The Borghese Gallery and the Capuchin Crypt: the Borghese and Barberini Families
Cardinal Maffeo Barberini (later Pope Urbanus VIII) owned property near the resort of Scipione Borghese, Pope Paul V’s Cardinal nephew. (In this case, “near” means that the two Cardinals owned sprawling estates that shared boundaries.) Maffeo, who was on good terms with the avid art collector Scipione, introduced him to a young sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Scipione recognized Bernini’s talent and bought one of the 16-year-old’s first works, a statue of the she-goat Amalthea. Bleating and harried by a baby Jove and satyr, who fumble under her thick wool to milk her, the statue reveals Bernini’s budding talent for tantalizing a viewer’s senses.
From 1618 to 1624, Bernini worked for the discerning Scipione Borghese, producing four, full-sized sculptures. These sculptures, in the Borghese collection, culminate in Bernini’s David. Not only the hero and liberator of the Jewish state, David composed the Old Testament Psalms and was often considered the “patron saint” of poets and artists. Therefore, it is no surprise that this masterpiece of grimacing tension (seen on the right or below) is actually Bernini’s self-portrait. His friend, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini is said to have held a mirror for the artist as he worked. (In 1624, Bernini abruptly stopped sculpting for Cardinal Borghese. Barberini had just been elected Pope Urbanus VIII and monopolized the young artist by naming him Head Architect of the Church of Saint Peter’s.)
Before enjoying Bernini’s stunning sculptures, we will admire Scipione’s superb collection of Caravaggios. These oil paintings, on display in one room, trace Caravaggio’s development as an artist. We will begin with his early pieces: a still life and the Sick Bacchus. After examining his controversial rendition of the Virgin Mary, his renowned Saint Jerome, and his portrayal of Saint John the Baptist, our visit culminates with Caravaggio’s spectacularly grim self-portrait, David and Goliath.
Not far from the Borghese Gallery is the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione. Underneath it is the famous Capuchin Crypt, better known as “the Bone Church.” When Maffeo Barberini became pope, his brother Antonio — a devote Capuchin, who was said to have possessed nothing but his clothes and a bible — traveled to Rome at his brother’s request. To strengthen their ties, the Pope built a monastery and church not far from the Barberini Palace. The Church’s crypt was then embellished using the bones of long-deceased Capuchin friars. The bones of circa 4000 bodies cover the walls and ceilings of four rooms, creating chandeliers, trellising gardens, and spiritual admonitions. See it to believe it!