Just opposite the Palazzo and Galleria Corsini is a beautiful Renaissance villa, over 500 years old, that has some of the most gorgeous frescoes in all of Rome. This is the Villa Farnesina, built between 1506 and 1510. Many signs in Trastevere give directions to the villa and indicate that the visitor can expect to find affreschi di Raffaello here, frescoes by the famous Italian Renaissance painter Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520), known as Raphael in the English-speaking world. The villa is the work of Baldassare Peruzzi (1481-1536), a painter and architect from a small town near Siena, who came to Rome in 1503 and began as chief assistant to the famous architect Bramante (the first architect of New Saint Peter’s Basilica). The villa was commissioned by Agostino Chigi (1466-1520), a banker and patron of the arts from Siena who was as rich as Croesus. It was acquired by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in 1577, which explains the name Villa Farnesina.
Loggia of Galatea
The villa’s design is quite simple. It consists of a central part and two parallel wings. Only a handful of the rooms are open to tourists. The visitor starts his or her tour in the Loggia of Galatea. Although the villa is most famous for Raphael’s frescoes, many of the frescoes were actually executed by artists like Peruzzi himself or Venetian painter Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). In fact, even the frescoes attributed to Raphael were in many cases executed by members of his workshop, and not necessarily by the master himself.
However, Raphael did personally paint the best-known and most impressive fresco in the Loggia of Galatea. I am of course referring to the Triumph of Galatea. Galatea was one of the Nereids, the 50 daughters of the sea god Nereus. She can be seen in the centre of the fresco, in a shell drawn by two dolphins. On the left, a triton with his head covered in algae is trying to abduct a sea nymph. On the right, another triton is blowing his horn, while in the sky, three erotes are aiming their bows.
Galatea was coveted by the cyclops Polyphemos, who can be seen on the fresco above the door, just left of the Triumph of Galatea. This fresco is Del Piombo’s work. Raphael reportedly did not use a female model while painting Galatea. The story goes that he used an image of a woman that had formed in his mind, because there were no women in Rome of sufficient beauty to be used a model for Galatea. Whether this story is true or not, Raphael’s Galatea is certainly perfect and a highlight of Renaissance feminine beauty.
Baldassare Peruzzi was responsible for the frescoes on the ceiling – depicting Agostino Chigi’s horoscope – while Del Piombo did the scenes in the lunettes in the Loggia, except for the monochrome fresco of a young man peeking inside. An old tradition dictates that this is Michelangelo’s head. The famous sculptor, painter and architect had used a ruse to get into the villa and admire the work of his colleague and rival Raphael. When he had finished inspecting the work, he left his card by painting his face in one of the lunettes. Raphael immediately recognised Michelangelo’s hand and did not erase the fresco.
It is a good story, but it is definitely not true. The fresco is actually the work Peruzzi, who also painted the mythological scenes on the ceiling that show the celestial bodies at the time of Chigi’s birth in November of 1466. In one of the scenes, we see the Greek hero Perseus. He grabs the Gorgo Medusa by the hair and is about to decapitate her. Surrounding the figures in the scene are several stars, all presumably part of Chigi’s horoscope.
Loggia of Cupido and Psyche
The huge ceiling frescoes in this loggia were designed and executed in 1517 or 1518 by Raphael and his workshop. They tell the tale of the love between a mortal woman, Psyche, and the god Cupido (or Amor; Eros in Greek). The first ceiling fresco depicts The Wedding of Cupid and Psyche, while the second shows the Council of the Gods.
Most of the figures in the latter fresco are easily recognisable. Seated on an eagle, with his foot on a globe, is Jupiter (Zeus in Greek). In front of him is Cupido (Eros), who is supported by his mother Venus (Aphrodite). Cupido pleads his case and that of Psyche before the supreme god. On Jupiter’s right are his wife Juno (Hera) with a peacock, his daughter Diana (Artemis) with a crescent moon in her hair and his daughter Minerva (Athena) with a helmet and spear. On his left are the war god Mars (Ares) with a helmet and spear, and two bearded gods with tridents, possibly Triton and his father Neptunus (Poseidon). Between Venus and Cupido we can just discern the three-headed hell-hound Cerberus (Kerberos). Psyche can be seen on the extreme left of the scene. She is presented with a bowl of ambrosia, the drink of the gods, by Mercurius (Hermes). This will make her immortal as well.
A famous part of the frescoes in this loggia is the depiction of the three Graces. Raphael painted the lady on the left himself and – unlike with Galatea (see above) – used a model this time. This model was not his own mistress Margarita Luti, known as La Fornarina (“the baker’s daughter”). Rather, he employed the services of one Imperia, who was Agostino Chigi’s mistress and a famous courtesan in Rome at the time. Her beauty was legendary. The rest of the fresco is the work of Giulio Romano (1499-1546), a pupil of Raphael.
The visitor should realise that this was originally an open space, so a sixteenth century Roman could simply enter the loggia from the gardens without opening any doors. The loggia is now closed off, which is probably better for the vulnerable frescoes inside as well. They are no longer subject to changing atmospheric circumstances, which can have a disastrous effect on the paint.
Salone delle Prospettive
From the Room of the Frieze with its frescoes of the twelve labours of Hercules, the visitor can continue to the first floor and admire the works in the Salone delle Prospettive (the Hall of Perspectives). This hall was used for feasts and banquets, and it was here that Agostini Chigi celebrated his wedding in 1519. It may also have been the location of a banquet about a year and a half earlier, to which even Pope Leo X had been invited. On this occasion, Chigi and his guests dined off plates made of gold and silver. Chigi was fabulously wealthy and wanted everybody to know it. At the end of the banquet, he had all the plates, cups and cutlery thrown into the river Tiber to the amazement of all the guests. But Chigi was not stupid. Unbeknown to his guests, he had nets placed under water, so that his servants could easily collect all the items again.
The Salone delle Prospettive was frescoed by Peruzzi, who painted a famous trompe-l’oeil on one of the walls. It consists of four fake Doric columns and a fake but very interesting view of sixteenth century Rome, including landmarks such as the Torre delle Milizie. After Chigi’s death in 1520, the villa was apparently not in use until it was acquired by Alessandro Farnese in 1577. Twentieth century restorations brought to light an inscription by German mercenaries who participated in the notorious Sacco di Roma of 1527, during which troops of emperor Charles V occupied and pillaged the Eternal City. These mercenaries – called Landsknechts – were stationed at the villa for at least a year, as the inscription bears a date of 1528. The text is in German and reads:
“Was sol ich schreiben und nit lachen die La[nz]knecht habenn den babst lauffen machen.”
(“Why should I write and not laugh; the Landsknechts have the Pope on the run.”)
From the great hall, the visitor enters the next room, which is Chigi’s bedroom. It is usually named Alexander and Roxane’s wedding room, after the large fresco on the northern wall. This fresco and the fresco on the eastern wall were painted by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (1477-1549), who is also known as Il Sodoma. There is a third fresco in the room as well, occupying the western wall. It is – sit verbo venia – exceptionally ugly and was definitely not executed by Sodoma. It depicts the young Alexander taming his horse Bucephalus. The artist is unknown, but calling him an artist is probably an insult to art.
Sodoma’s frescoes, on the other hand, are of excellent quality. The one on the northern walls shows the Macedonian king Alexander the Great and his spouse, the Baktrian princess Roxane (see above). The newlyweds are surrounded by erotes, some of them pushing and pulling Alexander towards the bed. Roxane is already undressed and sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting for Alexander to come and lie next to her. On the right are Alexander’s soulmate and lover Hephaestion (wearing almost no clothes) and the Greek god of marriage Hymenaios with a torch.
The other fresco shows Alexander’s magnanimity towards the mother and daughters of the Persian king Darius, whom Alexander had previously defeated in battle. The woman kneeling before Alexander is Sisygambis, Darius’ mother. Among the daughters is possibly the Persian princess Stateira, whom Alexander would later marry. Roxane and Stateira intensely disliked each other, and the former killed the latter after Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323 BCE.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p.220-221;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 314-317;
- Villa Farnesina website.