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Caravaggio and the Borghese Family

Scipione Borghese was an Italian Cardinal as well as being a patron of Caravaggio.  Born Scipione Caffarelli, the avid art collector, had his education funded by his maternal uncle, Camillo Borghese.  Camillo was elected Pope Paul V in 1605 and quickly offered Scipione a position as Cardinal as well as the right to use the name Borghese and the family coat of arms.

As the secretary of the Pope and the appointed superintendent general of the Papal States, Cardinal Borghese found himself in a position of great power and had access to great wealth.  The Pope entrusted his nephew with managing the finances of the papacy as well as of the Borghese family.  He stirred up great controversy with the use of his position as he ensured the financial stability of his family.

The Cardinal became a collector of modern as well as ancient art using the immense wealth to accumulate one of the greatest art collections in all of Europe.  He built the Villa Borghese and improved the Villa Mondragone to house his significant collections which he acquired with ruthless tactics including extortion and theft.

Cardinal Borghese met Caravaggio in the Antechamber of Quirinale Palace when Caravaggio was having charges brought against him for assaulting the notary, Mariano Pasqualone.  A settlement was met and Caravaggio showed his appreciation to the Cardinal with the private gift of Saint Jerome Writing.

Saint Jerome Writing

Following this incident Caravaggio found himself in a place of favor with the powers that be in Rome.  He received numerous commissions including a portrait of Pope Paul V and a commission for the Basilica of Saint Peter.  The piece created for the Basilica, Madonna of the Grooms, was rejected by the College of Cardinals as being unacceptable.  Upon removal from the Basilica the painting went directly to the collection of Cardinal Borghese.

Madonna and child with St. Anne

More masterpieces entered the Borghese Collection when Giuseppe Cesari, Carvaggio’s former teacher, refused to sell the Cardinal a stock of paintings at an unreasonably low price.  The Cardinal used his powers to have Cesari arrested under false charges.  The payment to get the charges dropped was 107 paintings from his collection.  This included Caravaggio’s Sick Bacchus and Boy with a Basket of Fruit.

Boy with a Basket of Fruit

In May 1606, Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassoni and fled Rome.  The final years of Caravaggio’s life were spent running from city to city to avoid prosecution, all the while trying to earn a papal pardon in order to return to Rome.  Caravaggio painted David with the Head of Goliath for Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the hope of receiving a papal pardon.  He did eventually receive the pardon only to die a mysterious death on his way back to Rome in 1610.  With the artist were three paintings intended as gifts for the Cardinal.

Following the news of Caravaggio’s death, Borghese fixated on finding Caravaggio’s lost paintings.  He managed to secure St John the Baptist as well as David with the Head of Goliath (note that the date of this painting as well as the date of its admittance into the Borghese Collection are both disputed).

David with the Head of Goliath

The Borghese Collection of art includes ancient Roman art, Roman sculptures, works by old masters as well as modern art.  Not only are pieces by Caravaggio included but also Raphael, Titan, Peter Paul Rubens and Federico Barocci.  The majority of the original collection is still on display at the Galleria Borghese, formerly the Villa Borghese Pinciana, in Rome, Italy.  Some of the precious classical sculptures were sold to the Louvre in 1807 due to financial difficulties as well as pressure from Napoleon Bonaparte. Works by Caravaggio include St John the Baptist in the Desert, Madonna of the Palafrenieri, and David with the Head of Goliath.

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