Villa Borghese and Piazza del Popolo, Rome

Photo by AlexAnton from Shutterstock

Touring Rome’s artistic masterpieces while staying clear of its hustle and bustle can be, quite literally, a walk in the park. Some of the city’s finest sights are tucked away in or next to green lawns and pedestrian piazzas, offering a breath of fresh air for weary sightseers, especially in the Villa Borghese park. One of Rome’s largest, this park can alleviate gallery gout by offering an oasis in which to cool off under the ilex, oak, and umbrella pine trees. If you feel like a picnic, have an alimentari (food shop) make you some panini before you go; food carts within the park are overpriced.

Getting Here and Around

Electric bus No. 119 does a loop that connects Largo Argentina, Piazza Venezia, Piazza di Spagna, and Piazza del Popolo. The No. 117 connects Piazza del Popolo to Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum. The No. 116 motors through the Villa Borghese to the museum and connects the area with Piazza Navona, Campo de’ Fiori, and the Pantheon. Piazza del Popolo has a Metro stop called Flaminio.

Top Attractions

Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace).

This vibrant monument of the imperial age has been housed in one of Rome’s newest architectural landmarks: a gleaming, rectangular glass-and-travertine structure designed by American architect Richard Meier. Overlooking the Tiber on one side and the ruins of the marble-clad Mausoleo di Augusto (Mausoleum of Augustus), on the other, the result is a serene, luminous oasis right in Rome’s center. Opened in 2006, after a decade of bitter controversy over the monument’s relocation, the altar itself dates back to 13 BC; it was commissioned to celebrate the Pax Romana, the era of peace ushered in by Augustus’s military victories. It is covered with spectacular and moving relief sculptures.

Galleria Borghese.

It’s a real toss-up as to which is more magnificent: the villa built for Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1612, or the art that lies within. Despite its beauty, the villa never was used as a residence. Instead, the luxury-loving cardinal built it as a showcase for his fabulous collection of both antiquities and more “modern” works, including those he commissioned from the masters Caravaggio and Bernini. Today, it’s a monument to Roman interior decoration at its most extravagant. With the passage of time, however, the building has become less celebrated than the collections housed within, including one of the finest collections of Baroque sculpture anywhere in the world.

One of the most famous works in the collection is Canova’s Neoclassical sculpture of Pauline Borghese as Venus Victrix. Scandalously, Pauline reclines on a Roman sofa, bare-bosomed, her hips swathed in classical drapery, the very model of haughty detachment and sly come-hither. The next three rooms hold three key early Baroque sculptures: Bernini’s David, Apollo and Daphne, and Rape of Proserpina. The Caravaggio Room holds works by this hotheaded genius, who died of malaria at age 37. All of his paintings, even the charming Boy with a Basket of Fruit, seethe with an undercurrent of darkness. Upstairs, the Pinacoteca (Picture Gallery) boasts paintings by Raphael (including his moving Deposition), Pinturicchio, Perugino, Bellini, and Rubens. Probably the gallery’s most famous painting is Titian’s allegorical Sacred and Profane Love, a mysterious and yet-unsolved image with two female figures, one nude, one clothed.

Admission to the Museo is by reservation only. Visitors are admitted in two-hour shifts from 9 to 5. Prime-time slots can sell out days in advance, so in high season reserve by phone or directly through the Borghese’s website. You need to collect your reserved ticket at the museum ticket office a half hour before your entrance. However, when it’s not busy you can purchase your ticket at the museum for the next entrance appointment.

Piazza del Popolo.

With its obelisk and twin churches, this immense square is a famed Rome landmark. It owes its current appearance to architect Giuseppe Valadier, who designed it about 1820, also laying out the terraced approach to the Pincio and the Pincio’s gardens. It marks what was for centuries the northern entrance to the city, where all roads from the north converge and where visitors, many of them pilgrims, would get their first impression of the Eternal City. The desire to make this entrance to Rome something special had been a pet project of popes and their architects for more than three centuries. The piazza takes its name from the 15th-century church of Santa Maria del Popolo, huddled on the right side of the Porta del Popolo, or city gate. In the late 17th century, the twin churches of Santa Maria in Montesanto (on the left as you face them) and Santa Maria dei Miracoli (on the right) were added to the piazza at the point where Via del Babuino, Via del Corso, and Via di Ripetta converge. The piazza, crowded with fashionable carriages and carnival revelers in the past, is a pedestrian zone today. At election time, it’s the scene of huge political rallies, and on New Year’s Eve Rome stages a mammoth alfresco party in the piazza.

Santa Maria del Popolo.

Standing inconspicuously in a corner of the vast Piazza del Popolo, this church often goes unnoticed, but the treasures inside make it a must for art lovers, as they include an entire chapel designed by Raphael and one adorned with striking Caravaggio masterpieces. Bramante enlarged the apse of the church, which had been rebuilt in the 15th century on the site of a much older place of worship. Inside, in the first chapel on the right, you’ll see some frescoes by Pinturicchio from the mid-15th century; the adjacent Cybo Chapel is a 17th-century exercise in marble decoration. Raphael’s famous Chigi Chapel, the second on the left, was built around 1513 and commissioned by the banker Agostino Chigi (who also had the artist decorate his home across the Tiber, the Villa Farnesina). The Cerasi Chapel, to the left of the high altar, holds two Caravaggios, the Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion of St. Paul. Exuding drama and realism, both are key early Baroque works that show how “modern” 17th-century art can appear. Compare their style with the much more restrained and classically “pure” Assumption of the Virgin by Caravaggio’s contemporary and rival, Annibale Carracci; it hangs over the altar of the chapel.

Worth Noting

MAXXI—Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo (National Museum of 21st-Century Arts).
It took 10 years and cost some €150 million, but for lovers of contemporary art and architecture, Italy’s first national museum devoted to contemporary creativity was worth it. The building alone impresses; it plays with lots of natural light, curving and angular lines, and big open spaces, all meant to question the division between “within” and “without” (think glass ceilings and steel staircases that twist through the air). The MAXXI hosts temporary exhibits on art, architecture, film, and more. From the permanent collection, rotated through the museum, more than 350 works represent artists including Andy Warhol, Francesco Clemente, and Gerhard Richter.


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