Georgian Life and Literature

The Villa Borghese, Rome

The Borghese Villa and Gallery in Rome reopened in 1997/1998 after being closed for fourteen years for restoration. I visited the Gallery in May 2000 and felt that the restoration was absolutely stunning. It was quite marvelous to see outstanding sculptures being used as an integral part of interior decoration, all symmetrically arranged and interspersed with plenty of pietra dure and roundels of porphyry cut from ancient columns, with bits of lapis lazuli to enliven the scene. The Egyptian room was particularly fine. The exterior of this casino/pallazino has been restored in white/cream with the niches for ancient busts in pale blue and the busts of course in bright white, almost deliciously Wedgwood. Most guide books just reproduce the famous statues in the collection (by Bernini etc.), but it is the tout ensemble that is most remarkable, part of the 18th-century aesthetic of making everything into a unified and very satisfying whole. The Borghese Gardens were ill-advisedly turned into a jardin anglais many years ago, and have gradually declined into an ill-kept municipal park. However, three parterres adjacent to the Gallery, with their greenhouse and former aviary, have been restored.

Canova's life-size statue of Pauline Bonaparte/Borghese

Inside the building, Canova's life-size statue of Pauline Bonaparte/Borghese is an astonishing tour de force in how to make a great slab of marble look convincingly like a firm but comfy day-bed with cushions. When Mario Praz saw the sculpture it apparently reminded him of an "erotic Frigidaire". Mario Praz is known in literary circles as the author of The Romantic Agony, but he is perhaps more widely known in the cultural world as the author of a magnificent Illustrated History of Interior Decoration; its Italian title is La filosofia dell'arredamento and a good opportunity was missed by the English publisher in not translating this as The Philosophy of Furniture. Like the book, Praz's apartment in Rome concentrates on the Napoleonic(Empire)/early Biedermeier period, and is now a house-museum, containing the cream of his collection of furniture and fittings and paintings, carefully kept exactly as he arranged them (with a large study collection for students in the upstairs rooms). Basically each room is a combined scholar's study and connoisseur's cabinet. Each room has a single different colour wash on the walls with which all of its contents are coordinated, beginning with buttermilk yellow, then the famous "pea-green" so loved in the late 18th-century (though perhaps shading slightly to peppermint), to pale grey and coral, all classic colour schemes used in England during the Regency period. It was fascinating to see hanging on the walls some of the paintings/drawings that Praz not only illustrated in his book, but used as models for designing the decoration of his own room-scapes.

The whole of Rome was transformed for the millennium year of 2000 AD. All of the museums and public monuments were beautifully restored. All of the travertine facades around Piazza del Popolo were restored to glittering cream (and coral stucco), and were as beautiful now as when the piazza was transformed for the entrance of Queen Christina to Rome in 1655. Innumerable churches, particularly their frescoes, were cleaned and restored. The Pope declared this a Jubilee Year, so all the Holy Doors were open. I made a point of going through as many as possible, so as to erase 25,000 years from my stay in Purgatory. Sorry, I should not jest. In fact I treated the matter with due reverence. As tourists paused to read the signs outside the doors reminding us that "This door is Christ", it was difficult to cross the threshhold without feeling a sense of religious awe.

Copyright © 2000, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. My comments originally appeared on the 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion List in June 2000.

Return to Essays on 18th-century Topics