Scipione Caffarelli Borghese (1577–1633) – cardinal and papal nepot with truly earthly passions

The Rape of Proserpina, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese

The Rape of Proserpina, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese

Although, the Venetian diplomat Renier Zeno wrote that Scipione “possessed general knowledge and led a life filled with pleasures and amusements”, but it did not stop him from becoming one of the greatest collectors of paintings and sculptures of his time. He can be compared to the great rulers of Renaissance, who were vigorously interested in the achievements of artists, while their courts, full of works of art, clearly proclaimed the splendor of the dynasty.

The Rape of Proserpina, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese
Cardinal Scipione Borghese, bust, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese
David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio, Galleria Borghese
Sick Bachus, Caravaggio, Galleria Borghese
Madonna and Child with St. Anne (Madonna dei Palafrenieri), Caravaggio, Galleria Borghese
The Deposition, Raphael, Galleria Borghese
The Hunt of Diana, Domenichino, Galleria Borghese
Antique sculpture of a Hermaphrodite, Galleria Borghese
Noble Casino, main façade, presently Galleria Borghese
Faun on a Dolphin, Galleria Borghese
Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius Fleeing Troy, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese
David, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese
Apollo and Daphne, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese
Cardinal Scipione Borghese, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese (an alternate version with a scar on the forehead)
Basilica of San Sebastian Outside the Walls, modernized at the commission of Scipione Borghese
Church of Sant Maria della Vittoria, façade
Basilica of San Crisogono, façade with an inscription dedicated to cardinal Borghese
Sant’Andrea Oratory, ceiling decoration with the cardinal’s coat of arms
Element of decorations of park and building – dragon (heraldic creature of the Borghese family)
The Rape of Proserpina, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese
Basilica of San Crisogono, ceiling with the coat of arms of Cardinal Scipione Borghese
Element of the Borghese coat of arms in the Santa Silvia Oratory on Celio Hill
Galleria Borghese, back façade
Sant Silvia Oratory, foundation of Cardinal Scipione Borghese

Although, the Venetian diplomat Renier Zeno wrote that Scipione “possessed general knowledge and led a life filled with pleasures and amusements”, but it did not stop him from becoming one of the greatest collectors of paintings and sculptures of his time. He can be compared to the great rulers of Renaissance, who were vigorously interested in the achievements of artists, while their courts, full of works of art, clearly proclaimed the splendor of the dynasty.

The times of mortification, prayer and charity at the end of the XVI century seemed to be a thing of the past; for the Roman elites, and those were mainly represented by the cardinals and papal families, the new century brought about an unbridled desire to participate in the artistic life and a fascination with, continuously excavated from Roman soil, ancient artifacts.

Scipione became a true grey eminence of the State of the Church in 1605, after the election of his uncle Camillo Borghese as pope (Paul V). The nephew was adopted, given the pope’s surname and besides that the dignity of nepot and post of papal secretary.  Immense profits, also obtained from numerous other papal offices, were used by him to purchase lands, towns and duchies, in this way strengthening the position of the Borghese family, of which he was also a general administrator. Apart from that, the cardinal mainly invested in works of art. He was a true patron, paving the way towards a career for young artists, Gian Lorenzo Bernini serving as the greatest example. It is thanks to the patronage of the cardinal that in the span of five years (1618-1623), the very young artist created his first masterpieces. Borghese was also able to notice the remarkable talent of Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi), whose paintings he acquired at all possible costs. The painter has him to thank for a papal pardon and the possibility to return to Rome from exile. Although Caravaggio was not able to take advantage of the pardon, since he died on his way to the Eternal City, his painting sent to Scipione in thanks, reached the addressee (David with the Head of Goliath).

The cardinal generally bought the works of artists who were his contemporaries, sometimes acquiring them through trickery, as was the case with the valued and famous painter Giuseppe Cesari (also known as Cavaliere d’Arpino), who was the owner of a collection of his fellow painters. The cardinal denounced him on the pretext of possession of firearms. In exchange for his freedom and annulling of the judgement and prison sentence the painter gave Borghese 107 paintings. A different version of this event, says that it was the uncle, Pope Paul V, who gifted his nephew with said collection, after it was seized due to the painter’s unpaid taxes. What made this collection exceptionally valuable was the fact that it contained two paintings by Scipione’s favorite artist – Caravaggio. Both depicted two sensual young boys: one flawlessly beautiful (Boy with a basket of fruit), another – ill and fevered (Young  Sick Bacchus) and they were from the early phase of work of the Baroque master – the most homoerotic one.


Scipione was the first one present, at the moment when the papal commission (as if knowing his desires), rejected another of Caravaggio’s paintings Madonna and Child with Saint Anne (Madonna dei Palafrenieri), giving as a reason the unconventionality of the scene and realism of the figures, which did not stop the papal nepot from purchasing it for his collection. He was capable of robbing provincial churches of their artworks, and even more. Riots almost erupted in the streets of Perugia when it turned out that the town’s church was robbed of Raphael’s painting (The Entombment of Christ), which then turned up in the cardinal’s collection. The renowned painter Domenichino also reportedly had to serve a prison sentence for refusing to sell his painting (The Hunt of Diana) to Borghese, feeling the duty to fulfill the commission of another cardinal – Aldobrandini. On the other hand, in order to obtain the painting he desired, Cardinal Scipione was ready to perform deeds of great generosity.  When during the work on the foundations of the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, the antique figure of Sleeping Hermaphroditus (today in The Louvre) was discovered, the cardinal, in exchange for the possibility of its purchase declared that he would cover the costs of constructing the church façade, which he did.   The sculpture, being a copy of a Greek sculpture from the II century B.C., became a focal point of the cardinal’s collection in a special cabinet, which he opened to the shock of selected guests. Another, prone figure of Sleeping Hermaphroditus is presently located in the landscape garden (Villa Borghese) inside the cardinal’s villa, in the past known as Noble Casino (today Galleria Borghese). The cardinal did not live in it himself -  it was a meeting place for admirers of art of that day, which was designed for the sole purpose of exhibiting his collection. Similar interest to those aforementioned sculptures, which were for the Greeks a personification of perfection, and for Roman church hierarchs a subject of more than a few evening conversations, was enjoyed by Faun on a dolphin, a copy, showing a sensual male body.

Perhaps due to this interest in art with erotic overtones the cardinal was suspected of homosexualism.  He was even accused of having one of his young lovers murdered. During an official papal investigation, ordered by Paul V, the nephew was cleared of slander; even more so – one of the suspects in this case, a favorite of Scipione put on the scarlet cassock of cardinal.

Religious issues were of little interest to Borghese, yet due to his titular functions, he cared for the parishes entrusted to him which required renovation or modernization, as well as for churches which were somehow connected with the Caffarelli or Borghese family.  He did this also on behalf of his uncle – the pope, whose responsibility it was not to allow the numerous Roman churches to go to ruin, since they were the destination of many pilgrimages arriving in the Eternal City. It was also a perfect way to be visible – as we would say today – in the public space. Placing the family coat of arms in it, proved not only the presence but also the generosity and significance of the protector and his family.


Modernizations, sculptures and paintings commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese:

Galleria Borghese ( artworks)

  • Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius Fleeing (1618–1619) – the first commission for Bernini completed by the artist for the cardinal
  • The Rape of Proserpina (1622), Gian Lorenzo Bernini
  • David (1624), Gian Lorenzo Bernini, sculpture commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Peretti Montalto, and after his death purchased by Cardinal Scipione Borghese
  • Apollo and Daphne (1625), Gian Lorenzo Bernini
  • Busts of Scipione Borghese (1632), Gian Lorenzo Bernini, two versions (one with a crack in the forehead)
  • David with the Head of Goliath (1609–1610),Caravaggio’s painting
  • Casino dell’Aurora (in the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi complex) – the ceiling fresco Aurora (1613–1614) completed by Guido Reni
  • Construction and decoration of the Oratory of Santa Silvia, on Celio Hill, of which the decorations were entrusted to Guido Reni and Domenichino
  • Church of San Sebastiano fuori la mura – modernization or more appropriately complete reconstruction of the church (1607-1614) with the aim of rebirth of this place for pilgrimage purposes. The Borghese family coat of arms (eagle and dragon) as well as an inscription with the cardinal’s name and surname decorate not only the portico and façades but also the coffered ceiling, triumphal arch, capitols, and friezes in the church interior
  • Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria – church façade
  • Church of San Crisogono – this very expensive church modernization, richly decorated ceiling and decoration dripping with gold was supposed to reinforce the rather strained reputation of Scipione, made notorious by accusations, insinuations and gossip (after the death of his protector, Pope Paul V)

Along with the passing of Pope Paul V, his nephew’s power came to an end:  abandoned by those who have until now flattered him, accused of immorality, he hid himself in his garden and artistic hermitage where at the age of 56 he died. He was buried in the Borghese family chapel (Cappella Paolina) in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

Today we can thank Scipione for one of the most valuable collections of art of worldwide importance and also the imposing park and residential developments. The financial resources devoted to create the collection and purchase the artworks were, by the standards of those times immense; modernizations and church decorations which were also financed by Scipione, constituted only two percent of the whole budget which the nepot controlled during his management of the papal estates. At the time of his death, the cardinal left behind approximately 4.5 million scudos – a veritable fortune acquired during his uncles pontificate, which was inherited by the Borghese family. In this way Scipione became the perfect example of nepotism – a phenomenon which was so relevant for the papacy of the XVI and XVII century, stemming out of the political greed of popes, which is so readily criticized today.  However, it is thanks to this phenomenon that Roman art of the Baroque period developed and matured.