Begun in 1608 by Flaminio Ponzio and continued by Jan van Santen (Italianised to Giovanni Vasanzio) upon his death, the Casino Borghese was designed to house Cardinal Scipione Borghese's art collection. One of Bernini's greatest patrons, the cardinal had as good an eye for a bargain as for a masterpiece: he picked up many works - including the odd Caravaggio - at knock-down prices after they were rejected by the disappointed or shocked patrons who had commissioned them. The building's imposing façade was originally adorned with sculptures and ancient reliefs, which, along with many of the gallery's priceless gems, were sold to Napoleon in 1807 and are now conserved in the Louvre. The interior decoration - carried out in 1775-90 by Antonio Asprucci and Christopher Unterberger for Marcantonio IV Borghese - was fully restored in the 1990s.
Visits to the gallery are limited to two hours - sufficient given the building's compactness. With few rooms (but each more magnificent than the one before), the Galleria Borghese is as relaxing and enjoyable as the Vatican Museums can be daunting and agitating. A curved double staircase leads to the imposing entrance salon, with fourth-century AD floor mosaics showing gladiators fighting wild animals; the spectacular trompe l'oeil ceiling fresco (Mariano Rossi, 1775-78) shows Romulus received as a god on Olympus by Jupiter and other tales of Roman glory. Also here is the statue of Marcus Curtius throwing himself into a chasm. (According to legend, when a massive crack appeared in the Roman Forum, threatening to swallow up Rome, the only way to stop it was to sacrifice the city's greatest treasure… so in leaped golden-boy Marcus.) The sculpture is an interesting palimpsest: Marcus' horse dates from the second century, while Marcus himself is the c1618 work of Pietro Bernini (father of the more famous Gian Lorenzo); the whole lot was stuck to the wall in 1776 as part of the villa's 18th-century revamp.
In Room 1 is one of the gallery's highlights: Canova's 1808 waxed marble figure of Pauline, sister of Napoleon and wife of Prince Camillo Borghese, as a topless Venus reclining languidly on a marble and wood sofa, which once contained a mechanism that slowly rotated it. Prince Camillo thought the work so provocative that he forbade even the artist from seeing it after completion. (Asked by a shocked friend how she could bear to pose naked, the irascible Pauline is said to have snapped: 'The studio was heated').
Rooms 2 to 4 contain some spectacular sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, made early in his career and already showing his genius. His David (1624) merits observation from different points of view in Room 2; the tense, concentrated face on the biblical hero as he is about to launch his shot is a self-portrait of the artist. Room 3 houses perhaps Bernini's most famous piece: Apollo and Daphne (1625), a seminal work of Baroque sculpture. As the nymph flees the amorous sun god, her desperate plea for help is answered by her river-god father; as Apollo reaches her she morphs - fingertips first - into a laurel tree. Ovid's tale was given a moral twist by Maffeo Barberini - later Pope Urban VIII - who composed the Latin inscription on the base: 'When we pursue fleeting pleasures, we reap only bitter fruits'). Bernini's virtuosity is especially evident in the cluster of paper-thin marble leaves separating the god and the girl. In Room 4, Pluto's hand presses into Proserpine's marble thigh in The Rape of Proserpine (1622), as she flexes her toes in tearful struggle.
Room 5 contains important pieces of classical sculpture, many of them Roman copies of Greek originals. Among the most renowned are a Roman copy of a Greek dancing faun and a copy of sleeping Hermaphroditus, offspring of Hermes and Aphrodite, displayed with his/her back to the onlooker so that the breasts and genitals are invisible. Bernini's Aeneas and Anchises (1620) dominates Room 6, showing the family fleeing as Troy burns, a theme reflected in the ceiling with Pecheux's painting of the gods deciding the fate of the city. Room 7 is Egyptian-themed: the ceiling paintings by Tommaso Maria Conca (1780) include an allegory of the richness of Egypt, while among the classical statues is a second-century Isis with black marble clothing.
The six Caravaggios in Room 8 include the Boy with a Basket of Fruit (c1594) and the Sick Bacchus (c1593), believed to be a self-portrait. His David with the Head of Goliath, also thought to be a self-portrait, was sent to Scipione Borghese as a desperate plea for pardon: since his exile for the murder of his opponent in a tennis match in 1606, the artist had been dogged by a terror of execution. The painting uses the same young model as St John the Baptist (1610), possibly Caravaggio's last painting. (Finally given a papal pardon in 1610, Caravaggio set sail for Rome but never made it; he was mistakenly arrested at Porto Ercole, where he became ill and died.)
Upstairs, the picture gallery is packed with one masterpiece after another. Look out in particular for: Raphael's Deposition, Pinturicchio's Crucifixion with Saints Jerome and Christopher and Perugino's Madonna and Child (Room 9); Correggio's Danaë, commissioned as 16th-century soft porn for Charles V of Spain (as told in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Jupiter - disguised as a 'golden shower' - attempted to seduce the reclining, half-naked maiden) and Lucas Cranach's Venus and Cupid with Honeycomb (Room 10); a dark, brooding Pietà by Raphael's follower Sodoma (Room 12); two self-portraits and two sculpted busts of Cardinal Scipione Borghese by Bernini (Room 14); Jacopo Bassano's Last Supper (Room 15); and Rubens' spectacular Pietà and Susanna and the Elders (Room 18). Titian's Venus Blindfolding Cupid and Sacred and Profane Love, the work that originally put the gallery on the map, are the centrepieces of Room 20. In 1899 the Rothschilds offered to buy the latter work at a price that exceeded the estimated value of the entire gallery and all of its works put together; the offer was turned down. Other highlights of Room 20 include works by Veronese, Giorgione and Carpaccio, and Portrait of a Man by Antonello da Messina.