If I could stand in one place to watch modern day history unfold, I’d stand over Italy for its centuries of art history. This summer, I was extremely fortunate to visit the basilicas and castles sprinkled throughout the canals of Venice, the famous Uffizi and Accademia in Florence that represent the heart of the Renaissance, and, in Rome, works that have only earned more brilliance and appreciation throughout time, from sites such as the Colosseum, the Pantheon, Vatican City, and modern museums.
How much of Italy’s marvelous art history can be condensed into two hours? The Galleria Borghese, which exhibits art from classical antiquity to the Neoclassical period, allows viewers to enter for preset, two-hour periods, by reservation only. Instead of taking my time to wander through the galleries as I normally do, or knowing that I could only spend a certain amount of time at the museum due to other commitments, I had my first experience viewing art under a time constraint that was not my own.
First in line, I waited excitedly to enter the galleries starting at 10:30 am for my 11 am – 1 pm reservation. Upon entering, I wanted to rush straight to the famous sculptures of Bernini: Apollo and Daphne, The Rape of Proserpina, and David, as well as Antonio Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte, all on the zero floor (in Italy, the ground floor is called the zero floor, and what Americans would call the second floor is called the first floor). Everyone else must have had the same idea. While the crowds were very controlled due to the reservation-only nature of the gallery, it was difficult to become intimate with the sculptures among the tourists taking pictures and art students furiously sketching the sculptures in notebooks.
After a cursory look at the crowds, and remembering my terrible experience the day before with the crowds in the Vatican Museums, I decided to ascend to the empty first floor to look at the paintings. Caravaggio, Titian, Rubens, Veronese, Raphael, Parmigiano— masters of the 16th century plastered every wall. A feeling of loneliness in these deserted rooms caused me to muse on the intricacies of the museum curators’ placements that quickly began to jump out at me. One room had paintings from Titian’s youth hanging on one wall, and paintings from his more mature style on the reverse wall, allowing the viewer to see Titian’s fluid development as an artist, specifically through his use of color and brushstrokes. Another room was full of paintings by Caravaggio, or so I thought. Other less famous artists’ works, in the same dramatic, tenebristic style I’ve come to recognize as Caravaggio’s were interspersed between his works, emphasizing his influence during the Baroque period. I do not think any other collection of paintings is as dense and masterly enough to evoke such a visceral and curious reaction from a viewer.
The more relaxed feel to the first floor gave me time to appreciate the detailing in the painted walls and ceilings, as well as the marble patterns and mosaics on the floor. Everything was gorgeous and I lost track of time. Ninety minutes into my two hour time slot, I decided to go back to the zero floor in a second attempt to see the sculptures. To my surprise, the zero floor was nearly empty (perhaps visitors had left after seeing the famous sculptures, missing the paintings on the first floor), and I could view the famous works in their full glory, uninterrupted by anything or anyone.
Galleria Borghese gave me more than a thorough and illuminating history of art in Italy, as filtered by the eyes of a collector. Galleria Borghese showed me sculptures that truly came to life in my mind, something I probably will never experience again. The flesh on The Rape of Proserpina appeared soft and tender; I wish I could reach out and stroke the pillows on which Pauline Bonaparte was lying. Bernini’s David rivaled its more famous counterpart, Michelangelo’s David. Because the gallery controls its crowds, there are few roped-off sections of the museum, allowing me to be within one foot of these masterpieces, unlike in other museums where famous sculptures are roped off, distant and unwelcoming. I could also be the only viewer in the room, able to wander at will between rooms, whereas in other museums, visitors are packed like sardines into the room, shuttled down a predetermined path through the museum.
Though I had initially been intimidated by the time pressure at Galleria Borghese, I realized that time could and would stand still every time my gaze met these timeless sculptures and paintings. Never have I had such a perfect museum experience as I did in Galleria Borghese.