Walking along the Via della Lungara passers by may catch a glimpse of a large seemingly rectangular structure known as the Villa Farnesina. The lower walls patched with hues of organey-browns and tan-pinks, surround clean cut rows of windows along the upper and lower floor. A bold cornice outlines the roof and marks a dark angular line into the Roman sky. The villa sits happily, within sight of the Tiber River. Its central location in Trastevere, places the villa at the heart of Rome. A wealthy Sienese banker, Agostino Chigi, commissioned the structure in the early 1500s originally naming it Villa Chigi. Today it is known as the Villa Farnesina due to a purchase made in 1581 by the Farnese family who later renamed it. The building, designed by Baldassarre Peruzzi, began construction in 1506 and finished in 1511. Villas have played a large role in Italian society and the Italian Renaissance. The interesting placement of this countryside villa in urban Rome amplifies its purpose as a place of entertainment and fun. This paper will describe the physical attributes of the villa, its function, and the goals of the patron.
Chigi commissioned a fellow Sienese architect and painter, Baldassarre Peruzzi, to build his villa. Peruzzi also knew extensive astrology and studied under Bramante and Raphael. The villa was built between 1506 and 1511 but continued to have the interior decorated until about 1519, and some parts still remained unfinished at that time.
The Villa Farnesina radiates harmony in its clean architecture. A well achieved balance between symmetry and elegance coats the simple proportions. The cross section of the building is a square and the main section, excluding the wings, combines two squares. The two-square proportion repeatedly occurs in the dimensions of doors and windows throughout the villa except in the attic and the mezzanine. Floor plans reveal a typical U-shaped blueprint. That characteristic coupled with the garden setting, open loggias, and painted decoration strongly categorize this building as a villa.
Monochrome frescos originally covered the exterior of the building. Rather accurate speculations hypothesize the outdoor frescos continued nature themes along the exterior thus enhancing the overall theme and purpose of the building. The painting style imitated Roman marble reliefs and gave the building the feel of an ancient monument. The décor along the top has pairs of cherubs holding up festoons of flowers and fruit. These combined properties added more interaction with the impressive gardens, hazed the difference between outside and inside and created a ‘vision of earthy paradise.’
Chigi’s reputation as a patron of the arts, his connections with artist and his large sums of money resulted in an unforgettable cast of painters to work on the interior of the villa. The extensive crew included the architect Baldassarre Peruzzi, Sebastiano del Piobo, Giovanni da Udine, Giulio Romano, Il Sodoma and Raphael. The interior truly screams with pagan images, an abrupt change compared to most pieces of the time. Four main rooms show the beauty and grandeur of the villa. Each has a different character and ambiance reflective of the main artists. Discussion will follow the order of commission (and the order when visiting the villa), the Sala di Galatea, the Loggia di Psyche, the Sala delle Prospettive and the Sala di Sodoma.
Sala di Galatea
Walking into this room presents the viewer with an intricately decorated space full of character. Gold and blue hit one’s eyes to grab attention and to show wealth. Blues in the ceiling’s sky present the most striking color of all. Painted and designed by Peruzzi in 1511, the style appears somewhat two-dimensional and resembles the transition from Medieval to Renaissance art. One must remember the central archway on the garden side held the original entrance to the previously open loggia. As a result, upon entering the ceiling panels would be facing the ‘right’ direction.
Most sections of the ceiling are covered by a figure in human form that represents a celestial sign. It contains ten spandrels, fourteen severies and two central panels. Peruzzi chose to fill the spandrels with zodiacal signs. The numerical limitation forces him to pair four of them Aries with Taurus and Libra with Scorpio. Seven planets are carefully placed within these spandrels. The severies contain other constellations. Starting with Altar in the panel directly opposite the viewer, from the original entrance, to the left we find the Lyre, the Arrow, the Dolphin, the Bird or Swan, Pegasus, the Triangle, and the River Eridanus. To the right of Altar we have the Northern Crown, the Crater, the Hydra, the Dog, the Ship and the Charioteer. The two main ceiling panels feature, on the left, Perseus about to decapitate Medusa, with Fame, or possibly Virgo, flying to the right of them, and on the right, a representation of the constellation Wain driven by Cyunosura or Helice.
Many scholars have questioned and analyzed the significance of the ceiling. Most believe the placement of the figures allude to the birth date of Agostino Chigi. Planets follow a very precise pattern. Thus the specific placement of the seven planets in the spandrels marks the date of either November 29 or 30 in the year 1466. The main contributors to the dating are Moon’s movement behind Virgo depicted by Virgo and Luna sharing a spandrel.
Scholars have also question the reasoning behind the figures in the severies. One theory uses the writings of Aratus’s Phaenomena and Manilus’s Astonimica. These texts were available to Peruzzi at the time. They indicate which celestial signs rose and set during the ascension of each zodiacal sign. We find all eleven of the stated associated signs in the fourteen severies along with two other stars, Pegasus and Eridanus. These two were placed in the positions according to their relationship with other stars in the real sky. The final severy contains Altar. It touches Chigi’s sun sign of Sagittarius. With the added information in the severies, the time of his birth is cut down to a 24-hour span from noon 29 November to noon the next day. The final piece of information comes from the two panels. If a North South line is drawn by placing the Chariot/Bear in the north part of the ceiling and Perseus in the south, the time that the stars of the constellations in the panels line up are from 9:20 to 11:00 pm. Meshing all the components together, the ceiling in its entirety represents a one and a half hour window on the night of November 29 in 1466. Not only was Baldassarre Peruzzi a talented artist and architect, he also proved to be an exceptional astrologer. Support for this theory also comes from Baptistry archives in Siena of the birth of Mariano Chigi’s son at 21 ½ hours on 29 November 1466. Although the intricacies of this ceiling are quite exquisite, Peruzzi’s genius often gets overshadowed by the more realistic, detailed, humanized paintings of Raphael. One wall fresco shows Raphael’s contribution to this room.
The wall frescos as a whole feel disconnected, because the series of paintings planned for the walls were never completed. The Triumph of Galatea painted by Raphael in 1512, shows one of the few secular paintings during his career. Set in the ocean with a blue cloud-spotted sky, the main figure in the painting is Galatea known as “she who is milk-white”. She twists her torso to the right as a red cover billows in the wind following the flow of her hair. Three cherubs fly above with their bows strung with arrows. A fourth cherub sits behind a cloud and observes with a mischievous expression. Below, Tritons blow horns and one in the foreground grabs at a sea nymph. In the mythological story, the Nereid Galatea falls in love with a peasant farmer Acis. The Cyclops Polyphemus also falls in love with Galatea and kills Acis with a boulder out of jealousy. Galatea then turned his blood into the river Acis. The painting depicts when Galatea reaches a state of godliness or, apotheosis. The bright colors, decorations and form, seem inspired by Michelangelo. Polyphemus, painted by Sebastino del Piombo sits gazing in the panel to the left of Raphael’s fresco. These two paintings side by side show the two differing schools of art. The rest of the paintings on the walls are landscapes added in the 17th century.
The story of Galatea plays off love and desire, a theme repeated throughout the villa. Some scholars suggest it represents Agostino’s love life, when chasing a woman he could not have. This room impressively ties the heavens, earth and sea through the astrological ceiling, the open loggia, and the tale of Galatea.
Loggia di Psyche
This magnificent loggia, designed by Raphael and mostly painted by his crew of helpers in 1518, shows a spectacular amount of skill. Originally the main villa entrance presided here and the room was an open loggia. The walls imitate realistic architectural form using light and shadow to trick viewers with illusion. Nature plays an important role through the abundance of vegetation in the festoons outlining the ceiling and its partitions, and the illusion of sky along the top and semi-circle lunettes. The fruit and vegetables have an enormous amount of detail, many of which were modeled after the variety of exotic and well maintained plants in the glorious gardens. The color scheme in this room feels very cool. The pinkish shades of skin tone pop out from the ceiling and the interplay between the characters shows a mastery of space and expression.
The ceiling depicts of story of Amour and Psyche as narrated in Apuleius’s Golden Ass. Legend has it, Psyche was the most beautiful child of King Anatolia. Jealous of her, Venus (Aphrodite) asks her son Cupid (Eros) to pierce Psyche with a golden arrow so she would fall in love with the ugliest man on earth. He agrees but falls in love with her instead. The two marry, but Psyche upsets Cupid. Advised by the gods, Psyche sets out to regain Cupid’s love through service. She eventually asks Venus for aid. Venus orders Psyche to perform a series of near impossible tasks. With the aid of others she completes enough for Cupid to forgive her. He flies to Mount Olympus and asks Jove to help save Psyche from the last task. Jove does and during a formal council declares his approval of the marriage between Cupid and Psyche. Later, Cupid fetches Psyche and she drinks immortalizing Ambrosia. The two have a child named Volupta (Bliss or Delight) and Venus and Psyche reconcile.
The entire ceiling focuses around the dramatic love story full of courtship, danger, jealously and pleasure. The two main panels show the Council of the Gods and the Marriage of Cupid and Psyche. Along the sides of the ceiling, Raphael depicts other portions of the story. The beginning panel shows Venus pointing downwards while discussing her plan with Cupid. This room clearly carries the themes of nature and love in a very pagan manner. Raphael successfully intertwines the characters and the style of painting while following more realistic and 3-dimensional Renaissance art.
Sala delle Prospettive
The name of this room works perfectly. The side frescoes, designed and painted by Baldassare Peruzzi, depict columns going into the distance. Agostino commissioned him in 1519. When standing in the center of the room, the columns follow perfect perspective. Painted with detail, they imitate dark veined marble. They present an architectural foreground to the countryside background that builds on the illusion of nature within the villa. These views conveniently tie in the traditional villa scene because villas were usually built in the suburbs. The continuation of the floor into the fresco emphasizes the illusion and carries the viewer out. Divinities reside above the doors and windows and a frieze of mythological scenes line the ceiling. The forge of Vulcan has a fitting placement on the northern side, above the fireplace. Deeply coffered squares tile the ceiling and give the room a sense of depth. This room clearly plays on illusions of space and successfully engages the viewer to peer out and interact with nature.
Sala di Sodoma
This room is also known as the Agostino’s bedroom and was commissioned in 1519. Walking in, the walls are completely frescoed. The coffered ceiling depicts scenes from mythology, again showing more pagan references. The most eye-catching aspect of the room is Sodoma’s Marriage of Alexander and Roxanne. Roxanne twists her body as she gazes to the outstretched hand of Alexander. Cherubs occupy a large portion of room along the top of the fresco and within. A few even tug at Roxanne’s limbs. The paintings on the side show people in battle and heading towards the marriage. Stairs leading into the fresco draws in and interacts with the viewer. The reoccurring theme of love and drama clearly presides in this room. Many believe the marriage scene reflects Agostino’s third marriage to Francesca Andreazza. His martial ceremony, performed by Leo X, actually took place in the Villa Chigi. Thus, the frescoed theme of marriage and love properly define the private bedroom as a place of their union.
The Villa Farnesina truly embodied its purpose of entertainment. Agostino Chigi used this building for parties, formal dinners, his wedding, theatrical performances and more. The amount of money and time put into the villa shows how ostentatious Chigi felt about showing his fortune. Agostino Chigi would serve dinner guests on lavish plates of silver. To demonstrate his abundance of money to his company, he would order his servants to toss the silverware out of the windows and into the Tiber after their meals. Secretly nets in the water caught the pieces of eatery and eventually made their way back to the villa.
Architectural choices by Peruzzi emphasize the theatrical purpose of the building. Peruzzi alludes to the function by using Vitruvian authority. Vitruvius explains the design of Roman theatre through arithmetic ratios. Lower stories should have pedestals and an entablature respectively one third and one fifth the height of its columns while upper storey pedestals have half the height and columns have three fourths the height of their lower level counterparts. Peruzzi followed the advice with exactness.
In the early 1500s, theatrical events adapted to their environment not the other way around. The u-shape, and open Loggia di Psyche creates an ideal enclosure for performances. At the time, a raised stage flanked the two wings to line the loggia. Actors entered from the room’s openings. Thoughtfully, the frescoes in the Loggia di Psyche just cover the ceiling while the paintings on the walls restrict themselves to architectural and patterned designs. This made setting changes and backdrops easier to create and adapt to during performances. Illusionary perspective and Muses carrying tragic and comic masks along the walls continue the theatrical implications upstairs in the Sala delle Prospettive.
Goals of the Patron
The goal of creating a building to function as a location for entertainment, partying and showing the wealth of the Chigi family definitely succeeded. In addition, bringing nature into the building presents another major goal when building a villa. At first glance the exterior is lined with an abundant amount of windows, allowing natural light in and connecting the rooms to nature as much as possible. Furthermore, the two loggias were originally open. Not only would that add more light, but sweet smells from the garden and even insects and animals had access to the rooms.
The Loggia di Psyche served as the original entrance into the villa. Observing the ceiling, one can see the impact of nature on the fresco. A thick festoon of leaves and a variety of fruit follow the architectural space along the spandrels and ceiling panels. This matches the frieze on the exterior. The earthly colors and background of blue sky incorporate the outside in. Even the semi-circle lunettes above the walls have painted windows with a fictitious outdoor view. The large vertical panels of windows facing the garden flood the room with daylight. Upstairs, the Sala delle Prospettive creates an illusion of countryside views as one gazes at the frescoes and past the columns. The distant horizon generates a feeling of space and infinity. In Sala di Sodoma, Alexander and Roxanne’s courtship is in a covered area, but effort was made to continue the story outdoors on the side frescoes, and in the background of the main fresco. Nature clearly impacted the villa as a major theme throughout the entire building.
The Villa Farnesina houses art from some of the most prominent figures of its time. Each room tells a different story as one can only imagine the splendor and extravagance Agostino Chigi must have experienced when entertaining guests in his new villa.
After the Chigi sold the building to the Farnese family, the Farnese made plans to connect it by bridge with the Palazzo Farnese. Building began but never completed. In later centuries the Bourbon of Naples owned it, and the Spanish Ambassador in Rome. Today the Italian state has used it for the Accademia dei Lincei and the Gabinetto dei Disegnie dell Stampe. The harmonious architecture, meaningful proportions, innovative and eye-catching frescoes swimming in pagan themes of nature and love will attract passers by and art fanatics for many years to come.
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