Even if you have just a passing interest in art, Galleria Borghese is an essential addition to your Rome itinerary. But how can you make the most of your visit and which Borghese Gallery masterpieces should you not miss?
As a two-time visitor to this outstanding museum, this is where I can help you. Hit the highlights with my guide to visiting the Borghese Gallery.
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What is the Borghese Gallery?
The glue binding the collection of the Borghese Gallery is the connection of the Classical world with the Renaissance.
Cardinal Scipione Borghese was a man on a mission. He built this garden villa in the 17th Century and set out to demonstrate that the Renaissance equalled the glories of Ancient Rome.
To prove his point, he curated a magnificent art collection.
He was Bernini’s first important patron and the work that he commissioned from the sculptor is still here. At one time he owned no fewer than twelve Caravaggios.
Why is the Borghese Gallery Famous?
The Borghese Gallery is famous for its outstanding collection of sculptures, especially those by Bernini and Canova, as well as paintings from artists including Caravaggio, Titian and Raphael. Galleria Borghese owns six paintings by Caravaggio, the largest number of his works in a single collection.
General Tips for Your Visit to the Borghese Gallery
One of the reasons that visiting the Borghese Gallery is such a joy is that the visitor numbers are capped at a maximum of 180 people for each two-hour time slot.
There’s none of the elbow-bumping you get at the Vatican Museum or Uffizi Galleries. The downside is that two hours is all you get.
You must arrive at the museum 30 minutes before your ticketed entry time to avoid being denied entry. When your ticket is scanned on arrival, you will be branded with a coloured sticker to allow staff to enforce this time restriction.
Do all you need to do before your timed entry slot. Give yourself enough time to deposit items in the cloakroom, buy an audioguide if you need one and use the toilet facilities. You don’t want these activities to eat into your precious 120 minutes.
Museum staff will encourage you to start your visit in the picture gallery (Pinocoteca) on the first floor. Set aside 30 minutes for this and spend most of your time budget on the more interesting ground floor. This is where you will find the sculptures and paintings for which the Borghese Gallery is famous.
Make every minute count by focusing on these Borghese Gallery masterpieces.
Borghese Gallery Masterpieces: Sculpture by Bernini and Canova
1. Bust of Cardinal Scipione, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1632)
If you have a sculptor at your beck and call, it would be almost rude not to have them create your likeness for all eternity. This is one of two busts of Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the museum.
But if you think that he was a saintly cardinal, think again.
Borghese had few scruples when it came to amassing his art collection. Whilst he commissioned, bought or was gifted most pieces, other artworks were acquired in more questionable ways.
Scipione used his power to liberate artworks from those who hadn’t paid taxes. He even hired thieves to steal Raphael’s Deposition from a convent altar.
2. Pauline Borghese as Venus, Antonio Canova (1805 – 1808)
Talk about striking a pose.
Napoleon’s sister bared all for Canova, channelling Venus Victrix (the clue is the apple she is holding). That satisfied smirk on her face speaks volumes about her promiscuity and flirtatiousness.
This sculpture scandalized the good citizens of early 19th Century Europe who were not used to seeing their aristocracy going the full monty. When asked how she could have posed in the buff, she replied “the room wasn’t cold.”
The range of textures Canova produces from this block of marble is extraordinary, from the dent and creases in the mattress to the glow of Pauline’s smooth skin.
3. Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (c. 1618)
Carved when he was just 15 years old (with a little help from his father), Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius is Bernini’s first major work for Cardinal Scipione.
Although it is an awkward, unstable group that lacks the dynamism of his more mature Baroque pieces, it reveals his skill for portraying human flesh.
4. Apollo and Daphne, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1622 – 1625)
For me, this is not only one of the highlights of the Borghese Gallery but also one of the greatest sculptures in Rome.
Apollo and Daphne was inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Apollo, struck by naughty Cupid’s arrow of love, reaches Daphne after a long chase. However, the object of his desire has been turned off by the arrow of disgust.
As Daphne cries out to her father for help, her fingers begin to sprout leaves, her toes become roots and she transforms into a laurel tree.
Just look at the thrilling intensity of this moment. Bernini’s sculptural skills are clear to see in the carving of Daphne with her flowing hair and fingers branching into leaves.
5. David, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1624 – 1624)
Bernini’s giant slayer is coiled like a spring, ready for action.
His body is twisted, brows knitted, lips pursed, eyes focused on his target. It’s said that David’s face is a self-portrait.
Compare this to Michelangelo’s apprehensive, pretty-boy David, one of the most famous sculptures of the Renaissance.
6. Rape of Persephone, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (c. 1621)
The Rape of Persephone is one of the early masterpieces by Bernini made for Borghese. Even at the tender age of 24, the sculptor was a master of marble.
Pluto, king of the underworld, tries to abduct Persephone. But she is having none of it and struggles to flee from his embrace. Take a look at his hand digging into her thigh.
Cerebus, her three-headed hound of Hell, sits at Persephone’s leg, mouth open in an eternal bark.
Caravaggio Masterpieces in the Borghese Gallery
With its stash of six artworks by the bad boy of Baroque art, the Borghese Gallery has the largest collection of Caravaggio paintings in the world.
7. Self Portrait as Bacchus, Caravaggio (c. 1594)
Also known as Young Sick Bacchus and the Boy Crowned with Ivy, this is an early self-portrait by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. It was bought by Cardinal Scipione from Giuseppe Cesari, Caravaggio’s early employer, in 1607.
But why is it also known as Young Sick Bacchus? Caravaggio was ill at the time he painted it and liver disease had caused yellow pigmentation of his skin and eyes.
8. Boy with a Basket of Fruit, Caravaggio (c. 1594)
The model for this superb still-life was Caravaggio’s friend, the 16-year-old Sicilian painter Mario Minniti. This early Caravaggio oozes sensuality.
A beautiful youth coquettishly tilts his head, his shirt falling from one shoulder, whilst clutching the basket of fruit to his chest. Caravaggio renders the fruit in delicious detail, from the velvety peaches to the bright glossy apples.
9. Madonna of the Palafrenieri, Caravaggio (1605)
Way to mark your card with the Vatican!
Caravaggio was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for St. Peter’s Basilica that depicted the Virgin Mary expelling evil in the form of a snake. He must have known that he would outrage the religious powers by using an instantly recognisable prostitute as the model for Mary. St Anne is an elderly peasant woman and Jesus is totally naked.
Deemed unsuitable for St Peters – it hung there for two days only – Madonna of the Palafrenieri was snapped up by Scipione for a song.
10. St. Jerome, Caravaggio (1605)
Cardinal Scipione commissioned this painting of the Roman priest who translated the Bible into Latin.
With the lifelike St Jerome sporting a brilliant red cloak, this striking image has been pared back to basics by Caravaggio’s skilled use of light. Look at the way his outstretched arm leads your eye to the skull, which symbolises mortality.
11. David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio (c. 1610)
Also painted for Scipione, the head of Goliath is Caravaggio’s self-portrait.
David dangles the severed head of his defeated foe for all to see. A sword in his hand has the inscription H-AS OS, which is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase humilitas occidit superbiam (“humility kills pride”).
12. Young St. John the Baptist, Caravaggio (c. 1610)
This is one of at least eight paintings of John the Baptist by Caravaggio. Draped against a crimson cloak, Young St. John the Baptist is the artist’s last known work.
It was gifted to Cardinal Scipione in exchange for a papal pardon for a murder that Caravaggio had committed. The painter hoped that this would allow him to return from exile in Sicily to Rome
Borghese Gallery Highlights: Other Paintings
13. Sacred and Profane Love, Titian (1514)
I’m a huge Titian fangirl and have been lucky enough to visit Urbino, his hometown
This early masterpiece was painted for the wedding of Niccolò Aurelio, a secretary to the Venice Council of Ten, and Laura Bagarotto. Over the past 500 years, there have been many interpretations of this enigmatic painting and the jury is still out.
The consensus is that the richly-dressed woman on the left is ”profane love”. The naked woman is “sacred love.”
14. Venus Blindfolding Cupid, Titian (c. 1565)
This later painting by Titian shows Venus winding a ribbon around Cupid’s head, attended by two female figures, one holding a bow, the other a quiver with arrows.
15. Lady with a Unicorn, Raphael (c. 1505)
I adore the composition, simplicity and grace of this, one of Raphael’s most famous portraits.
Striking the pose of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the sitter cradles a unicorn, a symbol of chastity. Just look at her coiled golden hair and the exquisite jewel dangling from her neck.
Its composition, placing the subject in a loggia opening out onto a landscape, also echoes Mona Lisa.
16. Danae, Antonio Corregio (c. 1530)
We have the Emilian artist Correggio to thank for the last in my list of Borghese Gallery masterpieces. Forming part of his important commission for the Duke of Mantua, it is his only painting hanging in Rome.
It depicts the Greek mythological figure Danae, daughter of Acrisius, king of Argos. She is visited by Jupiter, who has been transformed into a shower of gold, which Cupid helps her collect using a bedsheet.
Two putti, or amoretti, hold an arrow at the foot of her bed. They use a touchstone to test the endurance of love, which risks being corrupted by gold.
Visiting the Borghese Gallery: What You Need to Know
If you have your heart set on visiting Galleria Borghese, you need to plan ahead. This is not a place to wing it once you land in Rome.
Here’s what you need to know to make it happen.
Borghese Gallery opening hours
The Borghese Gallery is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 9 am to 7 pm (last admission at 5.45 pm). It is closed on 25 December.
You can check opening times here.
How to get to Borghese Gallery
It’s safe to say that the Borghese Gallery is not the easiest museum in Rome to reach using public transport.
I took the lovely 20-minute walk through the Borghese Gardens from Flaminio metro station (Line A) at Piazza del Popolo. Take the steps to the left of Santa Maria del Popolo to reach the gardens and follow the signs from here.
Try to build in time to take in one of my favourite views in Rome from the Pincio Terrace, which overlooks Piazza del Popolo.
It’s also a 20-minute walk from Barberini station (Line B).
Local buses are available from both metro stations. The bus stops closest to Galleria Borghese are S.Paolo del Brasile and Pinciana/Museo Borghese.
Other transport options are local taxis and Uber.
Buying Borghese Gallery tickets & cost
This is the one museum in Rome where it is mandatory to buy your ticket in advance. As Galleria Borghese is popular and visitor numbers are capped, you should book your ticket as soon as possible.
The cheapest way of doing this is via the Galleria Borghese official website here. As of July 2023, a full-price ticket for Borghese Gallery costs €12 plus a compulsory €2 reservation fee (increased to €3 until September 2023). Ticket prices may increase when temporary exhibitions are held.
Discounts are available for EU citizens between the ages of 18 to 26 years of age. Although entry is free for those under 18 years of age, a 2-euro reservation fee applies.
Access to the museum is free on the first Sunday of the month, subject to booking fees. Book well in advance.
Annual passes are also available for longer-term visitors to Rome.
Is the Borghese Gallery included in the Roma Pass?
What should I do if tickets are not available for my dates?
All is not lost if tickets are not available through the museum’s website.
Although you will pay a premium, you can try to buy a ticket through a third-party reseller. The advantage of purchasing your Borghese gallery tickets this way is that you benefit from escorted entrance through security and you can usually cancel for free up to 24 hours in advance if your plans change.
>>> CLICK HERE TO BUY YOUR SKIP-THE-LINE TICKET
Borghese Gallery Tours: Self-guided or Guided?
You have two options for exploring the Borghese Gallery’s collection.
All of the artworks in the collection are clearly labelled and there are QR codes that you can scan for more information or an audio clip. As free guides go, the information is decent but is only available for selected works.
A better option is the museum’s audioguide, which you can rent for €5 at the desk next to the ticket office. A photo ID is required.
Borghese Gallery guided tours
To get the very best out of your visit, I recommend joining a guided tour.
The museum runs tours in English and Italian which cost €8 in addition to the ticket price and booking fee. You can book your guided tour at the same time as purchasing your ticket.
Go to the official website to find out about times.
Alternatively, you can book a guided tour of the Borghese Gallery with a third-party provider.
This is an excellent option if you want to keep your plans flexible – you can usually cancel these tours for free up to 24 hours in advance – or the times of the museum-led tours don’t fit with your schedule.
Here are a few good options:
This 2.5-hour tour not only includes a fully-guided tour of the museum’s must-see artworks, but it also takes in the wonderful Borghese Gardens (I recommend visiting these gardens after your visit).
>>> CLICK HERE TO CHECK PRICES
If you don’t want to stick with a group, take a look at this private tour of the Borghese Gallery with an art historian. At three hours long, it’s more extensive than most group tours and a great option if you are with one or two others.
However, as a minimum of two adults is needed, this is not for you if you are a solo traveller to Rome.
>>> CLICK HERE TO CHECK PRICES
Finally, if you are looking for a guided tour that includes transport from your hotel or apartment in Rome, take a look at this 2.5-hour experience. It will be pricey if you are travelling alone but a good option for a small group of people.
>>> CLICK HERE TO CHECK PRICES
What is the best time to visit the Borghese Gallery?
Thanks to the limitation on visitor numbers, the Borghese Gallery is never rammed. But if you want a quieter visit, try to visit from Tuesday through Friday, preferably when the museum opens or mid to late afternoon.
Can I take photos at the Borghese Gallery?
You can take personal photos without flash in the Borghese Gallery. However, during temporary exhibitions, photography may be prohibited at the museum.
Tripods, monopods and selfie sticks are not allowed.
Eating & drinking at the Borghese Gallery
There is an uninspiring small cafe that serves drinks and light refreshments onsite.
Other useful information for visiting Galleria Borghese
Only small bags are allowed into the gallery’s rooms. Larger items can be checked for free in the cloakroom. Just leave enough time to do this before your visit (those two hours are precious!).
Food and drink, including bottles of water, are not allowed inside the gallery.
Is the Borghese Gallery Worth It?
As one of the world’s most sumptuous art collections, visiting the Borghese Gallery is well worth two hours of your time. This beautifully curated gallery will not fail to impress and its modest size and lack of crowds only add to its appeal.
More Art in Italy
I hope that my guide to the masterpieces of the Borghese Gallery has sparked your curiosity and helps you plan your visit.
If this has been useful, you may enjoy some of my other guides to art in Italy: