Sunday, May 15, 2011

Borghese Hermaphroditus

When I was writing about Roman galleries and palaces and museums I left out the most magnificent single one, the Villa Borghese. I did show various curious bits of the park and gardens here and here. Inside the building, though, it was a struggle not to feel overwhelmed. The closest parallel would be the Frick Collection in New York – every single piece a masterpiece and there are so many in one place. The brain begins to smoke like an overheated engine.

The Borghese Hermaphroditus is an ancient Roman marble statue resting on a Baroque-period marble mattress –

"The first example to be discovered, in the first decades of the seventeenth century, was unearthed in the grounds of Santa Maria della Vittoria, near the Baths of Diocletian and within the bounds of the Gardens of Sallust; the discovery was made either when the church foundations were being dug (in 1608) or when espaliers were being planted. The sculpture was presented to the connoisseur, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who in return granted the order the services of his architect Giovanni Battista Soria and paid for the façade of the church, albeit sixteen years later. In his new Villa Borghese, a room called the 'Room of the Hermaphrodite' was devoted to it. In 1620 Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Scipione's protégé, was paid sixty scudi for making the buttoned mattress upon which the Hermaphroditus reclines, so strikingly realistic that visitors are inclined to give it a testing prod." 

I wish I had seen this work in the Room of the Hermaphrodite. I did see the Room of the Hermaphrodite but did not see this sculpture – because it has been in the Louvre for the past 200 years, one of the cultural casualties that indirectly followed when the Borghese married into the Bonapartes. Another similar antique sleeping hermaphrodite was dug up in Rome in 1781, and the Borghese were able to obtain that one too, and it is very nice in its way and looks right at home in the Room of the Hermaphrodite – except that it does not, of course, have a Bernini mattress.