The Pleasure of Details – Part One

“Details make perfection and perfection is not a detail”.

                                             Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)

The feedback you shared and the joy I felt in mentally looking at the Fountain of the Four Rivers with you in my last post, gave me a lot to think about. I suspect we are all hungry for visual stimuli and beauty to brighten our days and remind us of all that awaits us on the other end of this experience. My friend Laura described her desire to linger more, to allow herself to slow down and look at things in detail on her next trip to Italy. Then Monday Night Travel with Rick Steves took us to the Borghese Gallery ( /starts at min. 3:48) and I saw the statues that have been my beloved companions for so many years and an idea for a post that had been floating around in my head finally took shape.

I am like a “disco rotto” – a broken record – in repeating how the Borghese Gallery is my favorite museum at every opportunity, but I have witnessed more people get excited about art there, than in any other place I know, and I include myself among them. Some art of the past requires a great deal of background knowledge to be fully experienced, and that can be intimidating. Yet a lot of the art we can explore at the Borghese, especially the marble statues by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (yes, another disco rotto!), only requires our eyes and willingness to connect in a way that can be beautifully intense in the moment, but that can also stay with us long after we have been in its physical presence, another form of lingering.

So, I invite you to look and feel with me at the Borghese, not with a tour but with a very personal selection. I want to continue the conversation we started in the last post, and try something I have been practicing for years. When we look at the same things often, sometimes we risk not really seeing them anymore, and it can happen even with great art. I have trained myself to look for details and hold them in my eyes and mind until I feel I reach full awareness of their vibrancy. I do that when I guide and like to share what I notice with visitors. I would like to do that here, with you, using pictures I took with my phone on a solitary visit to the Borghese last summer, when I was searching for solace for my anxiety and disquiet. If you have been there, I hope this brings back memories, if you haven’t, this is my invitation for you to discover it

Where are we?

The Borghese Gallery is nestled in the 148 acres of the Villa Borghese, one of Rome’s great public parks. It was created in the early17th century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577- 1633), the nephew of Pope Paul V (who ruled from 1605 to 1611). The popes of the past were like absolute monarchs and often favored family members by assigning important offices to them. Scipione became “cardinal nepote”, cardinal nephew, the equivalent of a secretary of state today. Interestingly, this is where the English word nepotism comes from. Scipione was powerful, incredibly wealthy, an avid art collector, and connoisseur with a keen eye for the talent in the art scene of his time. He created the Borghese Gallery to hold his art collection, and housed his collections of plants and birds in the surrounding area. The Borghese was a private collection until the 20th century when it was purchased by the Italian State and has since been a public museum. The cardinal’s collection was a reflection of his taste, his desire to flaunt power, and his era: he favored ancient Roman sculpture, Renaissance (Raphael, Titian) and contemporary art (Caravaggio and Bernini). The walls and ceilings of the rooms of the museum, although no longer as the cardinal saw them, are lavishly decorated according to the idea of the museum space as art in itself, the “container” mirroring the beauty of what it contains (if you are interested you can read my “Museum Musings” post from August 10). As we mentally walk through the rooms, we should remember that here at the Borghese, the art, the architecture of the building that contains it, and the park that contains both, must be experienced as one.

Let’s picture colourful frescoes on the walls and ceilings with some delightful, festive details (cherubs blowing soap bubbles, playing with pet doves), and on the other side of those walls, blue skies, Roman pine trees, families riding their bikes, dogs cavorting on the lawns, human voices, barking and birdsong.

We are ready, let’s go linger on a few details, turning up the intensity dial gradually, as in a musical crescendo.

Meet our Host, the Cardinal Scipione Borghese

Here he is, the man who started the Borghese collection. This bust was carved by Gian Lorenzo Bernini when the cardinal was 55. At that point in his life he had been master of Rome but was approaching the end (he died a year later). Bernini was already recognized as a master of a different kind and he was 34 years old. The artist didn’t have the cardinal sit for this portrait but made quick sketches of him as he went about his day, walking, conversing, enjoying his music, food and wine. He then transferred his impressions and produced a stone snapshot that reveals both the physical and the psychological dimensions: Scipione is a man of power but also a man of intense vitality and character. His head is turned slightly to the right, his lips are parted: someone is talking to him and we can almost hear his voice as he answers. His cardinal’s hat is slightly tilted back, his marble skin shows a sheen akin to sweat. We can imagine his shoulders moving under his vestment as he advances, we can hear the rustling of the fabric. Alive. Here. Now. Remember the Fountain of the Four Rivers? Here it is again, the talent of Bernini to infuse stone with life.

Let’s get closer. The detail I offer you here is the focus and direction of his gaze. Forget the blank stares of the majority of stone statues we have seen elsewhere.

The puffiness suggests the softness of the delicate flesh of the eye area through the alternation of light and shadow. The iris and pupil are defined and outlined, and the little white dot at the center is the highlight, the reflection of light off the eye, easier to see in paintings, drawings and cartoons (I googled “drawings of eyes” to doublecheck!), far less common in marble sculpture. The eyes of ancient Greek and Roman statues were mostly painted, carved, made of glass or different types of metal that were damaged or lost over time, leaving us with the empty, lifeless gazes we see today. The directness of Scipione’s stare helps us imagine the look of ancient statues as far more more life-like too.

Another detail: see that strange line above his brow that seems to divide the head into two sections?

That was an unexpected, unpredictable flaw in the marble block that appeared when the work was almost completed and forced Bernini to “open” the bust, create a cavity within it and insert a joint to seal the two sections back together and make the work stable. Realizing that the fracture was visible, making the portrait unpresentable to his illustrious patron, Bernini made a replica in record time, then showed both busts to the cardinal who was delighted as we are today as we view the two versions side by side.

And his Uncle, the Pope

Despite the slightly furrowed brow, this “desktop” (13 inches high) portrait of Pope Paul V by Bernini doesn’t seem to burst with vitality as that of his nephew; the eyes are uncarved and blank, but there is a detail worth lingering on. My favourite Bernini scholar, Tommaso Montanari, defined this a “still life of a pope” so let’s look at the inanimate elements, let’s look at his clothes: the shirt, vestment and jewelled clasp. I can almost feel the difference in texture between the light soft linen fabric of the shirt with its multiple creases, and the lace trim on the collar, a bit rumpled on one side as the pope moves and the vestment pulls. The fabric of the vestment itself looks much heavier, I can imagine its weight on his shoulders, and then picture the bright gold and colors of the embroidery and of the gem and goldwork on the clasp. Fabric, light and heavy, embroidery, jewels, all in white marble.

Father and Son

I overlooked this Bernini piece for years and now stop whenever I can, to share an anecdote I love. This is the Goat Amalthea, one of those kind female animals of ancient myth that fed babies in danger who then grew up to become powerful gods and heroes. Amalthea provided milk to baby god Jupiter, kept in hiding from his dangerous father Saturn who had swallowed his brothers and sisters, and is seen here with his little pal, a Faun. Before dismissing this statue for its slight awkwardness, as I confess I did in the past, observe the wonderful realism of the goat’s rough, matted hair, and the marble milk pouring from the little cup into the Faun’s lips.

This sculpture is a bit of a puzzle because we don’t know exactly when Bernini made it and exactly where to place it within his early career. Let’s look to the label for information.  

  So he was between 11 and 17 years old, Gian Lorenzo was clearly a child prodigy.

Bernini’s father, Pietro, was a respected sculptor in his day; he recognized and nurtured his son’s talent and was his first “maestro” (teacher). The son’s talent soon surpassed the father’s and one day, a cardinal who saw the greatness that lay ahead for Bernini junior, chided Pietro by saying: “Take care, Signor Bernini, this child will soon surpass you and will certainly be greater than his master!” Bernini senior had both the intelligence and the heart to reply: “Your Eminence knows that in this game the one who loses, wins”. And he continued to support his son’s work and talent for the rest of his life.


And now, for a few moments, we walk from room to room, painting to painting, allowing our eyes to wander freely and see what catches our attention. ‘

A Last Supper (1546, by Jacopo Bassano, Venetian): a cramped, busy tavern, Christ and the Apostles, a world away from the splendid idealism of Leonardo’s painting of the same scene, but let’s get closer. We find an early example of Italian still life, highly symbolic: a simple loaf of bread, and the wine in the glass and the bottle reflecting pink on the tablecloth. The hand of an apostle pushes the tablecloth forward causing the fabric to bunch so believably; the long horizontal crease that for me evokes human hands taking it out of a cupboard were it was neatly folded and spreading it over the table for this most meaningful moment in Christian history.  And the brilliant solution to the imperfect perspective that gives us the impression that the table is tilting towards us: the napkin folded over the edge of the table and the handle of the knife sticking out beyond it help define its position in space and correct the slipping and sliding sensation.

Or consider the outfit (those colors!) of this angel by Savoldo (Tobias and the Angel, 1527). Born in Venice but active in Lombardy, he influenced Caravaggio with his nights scenes and was a also master at painting draped fabric. Here he gives the folds a silvery sheen that makes them look almost wet. I just love how much fabric there is and imagine this beautiful angel taking flight with a mile of shimmering pink and blue trailing behind him from his sleeves and hem. (Apologies for the light reflecting off these oil paintings.)

Raphael is a superb portrait painter and capable of being inspired by his contemporaries and elaborating that inspiration into a style that is uniquely his. The Lady with the Unicorn (1505-6) reminds us of the Mona Lisa (three quarter pose, hazy landscape in the background) and this painting announces that she will be married. The Unicorn stands for the bride-to-be’s chastity and faithfulness but also looks like a contented lapdog; she seems to be absentmindedly stroking his little knees, his legs bent, as our pets often do. The girl wears an interesting necklace that her contemporaries read very easily as chastity (the pearl), love (the ruby), and a new family (the knot in the gold chain is the tie of marriage).

What Next?

Bernini calls. Next time we will look at the masterpieces he created for the Cardinal Borghese when the artist was between the ages of 20 and 27 (1618-1625).

We will see how these stories in marble rely on our presence; we will linger on details and discuss technical aspects, but I want to create a foundation before we say goodbye for today.

Sculpture vs. Painting

Michelangelo died in 1564 and after his death, painting seems to have taken the spotlight, causing sculpture to fall slightly by the artistic wayside. Leonardo da Vinci had already claimed that painting was superior to sculpture in a debate that went back to the ancient Romans, and even Galileo, who studied optics, said the same in a letter in 1612. He claimed sculpture could never provide the complete illusion of something real as painting could. A statue is already three dimensional so it cannot match the magic of three-dimensionality and naturalism created on a flat surface by painting through color, light and shadow, etc. We can paint believable flames of a fire but we can’t sculpt believable flames out of stone. Hmmm.

Pietro Bernini, Bernini Sr, (we met him earlier when he won a prize for best dad), took active part in this debate, was likely miffed by Galileo’s statement, and may very well have shared it with his teenage son, Gian Lorenzo, who was already displaying dizzying talent with hammer and chisel. I like to picture a possible conversation between father and son that sparked something in the thirteen-year-old Gian Lorenzo Bernini that led him to pick up the challenge and devote his life to pushing marble sculpture to new, triumphant heights by creating illusions of lightness, color and life so believable they captivate and enchant us to this day.

Flickering flames, slingshots, leaves and roots, dog fur (how does Bernini do that?), fabric swirling in the wind…..

What did Galileo say about sculpture? It can’t create illusions that look like the real thing? Really?

Alla prossima – see you next time!


6 responses

  1. Francesca, beautifully written as usual! Thank you so much for this visual- I feel like I had a tour of the Borghese Gallery from my home in Illinois!

    Were Bernini’s sculptures from one piece of marble? (I’m assuming it’s marble, anyway.). I was wondering how he got the look of the fabric and the hair flowing into space? Were the sculptures made in pieces and then put together? Maybe that’s a better way of asking.

    Thank you!


  2. Awesome to see all the sights we saw in Rome!! It’s been a year now and we can’t wait to get back over there!! Very well done!!

  3. Dear Francesca,

    I enjoyed reading and looking at your photographs of the Borghese Gallery. Thank you for reminding me of the beauty of the Bernini sculptures and the stories behind them. I long to travel again to Rome, which is my favorite city of Italy.

    Regards, Anna Wright


  4. “The next best thing to being there” is overused and often inaccurate. How refreshing and delightful it is to have Francesca give us such wonderfully nuanced and insightful observations of both incredibly beautiful art, in all its detail, and the physical context within which it lies. As we continue to live our cloistered lives during the pandemic, there is always the prospect of a new post from Francesca to keep our spirits up.

  5. Thanks 🙏🏼! Wonderful!

    On Fri, Feb 26, 2021 at 7:21 PM Francesca Caruso’s Rome wrote:

    > francescainroma posted: ” “Details make perfection and perfection is not a > detail”. ” >

  6. It must be 25 years since we visited the Borghese Gallery, but your splendidly detailed posting made it all fresh and new again. Thank you so much!


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s