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Borghese, Scipione Caffarelli (1576?-1633)  
 
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Scipione Caffarelli Borghese, a seventeenth-century Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, was a bold and influential patron and collector of the visual arts. As is the case with many other famous Europeans of the early modern period, we are dependent primarily upon derogatory sources for documentation of his homosexuality. However, Borghese's art collection also provides clues about his personal life.

In his residences, Borghese displayed ancient and modern depictions of beautiful male figures with strong appeal. Prominent works in his collection also reveal a fascination with and the fusion of genders. Among works by other artists, Borghese eagerly acquired pictures by Caravaggio (1571-1610), who fused homoerotic desire with spirituality in provocative and groundbreaking images.

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As a patron and collector, Borghese revealed wide-ranging tastes, but he consistently demonstrated a willingness to challenge conventional standards, as he may have done as well in his personal life.

Life and Career

He was born sometime between 1576 and 1579 in Rome to Marcantonio Caffarelli, a distinguished but impoverished aristocrat, and Ortensia Borghese, the sister of Camillo Borghese, who assumed the name Paul V upon being elected pope on May 16, 1605. Paul V ordained his nephew as a priest on August 7, 1605 and appointed him Cardinal only ten days later. When he was made Cardinal, Scipione adopted the name and arms of the Borghese, and he seldom used his father's name thereafter.

As Cardinal Nephew (an official post until it was abolished in 1692), Borghese was placed in charge of both the internal and external political affairs of the Papal States. In addition, Paul V entrusted his nephew with the management of the finances of both the papacy and the Borghese family.

Borghese aroused a great deal of controversy and resentment by utilizing numerous "gifts" from the papal government to fund Borghese family investments. Identifying rental properties as the most efficient means to ensure financial stability, he purchased entire towns and other extensive properties, including approximately one-third of the land south of Rome. Exploiting his authority as Cardinal Nephew, he often compelled owners to sell their holdings to him at substantial discounts. Borghese thus ensured that the fortunes of the family were not permanently dependent on ecclesiastical office.

Rumors of Homosexuality

However, although he retained his wealth, Borghese lost both political influence and social status immediately upon the death of his uncle on January 28, 1621. Enemies, whom he made through his ruthless management of political and financial affairs, began to circulate malicious rumors and satirical poems about his supposedly insatiable lust for other men. Recorded in letters by diplomats, these claims soon spread throughout Europe.

While such hostile sources cannot be accepted without question, frequent assertions about his love for Stefano Pignatelli (1578-1623) may have had a basis in fact. Shortly after assuming the papal throne, Camillo Borghese exiled Pignatelli from Rome; according to his detractors, this was done because the closeness of Scipione's friendship with Pignatelli threatened to discredit both the papacy and the Borghese family. Before the end of 1605, Paul V relented and allowed Pignatelli to return to Rome, supposedly because his nephew was so deeply distressed by the enforced separation. Subsequently, Pignatelli lived for various extended periods in the Borghese Palace; Scipione gave him various ecclesiastical honors and even arranged for him to be appointed Cardinal shortly before his uncle's death.

Art Collector

Borghese utilized the immense wealth that he acquired as Cardinal Nephew to assemble one of the largest and most impressive art collections in Europe. Even though later generations dispersed some of his acquisitions through sales and diplomatic gifts, the works that he assembled form the core of the holdings of the Galleria Borghese (Rome), a museum housed in the villa commissioned by Scipione (1613-15) from the architect Giovanni Vasanzio (1550-1621).

The Satyr and Dolphin (Roman marble copy of lost Greek bronze, 4th century B.C.E.) typifies the elegant and sensual depictions of young male figures that were prominently featured in Borghese's collection. One of his most prized works was the Hermaphrodite (now in the Louvre, Paris, Roman copy after Greek original of 2nd century B.C.E.). From the young sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), Scipione commissioned in 1620 a realistically rendered mattress on which to lay this sensuous nude figure. Borghese is reported to have kept this statue in a specially made wooden cupboard, which he would open with a theatrical flourish to the amusement of his close friends.

Pope Paul V willingly assisted his nephew's efforts to obtain the art works that aroused his interest. For instance, through the influence of his uncle, Borghese secured the cooperation of the parish priest in arranging to have Raphael's famous Deposition stolen from the Baglioni family chapel in San Francesco, Perugia, for which it had been commissioned a century before (1507).

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Two works from the collection of Scipione Caffarelli Borghese:
Top: Sick Bacchus by Caravaggio.
Above: A Roman copy of a Greek statue of a Hermaphrodite (partial view).

  
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