RESEARCH, CONVERSATION, GENEROSITY. Francesca Cappelletti was appointed Director of Galleria Borghese in Rome in 2020. A professor of the history of modern art at the University of Ferrara, she studied in Rome at the “La Sapienza” University, in London at the Warburg Institute, and in Paris at the Collège de France. Francesca contributed to the rediscovery of Caravaggio’s painting The Taking of Christ, now in Dublin, and in the course of her career has conducted many other important research, curating and organisational activities.

Francesca Cappelletti, how do you feel about being appointed Director of Galleria Borghese?

Being at the Galleria Borghese is a way of reconnecting with the subject of all my studies until now, because I used to be a Caravaggio scholar, and I wrote a lot about Baroque collections in Rome, also with great attention to the theme of the display of works of art in 17th century Rome. Rome at that time was the place from which all the other courts in Europe took their examples for collecting and for showing art.

Why is the Galleria Borghese so important?

Even today when visitors come to the Galleria Borghese they can realise how the high life of the Baroque times was at the beginning of the 17th century in Rome. Scipione Borghese, the nephew of Pope Paul V, enjoyed great power, so he was able to commission a lot of very important works from the main artists living in Rome, but not only this, he was able to buy – or simply to take – a lot of masterpieces from other collections, from churches, or paintings that were in the possession of other people in Rome. For example Cavalier d’Arpino was an important painter at that time and he had a house full of paintings left there by his collaborators and fellow artists, and amongst those there were paintings by Caravaggio; and Scipione Borghese was able to take all the collection in 1607. That’s why two masterpieces by Caravaggio, Boy with a Basket of Fruit and Bacchus, are still in the collection.

“It’s the only museum to own such a high number of paintings by Caravaggio.”

Francesca Cappelletti

Sala di Caravaggio, Galleria Borghese © Galleria Borghese

Francesca Cappelletti, how many Caravaggio paintings are in the Galleria Borghese?

Now we have six. It’s the only museum to own such a high number of paintings by Caravaggio. But at the end of the 17th century there were 13, so Scipione Borghese had an even greater number of paintings by Caravaggio.

What happened to the others?

They were dispersed, and maybe one or two or attributed to Caravaggio were not by him, but in any case there were at least 10. At the beginning of the 19th century some of them were put on the market. One of those, The Supper at Emmaus, is now in the National Gallery of London, but it used to be one of the most important Caravaggio paintings in the Borghese.

What do you feel about some of the other wonderful paintings?

Having paintings dating to the Renaissance was a kind of distinction amongst the Roman collectors of the Baroque age. The most important of them tried to enrich their households with paintings by Titian and Raphael. This could also better the social status of the family, because these paintings from another century spoke of the culture of their very rich owner. It was so rare to have Raphael and Titian in a collection. This made the collection here one of the best and most charming of that time.

Galleria Borghese is also a museum of sculpture.

Yes, and sculpture is so important for the Borghese gallery because at a certain point in the story of this villa it was understood as a place in which ancient culture was confronted by masterpieces by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. This dialogue, and also this tension, between the most studied and perfect masterpieces of ancient times and the new interpretation of the antique provided by the Baroque language of Bernini was something that was really peculiar to this place. Some of the examples of ancient culture collected here by Scipione Borghese were very dramatic, so probably they provided inspiration to Gian Lorenzo Bernini. I’m talking about the Gladiator. Some of these very beautiful antiques are now in the Louvre in Paris because they were sold at the beginning of the 19th century, but they were here. We mustn’t forget how this vision of antique culture could be a source of inspiration for all the artists coming to the Villa Borghese, not only sculptors but also painters.

One iconic masterpiece is the sculptural portrait of Paolina Borghese commissioned by Prince Camillo Borghese in 1804 from Antonio Canova.

The masterpiece by Canova was commissioned for the wedding of Camillo Borghese with Paolina Bonaparte in 1803, and Paolina is represented as Venus. This is one of the last versions of the modern Venus that artists used to portray the famous women of the Renaissance, but we can see in this beautiful, incredibly carved marble by Canova that the myth of Venus was never to die. Antiquity was always speaking a new language and was present in the mind of the artist as the model of the goddess of beauty and love. 

“We have to share all the knowledge we produce with everyone, everywhere in the world.”

Francesca Cappelletti, how can you exhibit contemporary artists amidst all these masterpieces?

It’s very difficult. A museum is never a repository of inanimate objects, it must be a place in which the experience of the viewer is always contemporary. You have always to understand something more, something that you didn’t know before you come to a museum.  Sometimes it’s possible to organise exhibitions like the one we have on now about the practice of painting on stone. That originated from our collection when the museum was closed and we were thinking more about the works we had in storage. We realised that a lot of them were painted on stone and so we tried to restore them, to study them and to understand why they were collected in the 17th century. The most interesting collectors in Europe, even Cardinal Mazarin, loved these works made with precious stones, and we have now the exhibition A Timeless Wonder: Painting on Stone in Rome in the Cinquecento and Seicento that allows us to understand more a part of the collection that is not on show a lot.

From March until June 2023 you have an exhibition of Giuseppe Penone. Is this part of a tradition of showing famous contemporary artists as you did a few years ago with Damien Hirst?

The exhibition of Giuseppe Penone that we are organizing and currently working on is the conclusion of research that we made for three years on the idea of materials.  I mentioned this exhibition of paintings on stone and materials and the creativity of the artists, and Giuseppe Penone fits perfectly into our research, which I’m so happy to conclude with a contemporary exhibition of Giuseppe Penone, both inside and outside, as we will also have his works in the garden. This is a way of reconnecting with our past, with the idea that all sculptures and paintings could take inspiration from the natural world. The idea was not to have something contemporary at the Galleria Borghese, but to find an artist that could conclude this research project on natural materials and art.

Research and study is important at the Galleria Borghese. Are you extensively online?

Yes, we have worked a lot on the digital catalogue, and tried to increase our presence on the web because in a sense we were forced to do so during the pandemic, when we gave virtual tours of the museum. We tried to not lose our connection with our public, and so our audiences became more interested in this kind of digital activity even once museums reopened. During this past two years I realised that our online catalogue was not so modern, and we had the time to work on it. Now we have all our works of art online and everyone can check on them; you can read beautiful essays and see photographs and images on each work of art here at the Borghese, and so it’s possible to go across the catalogue and to read the deeper biography and to search for other similar works in other repositories online. Everything is more modern and – I know that this word is one of the most used now for museums, but it’s something that we have to realise – it is more accessible. I want the museum to be open, to be friendly and to be generous. We have to share all the knowledge we produce with everyone, everywhere in the world.

Is the Galleria Borghese open every day including holidays?

We will be open on January 1st, the first Sunday of the month. Sometimes the museum has to close, because we do a lot of maintenance works inside and we need some days to do those, but even when the museum is closed formally, the doors are closed but we are always here working. To work in a museum is not only to let people in, but it is conservation, maintenance work, planning restoration, planning renovation of the building. We have a lot of things to do when the museum is closed, but we keep the days of closure really at the minimum.

How many visitors are there?

The maximum is 1800 a day and we always have this number of visitors. The Borghese Gallery is one of the most visited museums in Rome.

Francesca Cappelletti

Facade of Galleria Borghese, photo Luciano Romano © Galleria Borghese

Francesca Cappelletti

Caravaggio, Madonna dei Palafrenieri, Galleria Borghese, photo Mauro Coen © Galleria Borghese

Francesca Cappelletti

Titian, Amor sacro e amor profano, Galleria Borghese, photo Mauro Coen © Galleria Borghese

Francesca Cappelletti

Canova, Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix (“Venus Victorious”), Galleria Borghese © Galleria Borghese

Francesca Cappelletti

Ratto di Proserpina © Galleria Borghese

Francesca Cappelletti

Caravaggio, San Gerolamo, Galleria Borghese, photo Mauro Coen © Galleria Borghese

“I had three key words at the beginning: research, conversation and generosity.”

 Francesca Cappelletti, do you lend some of your masterpieces to other major museums?

First of all, it depends on the condition of the work, so the first people to be asked at the Galleria Borghese are the restorers. If they say, okay, it can travel, then we have to check on the scientific purposes and the reasons why the work is asked for. It is always difficult to let masterpieces travel but if there is a good reason to do so we consider the request very carefully. I’m in favour of loans, because it’s good to have the possibility to contribute to wonderful exhibitions or to important initiatives abroad.

Is it very different to see a masterpiece on a website rather than in presence?

It’s impossible to have the same experience online compared to what you can get from a physical visit to a museum. It’s not only the fact that you can see the paintings or the works of art you wanted to see in the flesh, but it is also the idea of travel, the fact that you are in the same space in which the work is. It is completely different, but I have to confess that sometimes the perfection of the details is more carefully understood through the incredible new photographs and illustrations that you can take and reproduce on screen with the possibility of enlarging, for example, drawings or small details. So now you can have both. You can experience the place, and the fact that you are finally and eventually in front of the work you sought so much to see, and in another sense, if you want to study it carefully, if you have all these other materials from the web, it is probably something that can complete your experience of the work. But nothing can be the same as being in front of The Boy with a Basket of Fruit.

Can you imagine the Paolina in the Villa Borghese being somewhere else?  

No. It’s not possible to be moved. It’s not only the idea of getting to the place in which the Paolina has been since 1830 something, but it’s also the idea that for this particular masterpiece you have to come here. There is no other option.

What are the objectives of your directorship?

I had three key words at the beginning: research, conversation and generosity. We are starting a research project on Baroque collecting in Rome and Europe, and so we will collect all the documents and put them online. For conversation I intend to connect more with the town of Rome, to work with the municipality in the gardens and to understand more about what our public needs. For generosity it is shared knowledge, and we are also working on this more traditionally, organizing exhibitions. These exhibitions will always be created starting from our collections, and so one of the next exhibitions will be on Rubens and van Dyck and the travels of Northern artists to Rome and their place in Rome. How foreign artists tried to establish human relations when they were in Rome, became friends and started to work together, and the workshops became more effective. We would like to investigate how these affected even the artistic languages in the Baroque era. We discovered that around 1620 they really looked very closely into some of the works here. Rubens and van Dyck in Rome, and not only in Rome, but in the Galleria Borghese.

Rome at that time was a melting pot. Did the painters coming from all over Europe influence each other?

Yes, Rubens came at the very beginning of the 17th century, but in the 1620s this city was really a place where artists came from everywhere; from the north of Europe, but also from Spain, from France. There was a sort of informal academy, and this is something that happened only in Rome, we don’t have other examples. It’s very interesting how Rome was such a different the city from every other place in Europe. They were foreign people and they were young, and they were always trying to help each other. We have this kind of naturalism that was the great revolution operated by Caravaggio at the beginning of the century, but 20 years after we have people who developed and understood nature in very many different ways.

Are young people today interested in old art and visiting the Galleria Borghese?

During the pandemic a lot of young people saw not only contemporary art museums but also museums like the Galleria Borghese on the web. They became familiar with these kinds of places, and now we have a higher percentage of people under 25 years coming to the Galleria Borghese. The number has really increased.

Are you therefore optimistic about the future?

Definitely. We have to rely on young people because they will be the future. They will be in charge of our museums, so they have to start learning now to love these places and to understand their roots in the past. There are all these possibilities of being so inspiring for contemporary artists and for contemporary creativity.

Thank you very much Francesca, and good luck to you and Galleria Borghese.

All images courtesy of Galleria Borghese.