’re off to the Vatican!


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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