What is Villa Farnesina?
Villa Farnesina is a sumptuous Renaissance villa in Rome that was designed by architect and painter Baldassare Peruzzi for Sienese banker and businessman Agostino Chigi.
Jean-Pierre Dalbéra , CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Villa Farnesina History
Considered a gem of Renaissance architecture, this villa was built in the early 16th century as a suburban residence for Sienese banker and businessman Agostino Chigi, and then was later sold to the Farnese family. Chigi spared no expense in furnishing his new residence, decorating it with elaborate scenes from Greek and Roman mythology.
On the ground floor, you’ll find the Loggia of Galatea, decorated by artists that Chigi called to Rome, predominantly from his native Siena. Today, it’s known primarily for Raphael’s colourful Triumph of Galatea. Ovid, in his 1st-century AD epic poem the Metamorphoses, tells the story of a mortal shepherd, Acis, who falls in love with Galatea, a sea nymph. When the jealous cyclops, Polyphemus, kills the shepherd, Galatea transforms her lover into the Sicilian river that bears his name. Over the centuries, the life of Galatea inspired a number of brilliant works of art, including a Handel opera, an oil painting by Nicolas Poussin, and this wonderful fresco. It shows the sea nymph wearing a red cloak, triumphantly riding the ocean waves, whilst two straining dolphins pull her seashell chariot. To the left, a Triton (a fish-tailed sea-god) abducts a sea nymph, while another sounds a trumpet to the right.
In addition to Raphael’s celebrated work, you’ll also find ceiling frescoes by architect and painter Baldassare Peruzzi (who designed the villa for Chigi), which depict the banker’s horoscope. Whilst on the lunettes, the semi-circular alcoves, are depictions by Sebastiano del Piombo of other scenes from Ovid’s influential poem.
On the ground floor you’ll also find the stunning Loggia of Cupid and Psyche, which Raphael designed to look like a summertime pergola with fruit and flowers, although most of the artwork was carried out by his pupils. The frescoes represent episodes from Apuleius’ 2nd-century AD novel The Golden Ass, in which the young girl Psyche is so beautiful that the goddess Venus becomes jealous. Venus sets the girl a series of incredibly challenging obstacles, before she can finally become immortal and marry her lover Cupid (Venus’ son) in heaven. Adorned with a range of vibrant frescoes and tapestries, the room was used as a stage for celebrations and theatrical performances organised by Chigi himself.
The upper floor is no less captivating. In the Sala delle Prospettive (or the ‘Perspective Hall’), you can enjoy Peruzzi’s magnificent illusion of depth, which is created by the use of mathematical perspective. Between the painted pillars, you’ll see imaginary views of Rome. Note the unfortunate graffiti, left by marauding soldiers during the Sack of Rome in 1527.
Chigi was a very wealthy hedonist with a keen sense of one-upmanship. A lavish banquet organized in 1518 in honour of Pope Leo X was staged in his stables, which were appropriately decorated for the occasion. The idea was to embarrass the rival Riario family by demonstrating that even the Chigi’s stables were as elegant as the Riario’s dining rooms. That same year, another banquet was held, this time in his garden loggia. Guests were surely impressed (or perhaps horrified) when, at the end of each course, the servants tossed gold and silver dishes into the River Tiber. In fact, they weren’t to know that Chigi had strung nets below in order to retrieve them.
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