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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.2 (2001) 280-285

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Exhibition Review

Making a Prince's Museum: Drawings for the Late Eighteenth-Century Redecoration of the Villa Borghese


Making a Prince's Museum: Drawings for the Late Eighteenth-Century Redecoration of the Villa Borghese. Getty Research Institute (17 June-17 September 2000). Catalogue by Carole Paul, with an essay by Alberta Campitelli (Getty Research Institute, Bibliographies and Dossiers: The Collections of the Getty Research Institute 5, Los Angeles, 2000). Pp. 180. 13 color, 58 black-and-white illustrations. $24.95 paper.

There is poetic justice in a museum exhibition that takes as its subject the history of museum exhibition. Making a Prince's Museum at the Getty Research Institute did just that by documenting the late eighteenth-century transformation of the Casino Borghese in Rome from a Seicento pleasure retreat into one of the [End Page 280] most up-to-date and influential publicly accessible art collections in Europe. The show was made possible by the Getty's recent acquisition of an important group of fifty-four drawings relating to the extensive redecoration carried out under the guidance of architect Antonio Asprucci, and by the loan from the Museum of Rome of a newly-identified set of project drawings for an additional museum to be constructed ex novo on the property. Together these drawings constitute precious and unusually detailed evidence for the theory and practice of Settecento museology. They will also be of interest to historians of painting, sculpture, and architecture, since the Borghese family employed the finest practitioners of their day and many of the sheets (for wall and ceiling decorations, interior details, and exterior elevations) are works of art in their own right. True to its title, this exhibition's largely unpublished materials offer a rare glimpse of the day-to-day mechanics of making a prince's museum.

That prince was Marcantonio IV Borghese (1730-1800), scion of one of Rome's most important papal families, who inherited a villa created in the first decades of the seventeenth century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the sybaritic but highly cultured nephew of Pope Paul V (1605-21). Scipione's villa, a term that properly refers to the entire estate, not just the buildings, was already a tourist attraction when John Evelyn described it in 1644 as "an Elysium of delight . . . The Garden abounds with . . . Fountains of sundry inventions, Groves and small Rivulets of Water. There is also . . . a Vivarium for Estriges, Peacocks, Swanns, Cranes, etc.; and divers strange Beasts, Deare and Hares . . . In a word nothing but magnificent to be seene in this Paradise." Although Marcantonio transformed many of these formal groves into Rome's first "English-style" park, complete with fictive ruins, his emphasis was on the Casino containing the family's important collection of antiquities as well as celebrated statues by Bernini. The leather and tapestry hangings were out of date, however, and beginning about 1775 Asprucci's task as the family's architect was to integrate the existing collections within a new decorative frame. Carole Paul, a specialist in eighteenth-century Italian art, is in an ideal position to interpret the results. Her doctoral thesis on the Casino's redecoration (University of Pennsylvania, 1989) remains the fundamental study of this campaign, and her subsequent publications on Mariano Rossi's Camillus fresco (Art Bulletin, 1992) and on the decorative legacy of Pietro da Cortona (Storia dell'Arte, 1997) help her place the Getty sheets in a much broader context. That breadth of vision, in fact, is one of the exhibition's primary strengths.

As installed in the galleries at the Getty Research Institute, Making a Prince's Museum was divided into five thematic sections. The first presented a historical overview of "Collecting and Villeggiatura in Rome" via a selection of prints, drawings, maps, and plans that highlighted the importance of suburban retreats as places for aristocratic collectors to retire in cultured otium and for students (such as Taddeo Zuccaro, depicted in a spectacular drawing by his brother Federico) to...


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