Despite its importance in the history of art, in Rome there is an enchanted place that does not enjoy too much popularity and is not included in the itineraries of the general public. It lies on the other side of the Tiber and was once, before the construction of the river’s embankment walls in the late 19th century, reflected in its waters. For the former owner, it was a place of delight where leisure, friendship, love and passion were cultivated while the golden Roman sunsets lit up this marvelous place with an inimitable light.
The owner, Agostino Chigi, was a banker, but in his villa outside the city, only art, music, poetry and great passions were topics of interest. Raphael was at home here. If you want to fully understand what the Renaissance was like in Rome, outside the papal curia, what optimism and enthusiasm characterized it before the terrible Sack of Rome in 1527 and the moralistic turn of the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent, you should spend half a day at Villa Farnesina.
Designed by Baldassarre Peruzzi, the villa was built in the early years of the 16th century for Agostino Chigi. It was then sold in 1579 to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, from whom it takes its current name. The building, the first suburban villa in Rome, has been at the center of many legends linked to the pleasure-loving life of the banker Chigi, to the loves of the incorrigible Raphael and the rivalry, in this case entirely invented, between Michelangelo and Raphael himself.
Much of what the villa still preserves today is due to the very special relationship of patronage that bound Chigi to Raphael throughout the second decade of the 16th century. On the vaults of the loggia, Raphael frescoed the famous cycle with the Story of Cupid and Psyche taken from Apuleius, framed by intricate floral interlacing in continuity with the garden in front and the waters of the Tiber. In one of the rooms adjoining the loggia, Raphael’s famous fresco with the Triumph of Galatea is found.
In the same room, Sebastiano del Piombo, who had just arrived in Rome from Venice together with Chigi, frescoed twelve lunettes with mythological scenes in which one can breathe in the atmosphere of light and color of the Venetian Renaissance. One of these lunettes, totally different from the others, features a monochrome painting of a giant’s head and is said, but this is only legend, to be the work of Michelangelo, painted to give a lesson in anatomy to his rival Raphael.
Legendary festivities were held at Villa Farnesina. It is said that to make him work better, Chigi allowed Raphael to bring his women to the villa. These were years of great enthusiasms and equally great transgressions.
This atmosphere of joy was short-lived. The banker died in 1520, as did his venerated Raphael. The year 1520, therefore, was a terrible year for the history of the Roman Renaissance and, for the Villa, the beginning of misfortune. So much so that in 1527, during the terrible Sack of Rome by Emperor Charles V’s Lansquenets, it was chosen as accommodations for the troops.
The signs of what happened to the villa can still be seen in the graffiti and in the engraved names that appear on the columns and pilasters of the so-called Sala delle Prospettive (Hall of the Perspective Views) frescoed on the first floor: an extraordinary example of perspective painting, in which their author, Baldassarre Peruzzi, created faux loggias that open onto views of the Rome of that time.
Perhaps art has truly never reached such lofty heights as at Villa Farnesina.