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When you find the keys to open the door of Pamphilj Palace, and discover a secret gallery with Mythological Stories

When visiting the palace Pamphilj in Piazza Navona you wander the elegantly frescoed rooms of the terrible and legendary Donna Olimpia, to arrive in the most secret and inaccessible of the building, but at the same time also the most spectacular and exciting: the gallery with the story of Aeneas, result of an unexpected collaboration between Francesco Borromini and Pietro da Cortona.

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  • Where: Piazza Navona 10
  • When: The building houses the Brazilian Embassy in Italy, and therefore is not normally accessible. To request a guided tour, please contact the Embassy of Brazil
  • Why: It is one of the hidden pearls of the Roman Baroque, and the comparison with other works of the same type can give pleasant surprises


The original building was built in 1630, but when Giovanni Battista Pamphili became pope in 1644 as Innocent X, the changes were considered necessary in order to make not only the building but the entire square on which stands, all the height of the pope’s family. The pope then summoned the best artists in Rome to give a new look to what is going to be the stage of the Pamphili family. Of the square, and in particular of the fountains, it would take care of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the church of St. Agnes Francesco Borromini, the new palace built from Girolamo Rainaldi on the foundation of the previous, for the interior decoration some of the best artists in Rome at that period, including the same Borromini and Pietro da Cortona.

It was not just to change the look of the square, but also its setting and its purpose were called into question: the church of St. Agnes, adjacent to the Pamphili palace, became in fact the private chapel of the pope’s family, and the square, after the market moved to Campo de Fiori where it still takes place every morning, it almost seems to be the private courtyard of the palace.

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For the facade, real “presentation card” of the pope’s family for the Roman nobility, the Pamphili family chose the architect Girolamo Rainaldi. Also Francesco Borromini presented several designs for the facade which, however, weren’t chosen. The monumental character of the facade of the building on the square is offset by the refinement of the interior decorations: a succession of large rooms with frescoes, whose climax is the Enea Gallery, a long corridor designed by Francesco Borromini and painted by Pietro da Cortona in 1651 .


Pietro da Cortona undertaken this enterprise after the realization of the frescoes of the hall of Palce Barberini (1633-1639) and the apartments of Ferdinand II in Palazzo Pitti in Florence (1639-1647): at that time the artist was at the height of maturity of expression, and the most required to Rome.

As it happened in several other palaces (among many others in Palazzo Farnese where the gallery were frescoed by Annibale Carracci between 1597 and 1607), the gallery was offered to the sight of the most important and refined guests, who were invited by the landlord to admire his masterpieces, including the fresco of stories taken from Virgil’s Aeneid. It was a special place, which was to inspire awe and wonder in those who had the good fortune to enter there.

The choice of the subject is closely connected with the coat of arms of the Pamphilj family: a white dove. A white dove was also the symbol of Venus, goddess of love and mother of Aeneas, mythical founder of Rome.


The decoration made by Pietro da Cortona for the Borromini gallery is one of the finest examples of Roman Baroque, rich in figurative ideas, perspective and a new way of conceiving space and color. In the spirit of his epoch, the artist was able to take advantage of the difficulties stemming the excessive length of the environment, be decorated by dividing it into compartments, but without creating a rigid division (which would contrast too much with aesthetic standards of the time), blending together the different scenes.

In the middle of the vault a big box (the framework system have been widely used by Renaissance artists, especially in the Loggia of Psyche by Raphael in the Villa Chigi – Today Villa Farnesina – in via della Lungara in 1518-1519, and Annibale Carracci at the beginning of the century in the Farnese palace gallery) flanked by medallions and enriched with garlands and fake sculptures (grisaille). All other scenes are represented under a sky that harmonizes all, always respecting the baroque’s dictats.


In this artwork of the artis had now reached his full artistic maturity: he was formed in Rome, developing a plastic and vigorous style, even reinforced by the study of antiquity, as the artistic taste of his era demanded. A trip in Venice to study the masters of the Venetian XVI century, allowed him to acquire a strong capacity in the use of color. The demonstration of his artistic skills in the Palazzo Barberini and the decoration of the Vallicella church maybe convinced Innocent X to entrust the decoration of the gallery to Pietro da Cortona.


If in the vault of the Palazzo Barberini the artist used his impetuous spirit, by decorating a completely open space strongly overlooking  the viewer in a grand and compelling composition, where illusionistic effects illustrated the mastery of the subject (the apotheosis of divine Providence and then the exaltation of the pope Barberini), in the palace in Piazza Navona, instead, he chose  a partition of the space more orderly and rhythmic, which accompanies the viewer in the reading of the individual scenes, however, without their being rigidly divided.

Different was also the intended use of the rooms where they were part of: in Palazzo Barberini the salon was the main representative space, where yall guests were welcomed; so the decoration of the ceiling was intended to impress the observer, reaffirming the supremacy of the pope and of his family. The Pamphili palace gallery, conversely, was rather an environment to which came only the most distinguished guests, invited by the owner to enjoy the privileged view of his art collection; albeit the public, it was thus a more intimate setting than the previous, and designed for meditation, which aimed to arouse the admiration caused by the performance of the taste, and not by political power.

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Agradeço aos amigos da escola de língua portuguêsa do CCBI – e particularmente a fantástica Prof. Taisa Lucchese – pela maravilhosa visita do Palácio. Obrigada!


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