Regarded as one of the finest and most harmonious examples of the early Italian Renaissance, Villa Farnesina is a real masterpiece of art and architecture, a noble palace located in Trastevere Rione, Rome, built in the 16th century for the Sienese Banker Agostino Chigi, one of the most powerful men in Italy.
Villa Farnesina went through some troubled history and many changes of ownership. Today it bears the name of the Farnese family. Indeed, in 1579 Cardinal Alessandro Farnese the Younger bought the villa. However, until the death of Agostino, the villa was actually known as Villa Chigi. But let’s start from the beginning!
Origin of Villa Farnesina: the history of Agostino Chigi
Agostino Chigi was born in Siena in 1466, a member of an ancient and illustrious house. Pope Julius II made him treasurer and notary of the Apostolic Palace (the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican Museums is located right there!). This rich, powerful man also became a patron of art and literature. He commissioned the construction of Villa Farnesina as a tangible sign of his personality and high culture to the architect Baldassarre Peruzzi, a Sienese man as he was.
Works to build the Villa started on April 22 1506. By that time people thought that this date marked the anniversary of Rome’s foundation, hence it was regarded as a favorable conjunction of planets.
…5 Years Later
The works were carried out so quickly that in the Summer of 1511 Agostino was already able to show his new residence to Pope Leo X, an amazing villa which comprised 6 different levels, featuring works of art by the most important masters of the time!
After the acquisition by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese the Villa was abandoned and occasionally lent to illustrious personalities such as Cardinal Richelieu, Queen Christina of Sweden and various ambassadors of Louis XIV, king of France.
Finally the Villa was acquired in 1927 by the Italian State, which used it to house the Italian Academy and in 1944 gave it to the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, housed in the nearby Palazzo Corsini.
Lodge of Galatea
After passing the ticket office, start you visit of Villa Farnesina from the Lodge of Galatea. This large room was used as an ambulatory, as well as for feasts and banquets.
The impressive vault was decorated by Baldassare Peruzzi himself and we can assert this was probably the most considerable pictorial commission of his career.
The vault depicts a translation of Chigi’s horoscope into images with constellations, divinities and signs of the zodiac, based on a plan elaborated by an astrologer and completed by the humanist Cornelio Benigni.
In the same room, the young Sebastiano del Piombo worked on the painting of the nine lunettes, decorated with scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and a large figure of Polyphemus.
The cyclops, whose features resemble those of Agostino Chigi, is represented sitting sadly beneath a tree, gazing the sea while Galatea hurried to her beloved Acis.
The tenth lunette was decorated by Peruzzi himself with an enormous head of a young man.
In reference to the same legend, Raphael painted on the same wall of Polyphemus the beautiful figure of Galatea. The nymph is standing amongst a throng of sea creatures in the act of speeding away from her admirer on a shell-coach drawn by wild dolphins.
Lodge of Cupid and Psyche
Continuing your visit, you will enter into the state room, the Lodge of Cupid and Psyche, which features Raphael’s pictorial cycle. The theme that inspired the artist is of course the fable of Cupid and Psyche by the famous ancient poet Apuleio.
According to legend, the beautiful Psyche was loved by the god Cupid and persecuted by Venus. Finally the two lovers ended up married on the Olympus.
At that time Agostino Chigi was about to marry Francesca Ordeaschi and thinking about decorating the room with a cycle of paintings. The fable of Cupid and Psyche chosen by Raphael alluded to the forthcoming wedding of his patron and his bride to be, reflecting the Platonic assumption of the Latin novelist that divine love makes human beings immortal.
In the segments between the spandrels you can see figures of amorini angels bearing the attributes of gods and demigods.
The Room of the Frieze
Agostino entrusted his friend Peruzzi with the decoration of The Room of Frieze.
Located at the entrance, this area was intended as a waiting room for guests and a space where to host important ceremonies.
The Room of Frieze features Peruzzi’s frescoes “the Twelve Labors of Hercules” and other mythological episodes, such as the tragical tales of Marsyas, Meleager and Orpheus.
The Banquet Room
Also pained by Baldassare Peruzzi, the Banquet Room, known as Room of the Views is named after the perspective views of urban and rural landscapes between perspective columns.
On the walls you can still see some graffiti scratched by German soldiers during the sack of Rome in 1527.
Above the doors and windows you can see a sophisticated frieze of divinities and mythological stories. Remarkably, on the north wall right on top of the fireplace there’s the “Forge of Vulcan” by Peruzzi himself.
Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, commonly known as il Sodoma (1477-1549) painted on the walls of the bedchamber a fresco cycle showing the wedding of “Alexander the Great and Roxana”.
The consummation of the marriage is the center-piece: the bride is shown while a group of Amorini Angels is helping her getting undressed. Alexander is hurrying towards her, offering the royal crown.
On the opposite wall you can see a scene of Alexander’s magnanimity towards the mother and daughters of the defeated Persian King Darius; another scene depicts the taming of Bucephalus, Alexander’s mythical horse, and then the culminating moment of a battle between Persians and Macedonians.