The gallery’s halls offer a lushly decorated backdrop for the pieces “in a way that we hoped that Bernini” — who was also a showman, playwright and creator of extravagant spectacles — “might have envisaged, had he been alive,” Ms. Coliva added in an interview.
The gallery has staged a Bernini exhibition with loans before, when it reopened in 1998 after a lengthy renovation. The latest exhibition builds on the Borghese collection, fleshing out the artist’s career from his apprenticeship with his father, the sculptor Pietro Bernini (a collaboration that Gian Lorenzo “would later try to expunge,” Mr. Bacchi said), with a series of sculptures they crafted in tandem, to his ambition to become an all-around artist, adding architecture and painting to his already considerable skills.
For the first time, over a dozen paintings — portraits and half-figures — that are universally accepted as by Bernini are being shown under one roof. They are juxtaposed with his better-known marble and bronze busts, mostly of powerful clerics.
The marble portraits cover a 60-year period during which Bernini depicted a marmoreal “Who’s Who” of Rome. The Louvre lent its bust of Cardinal Richelieu, whom Bernini never met. He crafted the statue from a painting, something Mr. Bacchi said was both an innovation and a challenge: “He wrote that it was hard enough to give the warmth and life of people to marble, but doing it without ever meeting the person is nigh-on impossible.”
Bernini’s fame in his lifetime and beyond — “Bernini is synonymous with the Baroque and the Baroque with Bernini,” Mr. Bacchi said — has made him a much-studied figure.
But the Borghese exhibition provides new nuggets for scholarship, and offers an opportunity to closely compare works that are normally thousands of miles apart, like two versions of the “Crucified Christ” lent by institutions in Madrid and Toronto.
Restoration work around the exhibition also led to discoveries. A Bernini statue of St. Bibiana was removed from its church so that it could be restored directly at the museum. The sculpture had previously been moved during the bombing of Rome in World War II, and the restoration — which cost 62,000 euros, or about $72,000 — suggested that it had been mounted incorrectly on its return.
Ms. Coliva said that once the exhibition is over, she hopes to find funds to build a new altar for the church, so that the statue can be admired from the viewpoint that the restoration work suggests Bernini had intended.
Bernini worked throughout Rome, but clearly curators couldn’t move monumental works like the sculptures in St. Peter’s Basilica and the Four Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona. They came up with the next best thing: a series of models and sketches of such pieces, showing Bernini’s way of working.
But those are just appetizers. Just look up Bernini in the index of any guidebook to Rome: His impact and legacy are citywide.