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Villa Borghese

Text by Alberta Campitelli

The Villa Borghese is the most popular and best-loved of all the Roman parks and villas, especially by the Romans themselves who treasure it for its central location; its archaeological, historical, artistic and architectural importance; and its enchanting gardens. The estate comprises eighty hectares of land with an array of artistic and botanical features. There are two museums, one of which, the Borghese Gallery, is among the most important in Italy. There are also fourteen minor buildings, twenty monuments, thirty-five fountains, and more than one thousand pieces of sculpture including many ancient statues. In addition, there is an impressive diversity of plant species and some trees are as precious as works of art. Its importance, moreover, derives from the fact that among the numerous Roman villas built by noble families during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, it was the first to be purchased by the State and connected to a public park that was opened in 1903.

The origin

The gardens date to 1606 when Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1576–1633), the powerful nephew of Pope Paul V, decided to transform a small vineyard that the family owned just outside the walls of Rome into a luxurious residence as a symbol of their power and social standing. After enlarging the property, the cardinal began to build the “casino nobile” and decorate the lesser buildings that already existed in the villa. The entire park was organized on a formal, symmetrical plan with lanes and small squares lined with statues and fountains. The giardini segreti (secret gardens) located on either side of casino were the most important and well-tended of the gardens. Since the Renaissance, secret gardens, whose roots lie in the kitchen gardens of Medieval convents, have been a common garden type. Their name is an allusion to the fact that they are enclosed by walls that form outdoor rooms, thereby creating a private passage from the closed, interior spaces to the open air of the surrounding park. Between the gardens is a pavilion called “l’Uccelliera,” (the Aviary), which was constructed to house a prized collection of rare and exotic birds.

The transformation

At the end of the eighteenth century much of the park was transformed under the direction of Marcantonio IV (1730–1800). The two ragnaia, (snares for hunting birds) were removed and the imposing Piazza di Siena, which was used for horse racing and other spectacles replaced the larger of the two. The form of the piazza was based on ancient Roman circuses such as Circus Maximus, where chariot races and other games were held. Even today the Piazza di Siena is the site of one of the most important national horse shows. Near the piazza were three rustic building that were all transformed and redecorated by the architect Antonio Asprucci (1723–1808). The former gardener’s house became the Casino dell’Orologio (Clock House) and was briefly home to the Gabii Museum, which housed a collection of sculptures unearthed during the excavations of the ancient Roman city. The museum was opened to the public in 1797 but ten years later its contents were sold to Napoleon to form the Louvre Museum and the museum in the Clock House became a venue for smaller exhibitions. Another rustic casino, the Casino della Capella (Casino of the Church) was decorated and enlarged with the addition of a chapel from which it derives its name. Yet another casino, which in the seventeenth century was home to ostriches and peacocks, was modernized and outfitted with a facade and crenellations reminiscent of the middle ages, which is why it came to be known as the Fortezzuola, or little fort. The most important of the works commissioned in this period was the Giardino del Lago (Garden of the Lake). This previously rural area was transformed into a spectacular English landscape garden that provides a counterpoint to the rigid symmetry that defines the villa’s other gardens. An important new feature of the garden was the introduction of North American trees with colorful foliage

The decay

In the nineteenth century the villa entered into a period of decline. In 1849 the French attacked Rome and inflicted enormous damage on the Villa Borghese. This episode marked the end of traditional Borghese patronage. In the years that followed the owners of the villa sought to find new sources of income by organizing lotteries, parties with entrance fees, agricultural contests, and floral exhibitions; a small zoo was also opened, and smaller buildings were rented out for use as restaurants. After the villa was purchased by the Italian state and the city of Rome, citizens were allowed to bring automobiles into the park and it was used to host public events. In recent years a steps have been taken to rebuild the original landscape and to restore the buildings and sculptures.

The restoration

The restoration of the Villa Borghese to its seventeenth-century appearance was begun in 1997 and has been based on extensive historical research of numerous documents preserved in the Borghese family archives at the Vatican. The fountains and furnishings have been put away for safekeeping and replaced with copies made of cement and marble dust. The originals will eventually be exhibited in the Museum of Villa Borghese, which will be housed in the Clock House. Among the most important recent projects has been the refurbishment of the secret gardens known as the Flower Garden, the Garden of Blooms and Views, and the Garden of the Bitter Oranges. After decades of neglect, all that remained of these three gardens was an occasional remnant of a boxwood hedge without any other plants or flowers. The first step was to reconstruct the history of the gardens and learn how their changing appearance had obscured their original design. In the wake of the economic troubles caused by World War II cabbage and potatoes were grown here to help feed the hungry population. Careful research has unearthed documentation of the iconographic program as well as lists of the plants and flowers that were planted during the time of Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the early decades of the seventeenth century. The reconstruction of the design of the flower beds was based on a modular grid created echoing the visible architectural elements: the fountains and the walls with their doors and niches that act as a backdrop to the garden. The restorers also consulted a popular treatise of that period by Giovanni Battista Ferrari (1584–1655) on floriculture for inspiration.

Using this historical information, inasmuch as it was possible, the designs of the gardens were reconstructed with flowers used for the original plantings, choosing from those that are available on the market and others that were brought from a number of foreign greenhouses. Within the three gardens, more than 250 varieties of plants permit three rounds of seasonal flowering that include rare and precious flowers that have disappeared from Roman gardens and have been reintroduced for the first time. These include such flowers as fritillaries, numerous varieties of antique tulips, old roses, many aromatic plants, and flowers such as the sunflower, marigolds, and four o ’clocks that were rarities in the seventeenth century because of their recent importation from the Americas. The gardens thus have returned to their original state as true living museums.

Click on the thumbnails below for a full view of the images.

17th century view of the Villa Borghese

Former Deer Park behind the villa

Facade of the casino nobile

Secret garden known as the “Flower Garden”

Aviary seen from the Casino nobile

Piazza di Siena

Clock House


Casino of the church

Lake Garden

Temple of Aesculapius in the Lake Garden

Tree in the Valley of the Plane Trees

17th century plan of the Villa Borghese

Flower garden during World War II

Flower garden from above after the restoration

Detail of the plantings in the Flower Garden

Garden of Bitter Oranges

Fountain in the garden behind the casino before restoration

Fountain in the garden behind the casino after restoration

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