Cardinal Scipione Borghese – between nepotist and passionate collector

Cardinal Scipione Borghese had an unrestrained passion for collecting, to the point that it can be said that he was born with the concept of collector and ended the concept of patron.

Until the end of the eighteenth century nobody exceeded his collection in quantity and quality. Scipione Borghese was not an intellectual, like many collectors of his time, but the greatest promoter of absolute artists like Bernini and Caravaggio and an irreplaceable collector of masterpieces that also included Raphael, Titian and many Roman classics.

He had a formidable eye and was ready for anything to get what he wanted, completely unscrupulous. For instance, he took a Raphael Deposition from the church of San Francesco di Perugia thanks to an act ‘Motu Proprio’ by which the pope confiscated it from the previous owners, to whom he gave two good copies of paintings in exchange.

Similarly, Scipione Borghese, always by way of a papal act, confiscated 105 works from the Cavalier d’Arpino, among which were some of his student Caravaggio, because he had not paid enough taxes to the papacy.

Scipione was born in Artena in 1576 son of Francesco Caffarelli and Ortensia Borghese, sister of Pope Paul V. He studied philosophy in the Roman College and Law at the University of Perugia. He took the maternal surname right after his uncle’s pontificate, which in 1605, shortly after his election, made him become ‘cardinal nepote’, a title that would be abolished in 1692.

In private life Scipione created real scandals and was repeatedly described as inclined towards his own sex. An event had much resonance both on a private and public level when Scipione in 1605, just having been made Cardinal, wanted to take his “intimate” friend known to the university, Stefano Pignatelli, with him in Rome.

The scandal was such that Cardinal Scipione Borghese fell ill and healed only with the arrival in Rome of Stefano Pignatelli. The pope-uncle understood he had Pignatelli put on his priestly habit and brought him to become a cardinal. Just on the occasion of this appointment a savage pasquinata was written, a type of satire very common in Rome that takes its name from a statue in Trastevere.

But Scipione Borghese was great and destined to have important functions such as the control of the Secretariat of State. Cardinal Borghese tried in every way to strengthen the position of his family in the high Roman aristocracy, trying to undermine the old hegemony of the Colonna and the Orsini.

Despite the nepotistic practice, he was unable to benefit from the assignment of a fief, but with the benefits and income of the administrative offices he bought the possessions of Montefortino (now Artena) and Olevano Romano from Francesco Colonna, and many other properties of the Agro. Roman. ‘Cardinal nepote’ succeeded in concentrating in his hands the supremacy of the other aristocratic centres.

The style of life of Cardinal Scipione Borghese approached that of a prince: “the one who owns the Borghese house not only overcomes the conditions of private lords and princes, but also gets ahead of those of the same kings“.

On the death of Pope Paul V, the House of the Borghese family was the richest and most powerful family dynasty ever to have been in Rome. Cardinal Borghese had been able to secure loyal friends and was able to retain many followers within the Sacred College.

In the following years the Cardinal continued his work of patron and collector with increasing passion.

For a long time, Rome had not seen a patron of such fine intelligence and such liberality as this Nepote. Passionate in equal measure of the music and the arts of drawing, he collected with fine taste and tirelessly throughout Italy and works of art that flowed from all sides, both as gifts and as purchases.” »

The work to which his fame remains linked is constituted by the famous and grandiose Villa Borghese (with the annexed building of the casino and the park comprising a perimeter of three miles), between Porta Flaminia and Porta Pinciana, erected between 1613 and 1621. Inside the park, the main building is still the Galleria Borghese built just to host its art collection which, although partly dispersed by his heirs over the centuries, is still one of the major classical art museums From Rome.

Scipione Borghese died in Rome on 2 October 1633 and was buried in the Borghese chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore.

In 1901 Villa Borghese was bought by the Italian State that then donated it to the municipality of Rome, which transformed it into one of the most beautiful public parks worthy of a capital of the world. In this park are held international events such as the famous Equestrian Competition in Piazza di Siena.

A note: in 1803 Camillo Borghese, one of the descendants, married Paolina Bonaparte the sister of Napoleon to whom he had a famous portrait made with a sculpture by Canova. Napoleon requisitioned 344 pieces from the Borghese Collection but Camillo, who perhaps inherited his family’s passion for art, enriched the Galleria Borghese with many other works of art that we can still admire today.

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