Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 23, 2009
Carole Paul The Borghese Collections and the Display of Art in the Age of the Grand Tour Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008. 358 pp.; 24 color ills.; 104 b/w ills. Cloth $124.95 (9780754661344)

Carole Paul’s The Borghese Collections and the Display of Art in the Age of the Grand Tour is an analysis of the shifting attitudes toward collection and display—form, content, and contexts—in the world of Settecento Rome. With a focus on the Borghese’s Galleria Terrena, the suites where most of the family’s paintings hung, and the Casino Nobile, home to the sculptures, Paul examines the interrelated narratives of aristocratic patronage, grand tour sociability, the international aesthetic landscape, and the development of museums. Her arguments rest on a detailed reading of the redesign of the Borghese galleries under Prince Marcantonio Borghese IV and his architect, Antonio Asprucci, beginning in 1767 and continuing to 1800. Paul argues that the re-outfitting of the Galleria Terrena and the Casino Nobile was “one of the most significant cultural events in Rome during the age of the Grand Tour” (2). The analysis of this process sheds light on how these exhibition spaces became the high point of the princely display of antiquities and paintings in eighteenth-century Rome. As readers familiar with Paul’s earlier publications, especially Making a Prince’s Museum: Drawings for the Late-Eighteenth-Century Redecoration of the Villa Borghese (Los Angeles: Getty, 2000), will recognize, The Borghese Collections is the culmination of work that has been developing for some time. It extends many of the themes discussed in the earlier book by examining the entire aesthetic, iconographic, and didactic program of the late Settecento Borghese estate.

The Borghese Collections is composed of six chapters, beginning with a general contextualization of the Borghese galleries and their place within the culture of the Grand Tour. Chapters follow on the Galleria Terrena, the Villa Borghese, two on the Casino Nobile, and an epilogue describing the redesigned Casino Nobile’s and Galleria Terrena’s significance for the histories of exhibitions and museums. Two appendices include transcriptions from relevant seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sources. The third, and most useful appendix, is a “Register of Contracts and Payment Records” for the redesign of both structures. It is to Ashgate’s credit that they have included these appendices. With the book’s 24 color plates and 104 black-and-white illustrations, scholars have a definitive source for the history of Prince Marcantonio Borghese IV’s redecoration of his estate. Unfortunately, however, the book lacks a bibliography, and citations are limited to endnotes at the completion of every chapter. This is a significant omission, and even a short, select bibliography would have been useful to scholars.

When Prince Marcantonio Borghese IV and his architect redesigned the Galleria Terrena and the Casino Nobile, they were left to decide what the disposition of the paintings might look like. On the one hand, they could perpetuate the style dominant in Italian collections: an “unsystematic” arrangement consisting of a profusion of paintings, stacked up the walls, and crowding the space. Without labels, visitors could be overwhelmed without a cicerone to guide them through the gallery. On the other hand was the “mixed school” arrangement which one could see in a few French collections. This exhibition strategy grouped paintings by schools so that the viewer could compare the stylistic differences of various artistic traditions. Rarely historicized, the “mixed school” style appealed to connoisseurs more interested in symbolism and technique than historical development. Sculpture, however, was more likely to be displayed thematically. This was because collectors often used sculpture groupings to signify dynastic lineage or function as symbolic markers of their owners’ virtue. So, for example, collections such as the Villa Medici displayed cycles of sculptures to show the uomini illustri of antiquity. This linked the leaders of modern Italy to those of the classical world. When Donato Bramante planned the Vatican Cortile delle Statue in the early sixteenth century, the sculptural program linked Pope Julius II to the founding of Rome and Julius Caesar. With the addition of ceiling paintings to interior galleries, an owner could establish an entire symbolic system. Thus, sculpture, in combination with decorative painting on the walls and ceiling, gave Marcantonio and Asprucci the opportunity to create a cohesive iconographic program.

Paul deftly guides the reader through the redesign of the galleries, putting the Galleria Terrena and the Casino Nobile in the context of earlier building programs at the Villa Borghese as well as contemporary renovations by other aristocrats, such as those at the Casino Albani. While the rooms of the Galleria Terrena generally retained an “unsystematic” arrangement of paintings, a series of new ceiling paintings followed a slightly more cohesive program that focused on the greatness of Borghese patronage and political power through a complex cycle of imagery. This is most notable in the Audience Hall, which Paul analyzes to convincing effect. By the mid 1770s, work on the Galleria Terrena was complete, and the Borghese prince turned his attention to the Casino Nobile. In this building, Marcantonio and Asprucci created a more focused series of rooms. The theme of each room’s ceiling frescoes determined the room’s iconographic system and its meaning. On the ground floor, sculptures mirrored the overall program of each room. The decoration of the Salone, the central room in the Galleria Terrena, serves as an example. The sculpture included bas-reliefs, busts, and freestanding sculptures of ancient Roman heroes and mythological figures. The ceiling fresco, by Mariano Rossi, featured the Roman hero Marcus Furius Camillus. The sculptural program and the choice of Camillus referenced the founding of Rome and linked these early heroes to the Borghese. For instance, Pope Paul V was Camillo Borghese, and Marcantonio had named his own heir Camillo. Paul’s examination of the Salone and the other rooms is incisive, and it strongly supports her thesis that they worked as both panegyrics to the Borghese family and as a speculum principis for the Borghese heir. Thus, the Borghese galleries were the culmination of the princely museum, but they also had elements that pointed toward modern museum display.

Paul’s work fits into two interrelated themes in the study of Settecento art history: the history of the Grand Tour and the history of collecting and display. As a center of art patronage, first by the papacy and then by the Grand Tourists who flocked to the city, Rome was both a symbol of cultural progress and a center of artistic production. A destination city for those who wished to acquaint themselves with examples of the finest of ancient and modern art, Rome helped to set the example and the tone for collecting, display, and interpretation of art beyond the Alps. This was especially true of the Borghese collections, and the strategies for displaying them influenced later museums, notably the Louvre. As Paul explains, the symbolic presentation of familial heritage and princely virtue within the galleries was well adapted to suit post-revolutionary France’s developing languages of nationalism and civic virtue. The installation of “rational” exhibits at the Louvre, dividing sculpture from painting and further separating these works into chronological schools, was a continuation of a Roman innovation that had been forged, in part, by Prince Marcantonio Borghese IV and his architect, Asprucci.

In common with Christopher Johns’s Papal Art and Cultural Politics: Rome in the Age of Clement XI (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), Peter Bowron and Joseph Rishel’s Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2000), and Jeffrey Collins’s Papacy and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Rome (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), The Borghese Collections examines eighteenth-century Rome’s vibrant artistic climate. Whereas Johns and Collins are concerned with papal collections and display, Paul’s work reveals the extent to which Roman aristocrats both innovated and competed with the Vatican. When comparing Prince Marcantonio Borghese IV’s program to that sponsored by Pope Pius VI Braschi at the Pio-Clementino in the 1780s, it is clear that rivalries spurred, at least in part, both patronage and new schemes for display. Along with these earlier books, Paul’s work reveals the importance of collecting as a political strategy, and she explains the centrality of iconographic programs to their design.

The Borghese Collections and the Display of Art in the Age of the Grand Tour is essential reading for students of Settecento museums, architecture, design, and the Grand Tour. It confirms Prince Marcantonio Borghese IV’s redesign of the villa as an important moment in the history of the Grand Tour and the development of the museum. One hopes that similar works follow for other eighteenth-century European collections. In filling a gap in our knowledge of the Grand Tour, the book suggests directions for future research. The relationship between Roman villa architecture, design, and display, and its influence on the rest of Europe—and perhaps most significantly on the British—remains to be written. Likewise, the history of sociability within eighteenth-century exhibition spaces awaits further study. When these other histories are begun, Paul’s work will be indispensable.

Jason M. Kelly
Assistant Professor, Department of History, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis