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  • Writer's pictureAman Mehta

A Brief History of Palazzo Farnese in Rome

What is Palazzo Farnese?

Palazzo Farnese, or Farnese Palace in English, is a beautifully symmetrical High Renaissance palace in Rome that now houses the French Embassy and the École Française de Rome (a French public research institution).

Palazzo Farnese History

Palazzo Farnese is widely considered to be the most beautiful Renaissance building in Rome, if not in Italy. Its imposing structure cannot be separated from the lovely piazza in which it stands. Commissioned in 1514 by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the future Pope Paul III, the palazzo’s magnificent proportions are the work of some of the major architects of the time, including Antonio da Sangallo, Giacomo della Porta, and Michelangelo, who crowned the building with a large cornice, the ornamental moulding which overhangs the façade and serves to create the structure’s pleasing proportions.

Today, the Palazzo Farnese houses the French Embassy and the École Française de Rome (a French public research institution) and is only open to the public by pre-arranged visit. (Despite the French connection, it must be pointed out that the fleurs-de-lis on the palace’s exterior and on the fountains have nothing to do with France; these are the Farnese lilies, the symbol of that noble Roman family.) A visit is spectacular, since the Palazzo’s splendour is visible not only from the outside: its interior was decorated by some of the best artists of the era, including Annibale and Agostino Caracci, Domenichino, and Giovanni Lanfranco.

During the Renaissance, a piazza was always considered an integral part of any aristocratic residence, and this one is adorned with granite basins from the ancient Baths of Caracalla. Before they were turned into the beautiful fountains we see today, one of these basins was placed in front of the palace’s main doors where it functioned as a sort of ‘royal box’ from which the Farnese family members could watch the spectacles that were held in the piazza.

The fountains seem to be among the very few in the city not designed by Giacomo della Porta. Della Porta is instead credited with the rear façade of the palace, which faces the garden and the River Tiber. Michelangelo worked on a design that intended to link the palazzo by an overhead bridge to the Villa Farnesina on the other side of the river, but this never materialised, except for the lovely, romantic arch that spans via Giulia.

The Palazzo Farnese and other prominent Roman properties owned by the family, their precious art collections and the Farnese House of Parma-Piacenza passed, in the absence of male heirs, into the possession of the ruling dynasty of the Bourbons after the Duchess Elisabetta Farnese married King Philip V of Spain in 1714. After the Bourbons became heirs of the Farnese, they rented parts of the estate to France. Mussolini, who disliked this ownership structure, bought the palazzo back in 1936 and leased it to France for 99 years (for which they pay the Italian government a fee of just €1 per year).

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