Thursday, August 5, 2010

Magnificence in Rome: The Villa Farnesina

Magnificence in Rome: The Villa Farnesina
Maggie Liu
Summer 2010


The Villa Farnesina, now walled away along the Tiber River, was not always so named. The villa was originally a possession of the Chigi family, and accordingly in its early days was known as the Villa Chigi. The extremely wealthy banker Agostino Chigi commissioned Baldassare Peruzzi to build the villa in 1506. Peruzzi, who hailed from Siena just like the Chigi family, finished the building in 1511. Decoration of the inside of the villa continued into the next decade, including remarkable frescoes done by Peruzzi himself, Giulio Romano, Sebastino del Piombo, Giovanni da Udine, Il Sodoma and Rafael. After Agostino’s death in 1520, the family lost much of its fortune, and later the villa was sold to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. Throughout the years the renamed Villa Farnesina exchanged hands multiple times. At present, it houses the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.

External View of the Villa Farnesina, Fig. 1 (Accademia)

The Villa

The traditional villa is a place of escape from the bustle of urban life for the wealthy. In this, Chigi’s villa was not particularly different. The estate once housed sumptuous gardens that originally extended down to the banks of the Tiber and were accessible from the villa via two sides of open loggias, or open rooms for relaxation. In his day, Agostino Chigi hosted many lavish banquets and performances in his home, particularly in those loggias; the villa was a space for carefree festivity. And yet it was not solely a place of relaxation; Chigi still did work at his villa. On the opposite bank of the river from the business sectors in the city, the villa was not totally removed from Rome, even though its function was primarily a display of grandeur. As a suburban villa, near enough to Rome to function as an office and yet secluded enough to serve as a place of respite, it existed in a new, rising category of residence.

The outside of the villa was not always the plain white it is today. Originally Peruzzi decorated the façade with mythological scenes in the sgraffito style. Peruzzi used scenes from Ovid for the outer area near Agostino Chigi’s office. These external decorations have all but deteriorated away due to the weather, although some remains can be seen on the river-side wall. Recent restoration also removed the orange-peach coat of paint the villa had acquired.

External Design Scheme, Fig. 2 (Jones, M.)

The villa’s architectural plan is simple. According to Vasari, “the building appears to have been born rather than built” (Jones 1988). The rooms that aren’t square are rectangles designed with very simple ratios, as illustrated in Figure 2. Most of the doors and windows are double squares, and the U shape of the building itself is symmetrical along its long axis. Peruzzi designed the entire villa with the proportions of a Roman theater in mind, from Vitruvian example. Form followed the intended function, as Agostino Chigi held many theater performances in the open loggias of his lavish home. The clean lines of the loggias facing the river, along with the decorations inside, attempted to blur the line between villa and the gardens, to fuse nature and human construction, reality and illusion.


The inside of the villa includes five rooms open to the public: three on the ground floor, and two on the first, all decorated with beautiful and unique frescoes. Interestingly, these rooms are also decorated in part with oaks and acorns: the symbols of the della Rovere family, to which Chigi had been adopted midway through the construction of the Farnesina.

The Sala di Galatea, on the ground floor, was used as a dining room in Agostino Chigi’s time. Landscapes painted by Dughet adorn several of the walls, along with painted tapestries that camouflage servant entrances. The room draws its name from the fresco of the myth of the nymph Galatea, done by Raphael in 1512. The fresco shows Galatea’s moment of triumph, as she sails on a shell pulled by dolphins, against the cyclops Polyphemus, who had killed her lover. The room also contains one very incongruous drawing, done in black and white, of a man’s head. For some time purported to have been done by Michaelangelo, scholars now believe it was actually done by Peruzzi.

Sala di Galatea, Fig. 3 (Accademia)

The Sala di Galatea is another example of both Agostino Chigi’s appreciation for cleverness and of the distortion of intended presentation in the present day. Originally the room was an open loggia entered from the garden. A viewer from the time period would have walked into it and been confronted by the heavens; or, rather, confronted by a zodiacal ceiling encoding Agostino Chigi’s birth time and horoscope. The frescoes on the 26 spandrels and the ceiling were done by Peruzzi around 1511. The spandrels depict the twelve signs of the zodiac (e.g. Libra and Gemini) as well as five planets, the sun and the moon. On the ceiling are constellations. The positioning of the different signs and heavenly bodies indicate that Agostino Chigi was born around 10:25pm on the 29th of November, 1466. Chigi’s birth certificate, found later, gave his birth time ambiguously as at 21 and a half hours on the same day. The slight difference in times could indicate that Chigi preferred one horoscope over another, and that he consciously chose to place a slightly different horoscope for himself in his villa. Scholars debate the details of this magnificent ceiling to the present day.

Loggia di Psyche, Fig. 4 (Janick, J., & Paris, H. S.)

The Loggia di Psyche, the original entrance to the villa, depicts the myth of Psyche and Cupid. Painted by Rafael and his school, the lunettes follow the story of Psyche, from Venus’s jealousy of her beauty, to Cupid and Psyche falling in love and Psyche’s trials. The ceiling shows the end of the tale; the sumptuous wedding banquet with the gods present. Framing each of the different scenes of the myth are garlands of various fruits. The background, painted by Giovanni da Udine from 1515 to 1518, is full of intricate details. For example, there are over 170 species of plants from all over the world included on the boughs. Several of the fruits depicted contain imperfections; far from being mistakes, these show that da Udine painted from real subjects. In fact, because of those details, scholars like Janick and Paris have been able to deduce that the first depictions of pumpkins in Europe exist on Agostino Chigi’s ceiling. The fresh, realistic fruits exploding with ripeness (along with some playful symbolism) further compound the themes of the villa: wealth, prosperity and fertility.

As stated previously, many performances were held in the villa. The plain painted draperies in the Loggia di Psyche in particular were conducive to changing set pieces. Poetry recitals were also given within the walls of Chigi’s suburban paradise. Of course, much of the poetry recited there were praises sung to the magnificent Agostino Chigi. In particular, these poets loved, as Chigi loved, to make connections between “Augustus” Chigi and Caesar Augustus. Another connection to Augustus can be seen in Chigi’s choice of peperino and terracotta (both said to have been the materials of choice in Augustus’s home) to decorate the façade of the building, although he was obviously capable of purchasing much more expensive building materials.

The other arm of the villa contains the Room of the Frieze, also on the ground floor. It is chiefly decorated by a strip of mythological scenes near the ceiling, which were frescoed by Peruzzi. About one and a half walls show the trials of Hercules. The end of this story seamlessly shifts into other depictions of myths, including those of Orpheus and the Rape of Europa.

Sala delle Prospettive, Fig. 5 (Accademia)

Beyond a colorful marble staircase, two rooms are currently open to the public on the upper floor; the Sala delle Prospettive and Agostino Chigi’s bedroom. The Sala delle Prospettive was also painted by Peruzzi, with some mythological scenes probably done by Guilio Romano. It shows idealized views of a landscape, allowing the viewer to pretend as though he or she were looking outside. To one side of the room are the interesting remains of Renaissance graffiti, which states: “1528 – why shouldn’t I laugh: the Lansquenets have put the Pope to flight” (Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei 2010). Appropriately over the fireplace is a fresco of the Forge of Vulcan. Chigi’s bedroom, the last room open for viewing, was painted mostly by Il Sodoma in 1518 and shows the marriage of Alexander the Great and Roxanne. The entrance wall, with a painting of Alexander’s horse being subdued, was the only section not painted by Sodoma, but rather by some unknown later artist. On the wall by where Chigi’s bed would have stood, Alexander greets his new bride in their bedroom, another reprise of the fertility motif so rampant throughout the villa. The choice of stories of Alexander the Great to decorate his bedroom reveals another Augustan connection drawn by Chigi, as Alexander had been a “paradigm for the emperor Augustus' artistic and political propaganda” (Rowland “Render” 1986).

Goals of the Patron

Agostino Chigi’s goals in commissioning his villa were both clear and indicative of his personality; it was to be both a luxurious display of the wealth of the Chigi and a personal advertisement for Agostino himself. The villa constantly reminds the visitor of its patron. Through the façade and internal frescoes Chigi made Augustan connections to himself, and in the Sala di Galatea he immortalizes his own birth time. And by constructing a fairly compact and elegantly simple building compared to the size of land he had to work with, Agostino also displayed personal restraint.

The villa existed in two worlds, both as a working space and as a place of luxury and the celebration of love and fertility. Therefore it existed to make a statement to clients, contemporaries, guests and the general public of Rome. It was a statement full of connections to the Papal della Rovere family and built away from the other bankers on their street on the other side of the river. It was also a statement of wealth. One story goes that during his lavish banquets, Chigi’s servants would remove the silver plates of the guests and throw them into the river. The intention was obvious: Agostino Chigi was a man of such power and fortune that small things like silver dishes were trifles to him. However, the plates were actually thrown into nets under the surface of the water, and were collected later on. Through this act, Chigi promoted his image shrewdly without wasting a scudo.


Chigi’s building is an impressive example of a Renaissance suburban villa. It functioned in its heyday as a dually effective workplace and retreat from the city. The frescoes inside alternate between realism, such as the detailed images of fruits and gourds in the Loggia of Psyche, and a still highly Renaissance idealism, present in the landscapes and figures painted throughout the villa. The loggias would have mixed and flowed with nature; the gardens were vast and beautiful. The villa presented the ultimate characterization of Agostino Chigi for public display: wealthy businessman, landowner, lover and generous patron of the arts.


My initial impression of this villa, as I browsed its Wikipedia page, was that the Villa Farnesina was large, peach and blocky. It made me wonder what about it merited a presentation and visit in such a packed program. And then I saw it in real life. The space is like a pocket of calm in Rome, imagining the gardens at their height makes me envy Agostino Chigi quite a bit, and the frescoes are amazing. But it’s the details which really endeared the Villa Farnesina to me, and which in my research I found kept people coming back to discuss it. For example, the astrological symbols in Sala della Galatea could stand alone as wonderful decorations. But they’re more than that. They’re actually a very precise indication of time, and being in the know makes the room that much more interesting. As a parallel, the villa itself becomes so much more once a visitor delves deeper.


Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei. (2010). Retrieved June 19, 2010, from Villa Farnesina:

Ackerman, J. (1986). The Villa as Paradigm. Perspecta, 10-31.

Bigot, C. (1884). Raphael and the Villa Farnesina. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co.

Janick, J., & Paris, H. S. (2005). The Cucurbit Images (1515-1518) of the Villa Farnesina, Rome. Annals of Botany, 165-176.

Jones, M. (1988). Palazzo Massimo and Baldassare Peruzzi's Approach to Architectural Design. Architectural History, 59-106.

Quinlan-McGrath, M. (1984). The Astrological Vault of the Villa Farnesina Agostino Chigi's Rising Sign. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 91-105.

Rowland, I. D. (1986). Render Unto Caesar the Things Which are Caesar's: Humanism and the Arts in the Patronage of Agostino Chigi. Renaissance Quarterly, 673-730.

Rowland, I. D. (1984). Some Panegyrics to Agostino Chigi. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 194-199.

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