How Rubens Brought Antiquity to Life


ROME — When I was growing up, I couldn’t stand the painting of Peter Paul Rubens (1578–1640), with its yards of pink female hams and plump fair blonds blushing scarlet. In the Louvre, I felt suffocated by the huge series of scenes he painted illustrating the life of the French queen Marie de Médicis. This crossed the line from making art to toadying to various monarchs and to the Catholic Church. That he was indeed a diplomat, first of the duke of Mantua and then of the king of Spain, who knighted him, seemed to confirm my suspicions. A court painter; a flatterer; above all, an artist who did not share my idea of beauty. It has taken until now for me to develop an adult appreciation of Rubens, for which I can thank Galleria Borghese Director Francesca Cappelletti and Lucia Simonato, the curators of Galleria Borghese’s current exhibition The Touch of Pygmalion: Rubens and Sculpture in Rome

The Galleria Borghese is the greatest small collection of art in Rome. Until the start of the 20th century it was the private property of the Borghese family, descendents of the nephew of Pope Paul V (1605–1621), but the family wealth evaporated and the art collection was sold to the Italian State,  along with the family’s huge suburban park, the Villa Borghese. The Galleria is the main villa building, and it is jaw-droppingly rich with treasures, including all of Bernini’s most important early sculptures and no less than six extant Caravaggios (out of an original 12) — a record for one collection — as well as a major collection of antiquities found on Borghese properties in and around Rome. This was the second Borghese antiquities collection, after Napoleon bought most of the earlier collection of ancient art from his brother-in-law, Prince Camillo Borghese, in 1807 and brought it to the Louvre, where it remains.  

Installation view of The Touch of Pygmalion: Rubens and Sculpture in Rome at the Galleria Borghese, Rome (courtesy Galleria Borghese)

This is not an ideal site for temporary exhibitions, which at worst can cause a cognitive dissonance that ruins both the Borghese collection and the exhibition’s works. Why cram more art into the Galleria Borghese? There are other buildings in the Villa park that could easily be adapted for temporary exhibitions without covering mosaic floors with risers and putting up huge freestanding panels of drywall in the middle of the grand rooms of the Galleria. Several recent exhibitions have suffered from their placement in this space, like Damien Hirst’s Archaeology Now (2021), which underlined painfully how much Hirst is no competition for Bernini, among others. Why is there so often a desire to make Old Masters “relevant” by setting contemporary art in their midst? 

So I went to the Rubens exhibition with some experiential baggage. Matters were not helped by the layout, which places visitors in Section III when they enter the ground floor. But when I went around the circuit, passing Berninis and ancient statues, to the exhibition’s first room, I started a journey that not only worked within the confined spaces of the Galleria Borghese, but actually was in dialogue with the collection, even with the Caravaggios. There were awkward drywall panels with nothing on their back sides, blocking a proper view of the rooms, but overall the installation was functional, which is the best result possible in so full a gallery. 

The young Rubens was intensely influenced by Rome’s ancient art, and the Borghese collection in particular. His approach to the ancient material was revolutionary. Instead of drawing or painting copies of statues, he made works that imagined the statues as living models, thereby creating works of art that seem to have been done from life — hence the show’s title The Touch of Pygmalion. The principal example of this influence on view is the “Death of Seneca” (1612–13), in which the philosopher’s pose is an exact copy of the “Dying Seneca” that was based on an ancient Roman statue now in the Louvre. Here, the flesh is pale but tangible, following the account by Tacitus of Seneca’s suicide, ordered by his former student Nero. The light is Caravaggesque; a surgeon is opening Seneca’s veins while a young scribe takes down his last words. The painting is in the exhibition, as well as a sketch by Rubens of the statue from the side, but it would have been great to see the actual statue. Even in the sketch, though, we can observe the statue’s static quality melt and fade, and the dying figure comes to life again. Rubens’s superb talent as a draughtsman continually blazes through. His “Study of the Belvedere Torso” (1601), drawn in red pencil, is one of the most powerful works on display. 

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Peter Paul Rubens, “The Death of Seneca” (1612–15), oil on canvas (photo Anthony Majanlahti/Hyperallergic)

Parts of the exhibition seem forced, their comparisons labored and unconvincing.Lament over the Dead Christ” (1601–2), far from the most Caravaggesque Rubens work here, has been crammed into Section V, titled Rubens and Caravaggio, though it might have been better in Section II, Rubens and History, given that the sarcophagus on which Jesus is lying is unambiguously ancient. Instead of a more relevant piece, like the wonderful Rubens copy of Caravaggio’s “Entombment of Christ” (1615–16), now at the Courtauld in London, we get a drawing of the Entombment that, in my opinion, owes far more to the Raphael version in the Galleria Borghese. 

These cavils aside, the exhibition brilliantly succeeds in demonstrating Rubens’s new approach to representing ancient Roman art. Sometimes the classical Rubens and the Antwerp Rubens collide in curious ways, as in the “Germanicus and Agrippina” (c. 1614), clearly based on ancient double-portrait cameos, in which both the painted profiles have Flemish blond hair and pale skin. The lessons Rubens learned from ancient sculpture and from his contemporary painters in Rome gave northern European Baroque art a shot of adrenaline that boosted its invention and interpretation of the classical past into a creative boom that flooded back into Italy. But the real fascination of this exhibition is the genuine dialogue between the permanent collection and the pieces on loan — in a sense, this is the only place this exhibition could be held. 

2. Compianto su Cristo morto Galleria Borghese Roma
Peter Paul Rubens, “Lament over the Dead Christ” (1601–2), oil on canvas (photo M. Coen © Galleria Borghese, courtesy Galleria Borghese)
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Peter Paul Rubens, “Centaur Tamed by Cupid” (around 1601–2) (photo Anthony Majanlahti/Hyperallergic)
20 a The frustration of blank panels blocking the view of the permanent collection of the Galleria Borghese author photo
The frustration of blank panels blocking the view of the permanent collection of the Galleria Borghese (photo Anthony Majanlahti/Hyperallergic)
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Peter Paul Rubens, “The Borghese Fisherman” aka “Dying Seneca” (c. 1606–8) (photo Anthony Majanlahti/Hyperallergic)

The Touch of Pygmalion: Rubens and Sculpture in Rome continues at the Galleria Borghese (Piazzale Scipione Borghese 5, Rome, Italy) through February 18. The exhibition was curated by Francesca Cappelletti and Lucia Simonato.



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