Villa Borghese (also, officially, the Villa Pinciana): The place is crawling with dragons. Luckily, these are of the non-flammable type -- don't breathe fire -- and like the eagles that accompany them, they are of stone or stucco. The most impressive dragons and eagles in the vast park are on the roof of the neoclassic entrance outside of the Porta del Popolo, but they have the advantages of patina, age and preservation. The ones guarding the Villa entrance outside and just opposite the Porta Pinciana, at the upper end of Via Veneto, are just as eye-catching, but they are now so sparkly-white from restoration that they look (and perhaps are) brand new. Restored versions of these twin Borghese heraldic icons are also on view in the exterior decoration of the Galleria Borghese and on the walls and buildings that punctuate the newly replanted "Secret Gardens", at the sides of the Galleria. (The gardens, no longer secret, are now in full bloom and open to public view.) The eagles and dragons on the low walls and pillars surrounding the Piazza Scipione Borghese, in front of the Galleria loggia, are in sad shape and anxiously await restoration.

But the Villa Borghese, which the Rome city government now wants us to call "Parco dei Musei", is more than just heraldry. Inside the park, in addition to the Galleria Borghese, which is one of the finest art museums in the world, there are also the Villa Giulia with the best Etruscan collection and the best Greek pottery collection anywhere, the Modern Art Museum with a world class post-Renaissance collection of its own, the renovated and humane (and politically correct) National Zoo, and miles of trails, bike paths, and roads. It is also a year-round open-air display of Roman and Italian flora, and is certainly well cast as one of the world's premier garden spots. And that is especially true this year, after the long-overdue renovations of the Secret Gardens and the complete re-landscaping of the Parco del Lago with its duck pond (row-boats for rent!), Greek-style Temple of Aesclepuis, and Casina del Lago (now a small restaurant/snack bar).

And speaking of food, there is also a snack bar in the basement of the Galeria Borghese, another at the Villa Giulia, and another on Viale Obelisco in the Pincio section of the park, above the Piazza del Popolo. There is a full service restaurant with reasonable prices at the Modern Art Museum, and it is accessible from inside the museum or through a separate entrance. Food is also available at the many (especially weekends) lunch trucks, usually manned by friendly, English speakers of the South Asian persuasion. Prices can be higher at the trucks than in the snack bars, especially if you buy American. A new restaurant in the Casino dell'Ucelliera, just to the northwest of the Galleria Borghese, is scheduled to open before the summer of 2000.

The view over Piazza del Populo toward the Vatican from Piazza Napoleone on the Pincio is one of the most stunning in Rome. Unfortunately, the long-term legal battle over ownership of the franchise for the restaurant in the Casina Valadier, also on the Pincio, drags on, so the view from the restaurant balcony (and the most expensive meals in town) probably will not be available once again this year.

Bicycles and Roller blades are usually available to rent on the bridge connecting the Pincio area to the rest of the park. Follow the signs to "Pincio".

Villa History: The Villa and its surroundings were all designed and built in 1612 (apparently completed in one year, excepting statuary installation and landscaping) to serve as a setting for the already impressive and rapidly growing art collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a nephew and foreign policy advisor of Pope Paul V (1605-1621). Almost everything you see today in the vast park dates from that time, although some structures are now used for different purposes and some other existing structures were incorporated (notably the Villa Medici compound, now the French Academy in the point of the heart-shaped park, and the Villa Giulia, built for Pope Julius III between 1550 and 1555.) Much more detail, of course, is available in the official Guide to the Borghese Gallery, which is available in several languages at the bookstores in the Galleria, the Modern Art Museum, and the Villa Giulia and in better bookstores around town.

Internet links:

All of these Internet sites are really good, but none can compare with an on-the-ground visit.

Official site of the Villa Borghese (for links to other Rome/Italy museums, scroll down to the "home page" link at the bottom):

The "Dragons and Eagles" Internet site:

Villa Borghese from the "Gazetteer of Rome" site:

Galleria Borghese from the Thais Italian Sculpture site (in Italian, but easy to use by the linguistically disadvantaged):