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

Caravaggio, An Artist Shrouded in Mystery

How could the Beauty of Art and the Darkness of Life dwell within a single person? Who was this man gifted with heavenly talent that chose to walk the dark earthy streets of night?

“All works, no matter what or by whom painted, are nothing but bagatelles and childish trifles… unless they are made and painted from life, and there can be nothing… better than to follow nature.”                                       


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio lived a brief and tumultuous life as a great Italian painter. Born September 29, 1571 in Milan, he trained as a painter under Simone Peterzano, who in turn trained under the famous painter Titian. Caravaggio became active as a painter in Rome, Naples, Malta and Sicily from 1592 until his death in 1610. He produced masterpieces of astonishing complexity and power, advancing the Baroque style to include portrayals of real people of the streets surrounded by stark emotional truth.

The Conversion of St. Paul
The Conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus–Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Ominous, obscure and gloomy–these are words that describe Caravaggio’s dark paintings. Radical by nature, his revolutionary art reflected chiaroscuro in an extreme form. His dramatic, theatrical use of the shift from light to dark became known as Tenebrism. As a result, he took Rome by storm in 1600 with his depictions of the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and the Calling of Saint Matthew. Beyond this point, he had more commissions from patrons then he could handle. Unfortunately, he squandered his success. He fled Rome in 1606, after he was involved in a brawl in which he killed a man.

I used to be disturbed by Caravaggio’s paintings until I got to know who he was. A man of the streets, whose short life was shadowed by mystery and intrigue, Caravaggio was constantly in trouble with the law. Over his lifetime, he vandalized his own apartment, spent time in jail on several occurrences, and eventually had a death warrant circulated on him by the Pope.

Inspriatioin of St. Matthew
Inspiration of St. Matthew–San Lugi dei Frances, Rome

Caravaggio’s death remains an unsolved mystery to this day. For such a dramatic individual, it’s fitting for him that his departure would be obscure. What we do know is that he was en route by boat from Naples to Rome in hopes of receiving a pardon by the Pope. Beyond this point nothing is for certain.

On July 28th of 1610, an anonymous newsletter from Rome arrived at the ducal court of Urbino announcing the death of Caravaggio. A few days later another newsletter claimed he died of fever. A recent researcher claims to have found a death notice that Caravaggio had died of fever near Grosetto in Tuscany. In 2010 human remains in the same area are said to be 85% likely to be Caravaggio’s after testing his DNA, using carbon dating and other analysis.

His death at the age of 38 include theories such as malaria, intestinal infection, murder, and lead poisoning, all considered possible causes of death.  Paints during his time contained high amounts of lead salts which can cause violent behavior such as Caravaggio displayed throughout his lifetime.

Could he have been killed in cold blood by the Knights of Malta to avenge an attack on one of their members?  According to Professor Vincenzo Pacelli, Italian historian and expert on Caravaggio, the order hunted him down because he had seriously wounded a knight. To back up his theory, Pacelli discovered documents from the Vatican Secret Archives and from archives in Rome suggesting the Knights of Malta had murdered Caravaggio and threw his body in the sea at Palo, north of Rome.

The Knights of Malta were an order founded in the 11th century to protect Christians in the Holy Land. Caravaggio was actually made a member of the order but, by 1608, he was in prison, probably for wounding a knight. He was expelled from the order and put in a castle dungeon. However, his release from the dungeon remains baffling.

Controversy still exists over this theory. Dr. John T. Spike, a Caravaggio expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, remains sceptical. He believes that if the knights had wanted him dead, they had many opportunities to kill him sooner. Dr. Spike thinks the artist was likely killed in a brawl and his body dumped, which would explain the lack of an existing death certificate.

Caravaggio created several self-portraits, including Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, depicting his own head on the platter, and David with the Head of Goliath, again showing his own head as that of the giant’s.

Caravaggio’s masterpieces, although dark, are fantastic. He employs theatrical drama and sinister shadows to intrigue and draw one in. He has a statement to make, and there is no mistaking what he intends to communicate. Like a beautiful web, you find yourself transfixed. There is no one like him. His art is unmistakable.

Rome offers several walking tours that explore the art of Caravaggio which are displayed throughout the city. Walks Inside Rome has designed a tour called Caravaggio in Rome intended to discover the many locations in Rome where Caravaggio’s artwork can still be seen. Included in the tour are San Luigi dei Francesi with the three paintings devoted to the Story of St. Matthew, followed by  San Agostino and the Madonna of Loreito. The Villa Borghese also hosts some of Caravaggio’s finest masterpieces dating across his entire career.

Caravaggio Art Walking Tour of Rome with Wine Tasting is an alternative tour that ends with a social time of wines and appetizers at a local wine bar.

Related Articles:

* Caravaggio Video of Artworks

* Caravarrio, Michelangelo Merisi da

Caravaggio Tour-paintings, museums, churches and art history

Caravaggio Art Walking Tour of Rome with Wine Tasting