Living the dolce vita: Rome’s Galleria Borghese has a new patron, in the shape of luxury brand Fendi

Living the dolce vita: Rome’s Galleria Borghese has a new patron, in the shape of luxury brand Fendi

From bag bugs to Bernini, the Roman house of Fendi embraces everything from the ridiculous to the sublime. That, says its outgoing CEO, Pietro Beccari, is exactly what it has to do: «Every day,I have to make 10 decisions about being vulgar and provocative or super sophisticated, about being hyper-modern or very traditional. Coherence belongs to the mass market; luxury brands have to do things that people don’t expect.»

It’s been 20 years since the Galleria Borghese in Rome reopened after an apparently interminable restoration, and to mark that, it has united with Fendi to create the Caravaggio Research Institute. To celebrate, it has also staged an exhibition of sculpture by 17th-century master Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Caravaggio’s luxuriant Boy with a Basket of Fruit(far left) competes for attention with the «riot of multicoloured marble» in the Sala de Sileno (Room VIII) CREDIT: MASSIMO SIRAGUSA

The presiding genius of the baroque villa, Scipione Borghese, was a lover of luxury who combined a passion for art with the sexual tastes of an alley cat. He used his position as Cardinal-Nephew to Pope Paul V to amass a collection of Caravaggio paintings, Bernini sculptures and endless other treasures. A colourful man – and you can see his dissipated face in Bernini’s marble bust in the exhibition, so realistic that it’s practically sweating – he lied, cheated, bought and stole all the art that he could lay his hands on and put it on display in the villa. Whatever his morals, you can’t fault his taste.

A conservator attends to a bust of the dissolute Scipione Borghese, in the Loggia di Lanfranco (Room XIV) CREDIT: MASSIMO SIRAGUSA

Most galleries paint their walls a sombre mahogany or yew green so the paintings can stand out. Here, works of art have to shout to be heard in a riot of multicoloured marbles, gilded Corinthian columns and painted ceilings. But Caravaggio’s Self-Portrait as Bacchus and his painting of a boy with a basket of fruit command the eye. So, too, does Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, which Anna Coliva, the director of the gallery and the exhibition co-curator, describes as «the most beautiful work of sculpture ever created in the history of art–including by Michelangelo.» And I really can’t argue with her.

A curator examines Caravaggio’s portrait of Pope Urban VIII, which is in the private collection of the Galleria Borghese CREDIT: MASSIMO SIRAGUSA

Where Michelangelo’s David stands daydreaming, Bernini’s is frowning, biting his lower lip, bending sideways and twisting his sling taut to let fly a stone. Pluto, in the act of abducting Persephone, leers as he grabs her plump waist and dimpled thigh, while Cerberus snarls at his feet. Aeneas heaves Anchises on to his shouldersto save him from the sack of Troy and sets off to found Rome. «We live in a city that’s an open-air museum,» says Beccari. «And we want to tie the name of Fendi to the name of this city. We’re not Italian – we’re the dolce vita, we’re Roman.»

Dust-sheet-covered models of figures by Bernini from Fountains ofthe Four Rivers await the big reveal in the Sala di PariseElena (Room XIX) CREDIT: MASSIMO SIRAGUSA

The personalities of the past – and both Caravaggio and Bernini were every bit as passionate, violent and scandalous as Borghese – seem closer here. When the last visitor of the day has left, I wonder what the marble figures of Cardinal Richelieu, Jesus and David make of Caravaggio’s painted boys.

Bernini exhibition, until 4 February 2018;