A Painter’s Riddle Hidden in Rome’s Borghese Gardens

Villa Borghese Gallery
Villa Borghese

The Villa Borghese is a green and peaceful park in the heart of Rome. A pleasant place to stroll on any day, the 128 acre park offers a host of attractions, including three museums, a lake, temples and fountains among a glorious canopy of green.

Fountain in the Villa Borghese Gardens
Fountain in the gardens

Originally a vineyard, Cardinal Scipione Borghese redesigned and enlarged it into a private park in 1605, building the majestic Borghese Gallery at the same time. The park became public in 1903 after it was purchased by the city of Rome.

titian-The Sacred and the Profane
The Sacred and the Profane

Inside the Borghese Gallery hangs a painting so shrouded in mystery that art historians today still ponder over the possible meaning behind the depiction. Many over the years have fallen in love with its serene beauty, while others have been intrigued by its hidden secrets and symbolism. There is no doubt that a lot of bewilderment surround these two women in Titian’s painting, Sacred and Profane Love, who seem to be one and the same.

As the story goes, Titian was commissioned by Niccolo Aurelio, one of the Council of the Nine in Venice, to paint the piece in honor of his marriage to Laura Bagarotto.  But we have no idea what Titian originally named it. The piece was found in the Borghese Gallery’s archives in 1693 with the name, Amor Divino e Amor Profano (divine love and profane love).

The painting looks simple enough at first glance–Laura Bagarotto, the new bride, sits in sumptuous white next to Cupid or an angel, while Venus assists her in understanding both earthly and heavenly love. Laura holds a vase of jewels symbolizing fleeting happiness on earth while Venus holds the torch upward symbolizing eternal happiness in heaven. At least this is what art historians first thought.

But take a closer look–

Titian-BAckground Scene HuntersThe two ladies are sitting on an ancient Roman sarcophagus that is filled with water. Cupid stirs the water while a faucet on the front of the coffin pours water on a sprouting plant. As if this isn’t enough to rouse attention, strange things are happening in the background. A fortress, set on a hill behind the gowned lady, is a typical symbol of war and humanity which could symbolize the profane (worldly). A hunter on horseback is seen riding up to the fortress, but between him and the clothed woman are two rabbits, symbols of fertility. On the other side behind the naked lady is a church which could symbolize the sacred. Two hunters on horseback and a dog (symbol of domesticity) hint that the nude woman is Venus (connection with the hunt). But one would think that the clothed woman would represent sacred love, and the naked one worldly, or profane love.Titian Background Scene

Symbols of love are everywhere, from the roses on the sarcophagus to the myrtle the clothed woman holds, indication of marital happiness.

In addition, the richly gowned lady wears gloves for falconry, or hunting, and holds her case of jewels which symbolize worldly pleasures. She sits solidly and a little lower than the nude woman.

On the other hand, heavenly beauty needs no earthly adornment. Is the nude woman sacred?

Does Cupid hold the key?

Venus is the goddess of love so Cupid will naturally hover nearby. Is it possible that, by swirling the waters around in the sarcophagus between the two ladies, Cupid is actually suggesting that ideal love is a mix of these two kinds?

But we have based this all on the assumption that the painting is about sacred and profane love. Since we don’t know what the original name was, maybe it has nothing to do with these two loves.

Titian was the most prolific and famous painter of Mary Magdalen. Dr. Francis P. DeStefano in his article, “The Conversion of Mary Magdalen,” discusses the possibility that the gowned woman in the painting is the adulteress at the point of conversion, and that the nude woman is the newly converted Magdalen. Many have seen the splendidly dressed woman as a bride, but is it possible she could be a seductress?

Let’s leave this unsolved mystery to the professionals and get ourselves back to the garden. Summertime in the Villa Borghese Gardens brings a whole venue of musical concerts, making outdoor living all the more attractive. The park’s romantic walkways, relaxing fountains, graceful trees, evocative views of the city especially at sundown, the lake and the secret gardens make it a perfect place to spend a summer afternoon.

Entrance to the Villa Borghese Gardens
Entrance to the Villa Borghese Gardens

8 thoughts on “A Painter’s Riddle Hidden in Rome’s Borghese Gardens

  • When you mention at the close of your article that “some” believe that the two women in the “Sacred and Profane Love” are Mary Magdalen in two guises, I think that you are referring to my original interpretation of the painting as “The Conversion of Mary Magdalen”. It can be found on my site, MyGiorgione, at http://www.giorgionetempesta.com, or discussed on my blog, Giorgione et al…at http://giorgionetempesta.blogspot.com.

    In that interpretation I also identified, for the first time, the figures on the antique sarcophagus. Finally, rather than Cupid, Titian has painted an angel stirring the waters.

    Dr. Francis DeStefano


    • Thank you Dr. DeStefano! Yes, I have your article in hand (“The Conversion of Mary Magdalen”) and find it fascinating. My mind has been swirling around all the different possible interpretations to this painting by Titian. It seems like an endless study and I have noticed a lot of responses to my post are those who love a mystery and examine the painting closely, coming up with questions like, “could it be this, or that?” Who knows for sure? I do believe everything in the painting is there for a reason.

      I am so pleased to hear from you and I thank you for your input. Your article adds an entirely new understanding of one of the most mysterious paintings among the Renaissance masters!

      I will be in Rome mid-September and look forward to visiting the Borghese and Titian’s masterpiece once more. Now I have more to think about as I examine the piece.



    • Good Morning Dr. DeStafano,
      I wanted to let you know that I updated this post to include your thought on Cupid actually being an angel stirring the waters, and I also included a link to your article, “The Conversion of Mary Magdalen,” as well. I believe this gives the reader a much broader scope of material to gain a better understanding of this magnificent Renaissance painting.
      Thank you for your response and providing me the opportunity to expand my own knowledge!



      • It is very nice of you to emend your post and provide a link to the version of my interpretation of the SAPL that appeared at Three Pipe Problem. I’m glad th see that you liked the paper and hope it will help you when you visit the Borghese again in September.



  • Brava! Another great post, well-researched and full of questions!! I wonder what Titian would make of all our second guessing? For all we know, he was just painting a lovely scene and the interpretation is in the eye of the viewer. As it is with any art, once it’s finished and presented to the public, it no longer belongs exclusively to the artist.


    • Rick, thank you so much! Your suggestion about Titian made me picture him laughing over all the fuss his one painting has created among us. But you are right in saying, once the painter has finished painting his piece, it belongs then to all of us to interpret how we ourselves see it. My mind is so curious, though, I like to try and figure out what the painter was trying to convey……useless, I know!!



  • I have seen this painting many times and wondered about it. Now if I’m lucky enough to go to Rome again, I can remember more details. I would never miss the gallery on a trip to Rome and always make my reservations ahead of time.
    I also never fail to wander the Villa Borghese even though the last two times have been in Decmeber 2010 and 2012. While there are no concerts, many fountains still bubble and there is much to see and enjoy. I just wish they would get the head of the baby on the “Fountain of Joy” replaced before I manage to get there again!


    • Hi Joan, thank you for your input. I will be walking the Borghese Gardens again in September! I am looking forward to being back. It is one of the most serene spots I have ever been to. I will check in on that baby head and give you an update if I can remember to. Now you have me curious!


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