November 14th, 2023 –

February 18th, 2024


In 1600, at the age of 23 Peter Paul Rubens decided to leave his native Antwerp for Italy, where he was to sojourn for eight years. The young man had received a Renaissance humanist education, knew Latin and classical literature. At the age of 14 he had started his training as a painter, and in 1598 he was already an independent master. His Italian years were crucial for his formation: he first visited Venice, where he was impressed by the works of Titian and Veronese, and then settled in Mantua at the court of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga I.

In 1601, with the support of the duke, he traveled to Rome, spending some time in Florence. While in Rome Rubens studied Ancient Greek and Roman art, got in touch with the art of the great masters of the Roman Renaissance, Raphael, and Michelangelo. He was also impressed by the works of Caravaggio (his contemporary), and convinced Duke Gonzaga to buy Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin (Louvre). In Rome he received his first altarpiece commission, St Helena with the True Cross for the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.

In 1603 he took part into a diplomatic mission to Madrid, where he could study Raphael and Titian in the royal collections, and where he discovered for the first time the works of Leonardo da Vinci. Back to Italy in 1604, he stayed for a period in Genoa, where he painted numerous portraits. His second period in Rome, between 1606 and 1608, he was commissioned the High Altar of the new Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella (also called Chiesa Nuova). Due to his mother’s illness, Rubens left Italy never to return, notwithstanding his love for it.

The exhibition THE PYGMALION’S TOUCH. RUBENS AND SCULPTURE IN ROME, held at Galleria Borghese (from November 14th, 2023, until February 18th, 2024) , investigates the profound and long-lasting impact of Rubens’s ‘Roman full immersion’ on his artistic production, his genius at metamorphosing, like Pygmalion, with his brushes, the antique statues into vibrant and naturalistic human figures, bearing, as he said, “no smell of stone”. It also deals with the influence the Flemish master, with his innovative, passionate approach to the Antique, and dynamic vision of the great masters of the Renaissance, had on the following generation of Baroque artists, with special focus on the works of young Lorenzo Bernini.

About 50 works, proceeding from major international museums (British Museum, Louvre, London and Washington National Galleries, Morgan Library, Prado, Rijksmuseum), are brilliantly displayed through the majestic rooms of Villa Borghese in a continuous dialogue with some of the most significant masterpieces present in the Gallery’s rich collections (see in particular Bernini, Caravaggio, Titian, and the antique statues and reliefs), allowing visitors to untangle the intricate net of visual references that informed Rubens’ art for the future decades, and helping to envision which works by the Flemish artist might have been of inspiration for the painters and sculptors present in cosmopolitan Rome during the 17th century.

The curators of THE PYGMALION’S TOUCH, Francesca Cappelletti and Lucia Simonato, articulated the itinerary into eight thematic sections: the presence of exhaustive explanatory panels offers an excellent insight on the main topics. However, as ùyou might be overwhelmed by the lavishness of the Gallery’s ornaments and by the impressive corpus of the Borghese collections, we suggest you book a tour with a professional guide!

5 masterpieces in the Rubens’s exhibit in Rome that we particularly enjoyed (see photo gallery):

St. Sebastian Healed by the Angels (Rome, Galleria Corsini)

St. Sebastian, by Georg Patel (Munich, Bayerischer National Museum)

Agrippina and Germanicus (Washington DC, National Gallery of Arts)

The Resurrection of Christ (Florence, Uffizi Galleries)

Susanna and the Elders (Rome, Galleria Borghese)

We also recommend, if you have the chance of stopping in Mantua, to visit the other important Rubens’s exhibit: ‘Rubens at Palazzo Te. Painting, Transformation and Freedom’, set up from 7 October 2023 to 7 January 2024. Here the Flemish master dialogues with the “genius loci” Giulio Romano in an explosion of Baroque inventions. Both exhibits are branches of a single project: “Rubens! The Birth of a European Painting”.

    If you wish to book a private tour of the Rome or Mantua exhibition please write at