Shortly after Camillo Borghese became Pope Paul V in 1605, his favourite nephew, 26-year-old Scipione Caffarelli Borghese, was made a cardinal. An obsessive love of the arts led Scipione to embark upon the creation of a pleasure park: the Villa Borghese. What began as a family vineyard was transformed, with the acquisition of surrounding lands, into one of the most extensive gardens in Rome since antiquity. A 'Theatre of the Universe', Scipione's vision was a place where sculpture, painting and music could be enjoyed alongside fossil specimens and technological oddities of the day such as orreries, special clocks and lenses. The harmoniously proportioned Casino nobile (now the Galleria Borghese) was designed to showcase these gems.
An impressive aviary (still visible to the left as you look at the façade of the Galleria Borghese) acted as a backdrop to the land surrounding the Casino, which alternated formal gardens dotted with exotic plants, fountains and statues with wilder stretches of landscape used for hunting. The villa soon became the place to be seen in 17th-century Rome, and the magnificent gardens were further embellished until Scipione's death in 1633. The result was a Baroque amusement park, complete with trick fountains that sprayed unwitting passers-by, automata and erotic paintings, menageries of wild beasts, and an alfresco dining room where the cardinal entertained with due magnificence on summer evenings. Successive generations of the Borghese family altered the park according to changing fashions, though Scipione's descendants proved themselves to be less artistically inclined than their keen-eyed predecessor, selling off a good deal of his priceless collection; one of the worst culprits was Napoleon's notorious sister Pauline, who married into the Borghese family in 1807.
When Rome became capital of a unified Italy, the clan looked set to sell off the estate
to property speculators. In a rare example of civic far-sightedness, the state stepped in, in 1901, wresting possession of the villa from the family in a bitter court battle and turning it
into a public park.
'The setting, the air, the chord struck, make it a hundred wonderful things,' mused Henry James on strolling around Villa Borghese. Today, the Borghese family's pleasure grounds are a popular spot for jogging, dog-walking, picnicking and cruising. The entire park has been spruced up in recent years, and a spate of arty projects such as the opening in 2006 of the Museo Carlo Bilotti, cemented its status as a 'park of the arts', of which its founder would have been proud.
A wander around Villa Borghese is a great way to recuperate from an overdose of carbon monoxide. Sporty types will find bicycles and in-line skates for hire, and the park can also be a pleasant place to work: there's free internet access at a number of 'wireless hotspots' around the park (see www.romawireless.com for details). Culture vultures head straight to three of Rome's greatest art repositories: the Galleria Borghese itself, the Etruscan museum at Villa Giulia and the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna. The park also houses the Casa del Cinema, inaugurated in September 2004, the Dei Piccoli children's cinema, the Bioparco-Zoo (see p260) and the Museo Civico di Zoologia. Viale delle Belle Arti and via Omero are crammed with academies and cultural institutes (see www.villaborghese.it for a full list), which put on occasional exhibitions and concerts. The British School at Rome (www.bsr.ac.uk), next door to the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in an imposing Lutyens-designed pavilion, hosts contemporary art exhibitions, events and lectures.
Other sights worth looking out for include the piazza di Siena, an elegantly-shaped grassy hippodrome used for glitzy showjumping events, and, nearby, the pretty Giardino del Lago, which has a small lake with rowing boats (for hire from 9.30am to sunset daily) and faux-ancient temples. There is also a good view of the Muro Torto section of the Aurelian Wall from the bridge between the Pincio and Villa Borghese. This was the only portion of Rome's ancient walls not repaired and strengthened by Belisarius, on the assurance of the citizens that St Peter himself would protect it; sure enough, the barbarians never attacked here. Once a favourite suicide spot, this is now strung with nets to make sure depressed Romans no longer disturb the traffic below.
Overlooking piazza del Popolo, and now an integral part of the Villa Borghese, is one of the oldest gardens in Rome: the Pincio. The Pinci family commissioned the first gardens here in the fourth century. The present layout was designed by Giuseppe Valadier in 1814. The garden is best known for its view of the Vatican at sunset, with the dome of St Peter's silhouetted in gold.
The paved area behind the viewpoint is popular with cyclists (bikes can be hired nearby) and skaters. To the south-east is the Casino Valadier. Once a tearoom, it is now a pricey restaurant with a to-die-for view. In the manicured green to the south-east sits the Villa Medici, since 1804 the French academy in Rome, where many French artists, from Ingres and David to Balthus, found inspiration. The academy hosts occasional art exhibitions (phone 06 67 611 or consult www.villamedici.it for programme information) and opens its lovely gardens to the public at weekends (10.30am and 11.30am Sat, Sun, tours in Italian and French only, €7, €4.50 concessions).
Between Villa Borghese and the river are two more museums: a striking art nouveau villa houses the Museo Hendrik Christian Andersen; the children's museum, Explora - Museo dei Bambini di Roma, is in a former bus depot.