Meet scipione borghese
By Kevin Orlin Johnson, Ph.D.
When you visit St. Peter’s at the Vatican, the first inscription that you see, right over the main door, might be a little hard to figure out: PAVLUS V BVRGHESIVS ROMANVS. That’s just the Latin for “Paul V Borghese, Roman.” Well, that’s got the name right, but strictly speaking Paul V wasn’t a Roman.
The Borghese family was from Siena, an independent city about 150 mountainous miles north of Rome. The towns had been fierce rivals for centuries, but when the future pope was born up there in 1550 Rome lay in ruins, destroyed when Emperor Charles V had lost control of his mercenary troops occupying the city in 1527.
With only some 10,000 inhabitants left, Rome hadn’t been able to recover; but Sienese bankers took over the business that Rome had lost. That’s how the Borghese made themselves one of the richest families in Europe. Naturally some of their most promising sons went into the priesthood, and just as naturally in those times they steered their careers strategically until one of them rose to the papacy.
Paul V Borghese was one of the ablest administrators ever to sit upon the Throne of Peter, with a keen eye for talent. Long before his election he’d spotted the little son of his sister, a boy named Scipione Caffarelli, as a promising intellect. He took the boy out of his remote village, paid for his education and finally adopted him. That’s why we call him Scipione Borghese now (shee-pee-YO-nay bor-GAY-say, more or less).
When Uncle Borghese was elected as Pope Paul V in 1605, he immediately made himself a Roman citizen and Scipione a cardinal. Now, the popes have appointed some 3,000 cardinals since the post was established in the eighth century or so, but we’ll never get another like Scipione Borghese.
Paul V appointed his nephew to run practically every office and agency headed by the Holy See, including the Papal States and of the city of Rome itself. Scipione got to work instantly.
He swept the deadwood out of the government of the Papal States, replacing a lot of idle clerics with a few professional administrators. He condemned properties for dereliction or delinquent taxes and then bought them at knockdown prices, either for the family or for the Holy See, depending on which accounts he got the money from.
In a surprisingly short time the Borghese owned about a third of the city of Rome and a like percentage of the countryside around it, all of it debt free. Scipione cleared away eighty years of trash and rubble from the streets, repaired the roads and the ports and refurbished shops, houses and apartments. Properties that the old princely families had managed to hold skyrocketed in value, funding more repairs and dozens of new palaces in every quarter of the city. Rome’s population rebounded from 10,000 to about 100,000, but Scipione had returned thousands of acres of farmland to cultivation, so, for the first time since the Sack, the Papal States were self sufficient in food and even exporting a surplus.
Well, money intelligently applied is all very well, but money applied with taste is extraordinarily rare. Scipione turned the Borghese billions to the renovation of practically every church standing in the city, every street, every fountain, every monument that needed work, and all of that work he did superbly. More than any other Roman prince of his time, Scipione Borghese revived the Renaissance that the imperial mercenaries had so brutally destroyed a generation before.
But he was businesslike about all of that, too. When he created the Palazzo Borghese, Scipione followed the same strategy that he’d used with the family’s realty: it’s not a new structure. He bought existing buildings, joined them into a vast patchwork, and splendidly refurbished the whole thing. Inside, its furnishings were second to none in Rome, second to none in Europe, really. Its walls, covered in colored marbles and vaulted over with brilliant new frescoed ceilings, were studded with ancient statues and hung with paintings by every Old Master on record.
There were new paintings, too ― Scipione made sure that the best living artists were amply commissioned and promptly paid, whether they were professionals as tractable as Ottavio Leoni or geniuses as wild as Caravaggio. It paid off: Caravaggio even used to send the cardinal a free painting by way of apology, whenever he’d disgraced himself with a tavern brawl or manslaughter or something.
And there were plenty of new statues, and of course a lot of new decorative sculpture at the Borghese projects. Some of that ornament was carved by Mr. Pietro Bernini, who brought along his little boy Gianlorenzo, about eight years old. Scipione, astonished to see the kid drawing and carving like an accomplished master, showed him to Paul V.
No, the pope said: you’ve got to be fooling. So Scipione told little Gianlorenzo to dash off a drawing ― make it St. Paul, he said, to compliment the pope. That was all that it took; and from that moment on young Bernini was supported and educated by his pope and his cardinal protector.
With the palace in Rome filled up with art, Scipione designed a little villa for himself just outside of Rome on the Pincian Hill, where Lucullus had had his princely garden back in Caesar’s day. Scipione surpassed the lucullan feasts of ancient times with his own fantastic dinners there ― check out Epulario, or The Italian Banquet by Giovanne de Roselli (London 1598) for some idea of what these dinners were like, and some recipes. But really the Villa Borghese was just a little weekend retreat, a candy-box set in a little garden only three miles in circumference for his flowers and his ostriches. You should read what the English visitor John Evelyn said about it in his diary.
Scipione filled the twenty rooms of his toy palace with more ancient statues and mosaics dug up during his reconstruction of the family’s real estate and more works commissioned from the family’s artists. This treasure chest is open to the public now as it was then, and you can still see Bernini’s David, his Pluto and his Apollo and Daphne, in which he pretty much invented the Baroque style, standing right there where the cardinal and the artist put them the day they were delivered.
After Paul V died, his successors Urban VIII Barberini, Innocent X Pamphili, Alexander VII Chigi, Clement IX Rospigliosi and Clement X Altieri all had sense enough to support, with more or less enthusiasm, the works that Bernini produced during his career spanning eight decades.
So that little boy whom Cardinal Scipione discovered gave us everything that you see at St. Peter’s, from the colonnade out front down the decorated nave through the huge Baldacchino over the main altar, straight through to the glorious Throne of Peter in the western apse.
That is, everything that you see at St. Peter’s except that main front. That’s by Carlo Maderno. But Maderno was also a small-town boy noticed by the Borghese. The pope found him through another family architect, Domenico Fontana ― the one who renovated St. Mary Major, where Paul, Scipione and Bernini were to be buried. And it was Scipione’s administration of the family fortune and the Papal States that paid for Maderno’s completion of St. Peter’s. That’s why the façade boldly carries the name Borghese to future centuries ― the family’s signature on the basilica and the whole city of Rome itself.
[Illustration: Portrait of Scipione Borghese by Ottavio Leoni. Wikimedia Commons.]
[One-run serial rights are granted provided that the article carry the following credit line: Kevin Orlin Johnson is author of Why Do Catholics Do That?, at bookstores everywhere and at whydocatholicsdothat.org.]