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A Brief History of Villa Medici in Rome

Updated: 6 days ago

What is Villa Medici?


Villa Medici is a 16th-century villa expanded and renovated by Ferdinando de’ Medici, which is now home to the French Academy in Rome.


Villa Medici

Villa Medici History


Since the 15th century, the Medicis, one of Italy’s most powerful families, had been renowned collectors of art. They paid for some of the greatest artworks and sponsored many of the most significant artists and architects of the age, such as Filippo Brunelleschi, the maverick architect who invented linear perspective, and pioneered the use of classical styles in the Renaissance.


Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici, who bought this glorious 16th-century villa that looks over the city from high up on the Pincian Hill, was no different from his ancestors, an avid collector of art and one of the most important patrons in the land. The imposing villa served as the perfect location to entertain the nobility of the city, and was a fitting environment for him to display his ever-expanding collection of classical sculpture.


In 1576, less than a month after signing the purchase agreement, Ferdinando called sculptor and architect Bartolomeo Ammannati from Florence to advise him on the development of the property. Over the next ten years, the villa was significantly renovated and expanded. On the garden façade, Ferdinando incorporated a number of ancient Roman reliefs which he had purchased from Cardinal Della Valle. In fact, Ferdinando had purchased Della Valle’s entire collection of antiquities, which had resulted in the young cardinal falling into significant debt.


Ferdinando wanted to build a grand Renaissance palace, however when you look at the villa’s external walls and outward façade they appear simple and unadorned. In contrast, the garden façade was decorated with the cardinal’s fine Classical reliefs and priceless busts. This was done for two reasons: firstly, Rome was going through a period of turbulence, and Ferdinando didn’t want to attract any unwanted attention from looters and bandits; secondly, it was the middle of the Counter-Reformation, a period of Catholic resurgence, and a dim view was taken of those displaying pagan art (particularly a cardinal like Ferdinando). Outsiders had no idea that the incredible façade even existed. Only those invited into the villa could see what was there.


Ferdinando was different from his fanatically religious father Cosimo. In his pursuit of great art, he was even known to remove altarpieces from churches, and in the private rooms of Villa Medici, he displayed risqué paintings depicting non-religious subjects, including one featuring himself with several nude women.


Ferdinando’s work on the Villa Medici was cut short when his brother Francesco died and he subsequently became the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Many of the artworks were moved back to Florence with him, and today form part of the Uffizi collection. After the eventual demise of the Medici family, the villa was bought by Napoleon and the French Academy (which was established in the 17th century to give French artists an opportunity to study Italian art) was transferred here. It’s been the home of the French Academy in Rome ever since. These days the villa’s gallery hosts exhibitions by world-renowned contemporary artists, including the likes of Yoko Ono and Simon Hantaï, continuing the Medicean reputation for their love of art.


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