Project Description

Tour the Villa Farnesina and Discover its Amazing Backstory

The story of the Villa Farnesina and its Renaissance art starts with Agostino Chigi.  He was born in 1466 to a banking family in Siena.  And he launched his banking career in Rome at an early age. Fortune smiled on him and his investment strategies. Soon 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).  But 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 the countryside just outside Rome. We’re talking about the land along the western bank of the Tiber River. (It is now just outside of Trastevere proper, but well within the modern city limits!) Here he built his get-away. Removed from the clamor and the tensions of the city, he still wasn’t far from the call of duty. But is was highly symbolic property and he had fun playing with the symbolism. After all, 1500 years earlier, wealthy Romans built their vacation homes in that general area. For example, Cicero wrote about wanting to buy a luxury villa here, while Catullus’s lover, Clodia, actually did. It had to be top-notch real-estate, if Emperor Augustus’s daughter, Julia, owned a summer home here as well.

A Millionaire’s Renaissance Mini-Mansion

Agostino Chigi, aka il Magnifico, turned to Baldassarre Peruzzi to design his villa. Most likely because Architect Peruzzi was from Siena too. Like Chigi, Peruzzi was in love with ancient Rome. In fact, he styled Chigi’s villa after a portion of Emperor Nero’s Golden Home that had just been rediscovered. Peruzzi’s “retro” approach to Chigi’s villa was so radical and so appreciated that it shaped 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. So, gods and goddesses together with ancient Greek and Roman heroes–both real and mythological–dominate the artwork.  And an entire loggia is dedicated to the ancient Roman story of Cupid and Psyche! 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 changed hands multiple times. The aristocratic Farnese family eventually bought it and dreamed of having a private bridge built to connect it to their palazzo (palace) on the other side the Tiber. At that point, Chigi’s estate was 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, the State bought the property and invested in lengthy restorations in the late 1800s. When the Farnesina was finally opened to the public in the 1900s, visitors were amazed by it. Of course, the Farnesina boasted fine art and architecture by Peruzzi. Admire, for example, his radical frescoed loggia seen in the photo.  Its columns, porches, and distant views break through the walls’ physical limits. While 3D artwork disappeared during the Middle Ages. it reined supreme in ancient Rome. So, it became a style that Renaissance artists struggled to recreate, and Peruzzi handled the challenge marvelously.

But so many artists contributed to the Villa Farnesina’s Renaissance splendor! They include Raphael, who frescoed the sea-nymph Galatea. He also designed a ribald ceiling fresco that his assistants Francesco Penni, Giulio Romano, and Giovanni da Udine then executed. Furthermore, Sodoma (one of Raphael’s boisterous retinue) frescoed the bedroom that we saw above. And 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 peace.

A tour of Rome’s exceptional Renaissance treasure, the Villa Farnesina, usually lasts a little less than 3 hours.  Its opening hours are currently from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Daniella encourages visitors to explore Trastevere with her before or after the visit. There we can continue our focus on art history or we can change themes and hunt out awesome little culinary experiences.  Clearly, with its Renaissance focus, the tour of the Villa Farnesina also segues neatly into a Vatican visit.

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