The Villa Farnesina in Rome, built in the early six¬teenth century for the rich sienese banker Agostino Chigi and now owned by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, is one of the noblest and most harmonious creations of the Italian Renaissance. It is a masterpiece in which architectural design and pictorial decoration fuse in¬to a single marvellous synthesis. The sober volumet¬ric and spatial layout of the Villa, devised by the architect Baldassarre Peruzzi, is indeed the per¬fect setting for its rich interior decoration, boasting frescos by great masters such as Raphael, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi known as Sodoma, and Peruzzi himself.

After a somewhat troubled history and many changes of ownership, the Villa now bears the name and preserves the memory of the Farnese family, who acquired it in 1579 in violation of the binding legal conditions imposed by its original owner. It should re¬ally have been named after Agostino Chigi, the high¬ly ambitious patron and art-lover who was born in Siena in 1466 and who commissioned the Villa as the tangible sign of his own personality and high culture, decorating it magnificently and living in it until his death in 1520. Agostino came from a family of mer¬chants who became bankers. After receiving train¬ing in his father’s bank, he soon became familiar with the finances of the Papal States and at just twenty years old, he founded his first company in Rome. With the election of the Borgia pope Alexander VI in 1492, business increased for the sienese bankers, and Agostino’s affairs prospered so well that within a short time he was lending huge sums of money to Cesare Borgia, Piero de’ Medici, Guidobaldo da Montefeltro and even to the French king Charles VIII. However the real ba¬sis of his immense fortune came from the rights he owned to the alum mines of Tolfa near Rome. By rationalising and nurturing the extraction and sale of this valuable mineral salt, which was indispensable for the dyeing of fabrics, Agostino became the pos¬sessor of a flourishing international monopoly with his own fleet, anchored at Porto Ercole. After the very brief pontificate of Pius III Tode¬schini Piccolomini, his business relations with Julius II della Rovere were no less profitable. He assisted in Julius II’s election, and apart from financial matters, the two were quite attached by a shared love for art, literature, theatre and the an¬cient world. In 1509 Julius II accepted him into the papal familia and allowed the Chigi arms (six hills crowned with a star) to be charged with the Della Rovere oak. The rich banker also managed to ingratiate himself with the next pope, Leo X Medici, by organising feasts and lending sums of money.

Before moving into the Far¬nesina, Agostino Chigi lived in a house in Via dei Banchi with his young wife Margherita Saracini, who died childless in 1508. He then embarked on an affair with the courtesan Imperia, famous for her beauty and culture, who bore him a daughter, Lucrezia. But even before the death of Imperia in 1511 he had begun to court Margherita Gonzaga, the natural daughter of Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua; he failed to pull this marriage off however, even though he had promised to give up all his business interests so as to appease the prejudices of the Mantuan court. In 1511, on a debt-collecting mission to Venice, he met a young girl of humble origins, Francesca Ordeaschi, and lived with her as her common-law husband until 1519. In that year on the feast of St Augustine, no doubt prompted by a sense his own mortality, he decided to regularise his position with a proper wedding and at the same time dictated his Will.

The wedding banquet was a memorable event, but no less sumptuous were the many feasts that Agosti¬no gave, especially in the last years of his life, when he welcomed into his new home the foremost per¬sonalities of the age: poets, princes, cardinals, even the pope himself. The chroniclers record for exam¬ple that in 1518, on the occasion of the christening of the eldest child Lorenzo Leone, gold and silver vessels used for the banquet were flung into the Tiber as a sign of munificence (though it appears that the wily banker had ordered nets to be laid on the river bed so that the valuable objects could be recovered the next day). After its acquisition by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese the Younger, and after the death of his nephew Odoardo who inherited it, the Villa was abandoned, being occasionally lent to important vis¬itors to Rome such as Cardinal Richelieu, Cardinal Frederick of Assia-Darmstadt, Queen Christina of Sweden and various ambassadors of Louis XIV. In 1735 the Villa was bequeathed by Elisabetta Farnese to Carlo IV, King of the Two Sicilies, and became the residence of various Neapolitan ambassadors until Francesco II of Naples, having retired to Rome after his abdication, granted a 99-year lease on the Far¬nesina to the Spanish ambassador of Naples, Sal¬vador Bermudez de Castro, the duke of Ripalta. Finally the Villa was acquired in 1927 by the State, which used it to house the Italian Academy and in 1944 gave it to the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, housed in the nearby Palazzo Corsini.


In May 1505, while concluding the purchase of the site near the Septimian Gate, between Via della Lungara and the Tiber, Agostino Chigi entrusted the planning of the Farnesina to Baldassarre Peruzzi, a painter, architect and theatrical designer, born in Siena in 1481 and died in Rome in 1536. In the spring of the following year the plans were already completed, but it seems that for the laying of the first stone, the banker — like oth¬er renaissance patrons — de¬cided to wait for a favourable conjunction of planets, in this case 22 April 1506, a date thought at the time to mark the anniversary of the founding of Rome. In addition to the Villa, the property comprised the Sta¬bles, designed by Raphael and demolished in 1808 after many years of neglect, a loggia on the banks of the Tiber, and beauti¬ful gardens which gave to the whole complex the appearance of a magnificent “viridario”, so that it was compared by the laudatory poets of the time (such as Egidio Gallo and Blosio Palladio) to the most cele¬brated residences of antiquity. Two years after work began, the building had progressed so far that Agosti¬no was able to commission Peruzzi himself to deco¬rate the Room of the Frieze, and having moved in by the summer of 1511, he was able to show his new residence in all its splendour to the pope.

Originally the entrance to the Villa was on the north side, where the pergolas and pavilions in the garden gave the impression of extending the festoons painted in the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche, creating a de¬lightful effect of symbiosis with the architecture. With its loggias, mezzanines and internal staircases the Far¬nesina comprised six levels, but its present appear¬ance is the result of a series of later interventions, in¬cluding some important internal restructuring carried out by Agostino Chigi himself in 1518. The principal alteration was the westwards extension of the room on the first floor now known as the Room of the Perspective Views. On that occasion or shortly afterwards the belvedere was added to the north-east side of the Villa, while it was probably around 1650 that the two loggias were closed in and some of the walls in the Loggia of Galatea were decorated with landscapes. Finally, rad¬ical restoration was car¬ried out in the late seven¬teenth century by the painter Carlo Maratta.


Shortly after completing the ground-floor walls, Baldassarre Peruzzi be¬gan work on the frescoed frieze that gives its name to the Room of the Frieze, which was intended as a waiting-room for guests but also for important cer¬emonies such as the read¬ing of the banker’s Will. In the frieze, with evident al¬legorical allusion to the virtues of the patron, Pe¬ruzzi frescoed the twelve Labours of Hercules and other deeds performed by the hero, as well as various mythological episodes, incorporating flashes of the nascent culture of clas¬sical antiquity but also supplementing the iconogra¬phy with from late-medieval Ovidi¬an imagery. Early in 1509 Peruzzi was entrusted with the pictorial decoration of the Villa’s exterior, which is documented by drawings, but is unfortunately al¬most entirely lost except for a few fragments in the spandrels on the east facade.

In the early months of 1511, now that the archi¬tecture was completed, the sienese artist concen¬trated on decorating the vault of what became the Loggia of Galatea, by far the most considerable pic¬torial commission of his career. Here, on the basis of a plan elaborated by an astrologer and complet¬ed by the humanist Cornelio Benigni, Peruzzi trans¬lated Agostino Chigi’s horoscope into images, or¬ganising the complex arrangement of constellations, divinities and signs of the zodiac into a scheme of great structural elegance.

Peruzzi was still working on the vault of the Loggia of Galatea when Agostino Chigi, in August 1511, re¬turned from Venice and moved into the Farnesina, hav¬ing brought with him the young Sebastiano del Piom¬bo, one of the most talented of the new generation of venetian painters. Possibly unsatisfied with the progress of the work, he started Sebastiano working alongside Peruzzi, and within a short time engaged the services of Raphael. In the frescoes of the nine lunettes (the tenth was decorated by Peruzzi with an enormous Head of a young man), Sebastiano painted various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and then frescoed on one wall a large figure of Polyphemus, while Raphael, referring to the same legend, painted on the same wall the elegant figure of Galatea, the beautiful nymph, who is shown amongst a throng of sea creatures as she speeds away from her admir¬er on a fantastical shell drawn by dolphins. By juxtaposing the supreme compositional skills of Raphael with Peruzzi’s meditation on the antique, and with Sebastiano’s colouristic mastery, Agostino Chigi was able to amaze his guests not only with the mytho¬logical stories and their moral or symbolic signifi¬cance, but also with the expressive and stylistic tal¬ents of three of the greatest painters of the age, brought together at the height of their artistic careers in order to bestow lustre on the house of Chigi.


After the completion of the Polyphemus and the Galatea, Agostino Chigi interrupted the pictorial dec¬oration of the Farnesina for more than five years, pos-sibly because Raphael had told him that he would be able to paint more frescoes but never found the time to do so. At around 1517, when Raphael became available once more, the banker, who in preparation for his marriage to Francesca Ordeaschi was already think¬ing of decorating those rooms that still remained un-decorated, immediately engaged him for the pictorial cycle in the gallery on the ground floor, where he intended to create a setting grand enough to overwhelm the guests invited to his wedding. Here Raphael, so as to give free rein to his creative powers, was not con¬tent with depicting isolated scenes but wanted to devise a continuous narrative, alluding in some way to the forthcoming marriage. The choice fell upon the fable of Cupid and Psyche, which had already been used in the fifteenth century for nuptial imagery: a tale told by a garrulous old woman to Lucius, the protagonist of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, dur¬ing the course of his wanderings.

In narrating the story of the beautiful Psyche, who was loved by the god Cupid and perse¬cuted by Venus until eventually she was married on Olympus, Raphael selected those episodes that best lent themselves to a se¬ries of allusions, partly bio-graphical and partly symbolically, to the patron and to his lover and bride, reflecting on the Platonic as¬sumption of the Latin novelist that divine love renders human beings immortal. To give the space a fes¬tive and theatrical aspect, the artist also transformed the vault of the entrance Loggia into a per¬gola, as though the greenery of the gardens had invaded the Vil¬la, hanging in magnificent fes¬toons, framing the spandrels and segments of the vault. In the centre he devised two fictive tapestries showing the concluding scenes: the splendid Coun¬cil of the Gods, where the unjustly persecuted girl is finally received with divine complacence, and the Marriage of Cupid and Psyche, the symbolic culmi¬nation of the entire cycle. However, if the general layout of the cycle and the planning of the individ¬ual scenes and figures are due to the intuitive genius of Raphael, as is proved by a number of autographical sketches, the actual translation into fresco was car¬ried out by numerous workshop assistants, including Giovan Francesco Penni, Giulio Romano and Gio¬vanni da Udine. The latter, in particular, was the au¬thor of the exuberant triumphal festoons.


While Raphael was still working with his assistants on the frescoes in the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche, work was proceeding apace on the first floor to re¬structure the bedchamber that was to receive the new spouses. This was the most intimate room in the Villa and Agostino Chigi, wanting to allude to its function, commissioned the decoration from Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, known as Sodoma, a painter who was born in Vercelli but had long been working in Siena and Rome. Following an “initial idea” by Raphael, Sodoma planned in 1519 on the walls of the bedchamber, be¬neath a magnificent coffered ceiling decorated in monochrome, a fresco cycle showing the wedding of Alexander the Great and his bride Roxane, based on Lucian’s description of a famous lost painting of an¬tiquity. The centre-piece of the narrative is the scene of the imminent consummation of the marriage: the Macedonian warrior is shown hurrying towards his bride, who is surrounded by amorini and is sitting waiting for him, naked, on the edge of the splendid four-poster bed. The other scenes represent Alexander’s magnanimity towards the mother and daughters of the defeated Darius, the taming of the horse Bucephalus (where the presence of assistants may be detected) and the culminating moment of one battle.

No less suggestive, and also on the first floor, is the decoration of the Room of the Perspective Views, where on 28 August 1519 the rich banker held his wedding ban-quet. This room, which takes its name from the perspective views of urban and rural landscapes between fictive columns, is one of the most mature and successful pictorial creations of Baldassarre Pe¬ruzzi, who poured out his own talents, refined by dai¬ly contact with Sebastiano and Raphael, not only in the sophisticated illusionistic divisions of the walls but also in the divinities portrayed above the doors and windows; the mythological scenes that run be¬neath the ceiling, also alluding to Agostino Chigi’s marriage, are the work of assistants.

Throughout the monumental rooms of the Far¬nesina there sounds the melodious and powerful echo of the ancient world, a world of images, symbols and myths, where Peruzzi, Sebastiano del Piombo, Raphael and Sodoma competed to satisfy a man anx¬ious to emulate the great patrons of antiquity. The particular fascination of the Villa Farnesina derives from the seamless unity between the powerful per-sonality of the patron and the magisterial architec¬tural, pictorial and decorative exertions of some of the greatest musters of the Renaissance.

(by “La Villa Farnesina a Roma”, Mirabilia Italiae, Franco Cosimo Panini, on sale at the Bookshop of the Museum).