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The Backstory of the Villa Farnesina and its Renaissance Art

The Villa Farnesina and its Renaissance art start with Agostino Chigi.  He was born in 1466 to a banking family in Siena.  He launched his precocious banking career in Rome, quickly earning a fortune thanks to his investment strategies.  Known as il Magnifico, he was the richest man in Christendom during the reigns of Pope Alexander VI (Borgia), Pope Julius II (della Rovere), and Leo X (Medici).  Yet he reached the pinnacle of success at a great cost to his health.  Indeed, when Chigi turned forty, his private physician hinted ominously that he had to slow down “or else…”

Following his doctor’s advice, Chigi bought land in what was then open countryside, where he could build a get-away.  Removed from the clamor and the tensions of the city, he still wasn’t far from the call of duty.  In those days, the “countryside” meant land along the western bank of the Tiber River.  There, 2000 years earlier, patrician Romans built their vacation homes.  While Cicero wrote about wanting to buy a luxury villa here, Catullus’s lover, Clodia, actually did.  It had to be top-notch real-estate if the Emperor Augustus’s daughter, Julia, had a summer home here.

The Renaissance and A Millionaire’s Mini-Mansion

Agostino Chigi, aka il Magnifico, hired the famous Sienese architect, Baldassarre Peruzzi, to design his villa.  Peruzzi was in love with ancient Rome and styled Chigi’s villa after a portion of Emperor Nero’s Golden Home, which had just been rediscovered.  In fact, Peruzzi’s “retro” approach to Chigi’s villa was so radical that it revolutionized architecture for the next two centuries!  “What can I say,” Chigi looked around modestly, as he strolled through the spacious and well-appointed rooms of his summer home.

Chigi also employed the best artists that money could buy to revive classical Roman themes in audacious frescoes.  Gods and goddesses are ubiquitous.  An entire loggia is dedicated to the story of Cupid and Psyche.   And ancient Greek and Roman heroes, real and mythological, dominate the art.  In the photo showing a detail of Chigi’s bedroom, Alexander the Great is seen offering a crown to his bride Roxana.  How fun: a boudoir scene in Chigi’s boudoir!  If we are lucky, we’ll even hear Chigi’s spirit in bunny slippers shuffling across the floor toward his bride, Francesca.

After Chigi’s death, his summer home was sold to the aristocratic Farnese family, who lived in the Palazzo Farnese on the opposite bank of the Tiber.  Chigi’s estate was subsequently given the nickname la Farnesina (literally, “the little Farnese palace”) to distinguish it from the Farnese family’s primary residence.  The name stuck even after the property was sold and eventually fell into disrepair.

The Renaissance Villa Farnesina is Reborn

Villa Farnesina Renaissance art by Peruzzi in the dining room

Luckily, in the late 1800s, the State bought the property and invested in lengthy restorations.  When the Farnesina was finally opened to the public in the 1900s, visitors were amazed by what they saw.  Of course, the Farnesina boasted fine art and architecture by Peruzzi.  The photo shows his radical one-dimensional loggia.  The 3D frescoes that were typical of ancient Roman art disappeared in the Middle Ages, which placed more emphasis on spirituality than realism.  So Renaissance artists struggled to recreate 3D techniques and reintroduce them in their art.  Peruzzi’s fresco of a porch with a view break through the solid walls of an entire room and invite viewers to look into a fake distance.

But the Villa Farnesina’s Renaissance splendor also contains Raphael’s sea-nymph Galatea and a ribald ceiling fresco designed by Raphael and executed by his assistants Francesco Penni, Giulio Romano, and Giovanni da Udine.  The bedroom that we saw above was frescoed by Sodoma (one of Raphael’s boisterous retinue).  Sebastiano del Piombo (renowned as one of Michelangelo’s few disciples and friends) showcases his earliest works here.  This is one of the few places in Rome where so many great names can be observed so closely and in relative tranquility.

The visit to Rome’s exceptional Renaissance treasure, the Villa Farnesina, usually lasts a little less than 3 hours.

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