Thursday, September 14, 2006

Villa Farnesina: An Intimate Look at an Innovative Renaissance Suburban Villa

Erin Shields
Honors in Rome - Summer 2006

Introduction to Villa Farnesina

Villas have been in existence since the Roman empire and have often served a similar purpose throughout history: a country estate, which offers the owner an escape from the pressures of the city and an opportunity to commune with nature. During the Renaissance, the role of the villa also began to take on a more sensual aspect, which was often evident by the type of decoration present within the villa and the types of events held at the villa. In 1505, Agostino Chigi purchased land in the Trastevere district of Rome along the Tiber River in order to build a suburban villa that would reflect his recently accumulated wealth and provide an extravagant place to entertain the elite of Rome. This villa, originally known as the Chigi Villa, would be unlike any seen in the Renaissance on account of the classical elegance of the exterior, revolutionary decorations on the interior, and pagan imagery throughout all elements of the villa. In order to comprehend the innovative nature of this villa, which has since become known as Villa Farnesina, this paper will discuss the historical background of the villa, offer descriptions of the components of interest that make up the villa, consider the function of the villa during the time of its patron, and ultimately reflect upon the lasting legacy of the villa.

Historical Background of Villa Farnesina

The history of the Villa Farnesina dates back to 1505, although first it is important to consider the history of Agostino Chigi, as patron of the villa. Chigi, who had moved to Rome from Siena in 1487, had become a successful banker within Rome on account of loaning large sums of money to three popes (Alexander VI, Julius II, and Leo X). The popes rewarded him generously with salt monopolies in the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples along with alum monopolies in Tolfa, Agnato, and Ischia. Furthermore, Pope Julius II even went so far as to make him an honorary member of the Della Rovere family in 1506. With all of this wealth, Chigi established a sizeable financial empire that spanned throughout Western Europe and gained the reputation of being one of the richest men in Europe. He was rumored to have had up to 20,000 employees at one time on the continent and he received the title of “Il Magnifico” from his home town of Siena. Chigi was not necessarily a member of the nobility, though his close connections to the elite of Rome gave him the status of nobility. In order to entertain his high profile friends, Chigi decided to build a villa, though it could certainly be argued that this villa was also built with the intention of cementing Chigi’s place into the nobility.

In the interest of creating the most impressive villa possible, Agostino Chigi commissioned many of the greatest artists of the day to take part. Shortly after purchasing the land for the villa in 1505, Chigi commissioned Baldassarre Peruzzi, a student of Bramante, to design and build the villa. In 1508, Peruzzi began construction of the villa, though it was not until 1519 that the villa appeared as it does today, with all of the exterior and interior components completed. While the exterior of the villa is a result of primarily the talents of Peruzzi, the interior frescoes of the villa reflect the work of a number of talented artists, including Raphael, Sebastiano del Piombo, Sodoma, and Giovanni da Udine, as well as Peruzzi. When Chigi died in 1520, he had become known as a patron of art in Rome on account of the splendid decorations contained in his villa. Unfortunately, the villa then passed into the hands of his children, who squandered the family fortune and ultimately sold the villa to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the grandson of Pope Paul III, in 1534. At this point in time the villa became known as Villa Farnesina, a name which remains intact although the villa is now owned by the Italian state.

Components of Villa Farnesina

A “Traditional” Villa
Villa Farnesina contains many elements that are common in villas throughout history, yet it also contains characteristics that are truly one of a kind and reflect the villa taking on a more sensuous role in its day. When considering the overall structure of Villa Farnesina, it is apparent that it has been built in a way which seeks to allow nature to permeate the building, a very important characteristic for a villa. This is evident through the use of the loggia in the entrance room (Loggia di Psyche) and one of the ground floor side rooms (Sala di Galatea), as a means of connecting the house with the surrounding gardens. Furthermore the villa itself is built in a U-shape in order to frame a landscaped courtyard which anyone entering or exiting the premises would pass through. Finally, villas are often built in locations with impressive panoramic views of nature, though the location of Villa Farnesina did not offer such a possibility. To compensate for this, Peruzzi designed the famous Sala delle Prospettive, which, in effect, lifted the villa up to an imaginary height through the intricate perspective frescoes on the walls. These characteristics establish Villa Farnesina as a villa true to its name, though it is essential to examine the exterior and interior components of the villa with a fine eye to detail in order to appreciate the ways in which this villa reflects a great degree of innovation for its time.

The classical elegance of the exterior architecture of Villa Farnesina as well as the pagan decorations coating the exterior are trademarks of the villa. Peruzzi designed and constructed the exterior of the villa from 1508-1511. The villa features harmonious, classically-inspired proportions through its use of a long rectangular shape with projecting wings. As noted earlier, the projecting wings appear to embrace the central courtyard, highlighting the path to the entrance loggia of the villa. The five-arched loggias present on the ground floor in the Loggia di Psyche and Sala di Galatea open directly onto the gardens, allowing guests to interact freely with nature. There are two stories to the villa, which are articulated by Tuscan orders with slender pilasters, creating a characteristically Sienese sense of linear grace. The exterior was previously covered entirely with brightly colored pagan decoration common in palaces and villas of the Renaissance throughout Tuscany, though it has now disappeared almost completely. It is possible to see remnants of the prior decoration on the exterior of the Sala di Galatea, though the only exterior decoration that remains intact is the frieze featuring scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses designed by Raphael that wraps around the top of the entire villa. This classical exterior with its references to paganism, though not as vivid as during Chigi’s lifetime, foreshadow some of the design elements that feature prominently in the interior.

The interior of Villa Farnesina contains four sensational rooms that are particularly significant, each featuring a theme brought to life through unique combinations of artistic talent and innovation. Following the completion of the exterior of the villa, Chigi began to commission artists to decorate the interior of the villa. In this section the four rooms will be discussed in the order that they were commissioned, designed, and ultimately completed: the Sala di Galatea, the Sala delle Prospettive, the Sala di Sodoma, and the Loggia di Psyche. A fifth room, known as the Sala del Fregio, is also unique to the villa and worth mentioning briefly. This room, which contains frescoes of many mythological scenes derived from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, has not been researched by historians to the extent of the other rooms, therefore it will not be discussed in detail here. When considering each room, it is important to examine the particular artist or artists involved, the subject matter portrayed, and the themes apparent in the artwork, which potentially offer clues to the life of the patron and relate to the functions of each room.

Sala di Galatea
The Sala di Galatea, created between 1510 and 1512, represents the collective talents of three prominent artists: Peruzzi, del Piombo and Raphael. The frescoes on the walls, featuring Polyphemus on one panel and Galatea on another, are the works of del Piombo and Raphael. Peruzzi completed the central panels of the intricate ceiling, which is covered with a variety of deities in action, including Perseus about to decapitate the Medusa and Aquarius. Del Piombo created the lunettes on the ceiling, which portray mythological events that occurred in the airy regions below the heavens. The Polyphemus, painted by del Piombo, shows a large, clumsy cyclops on land gazing longingly at the panel of Raphael’s Galatea on the right, who is driving her chariot across the ocean. These two panels refer to classic mythology, in which Polyphemus falls in love with the beautiful sea nymph Galatea. Galatea, in her contropposto position, appears to be in triumphant control of her own beauty and oblivious to the amorous gaze of Polyphemus. She is accompanied by a procession that includes tritons blowing a conch and trumpet, sea horses, Nereids, and sirens. Raphael is able to magnificently portray the movement of the chariot from left to right by lighting the arcs of the painted drapery and Eros in the foreground. Also, the broad sea light reveals the soft flesh tones of the female figures in contrast to the tanned musculature of the male figures. Ultimately the fresco of Galatea is admired for its centralized and balanced composition.

The themes present within this room relate to the patron receiving the divine blessing of the gods, along with a potential reference to a complication in his love life. After studying the pattern of the deities on the ceiling and tracing them back to their stellar and planetary equivalents it is possible to produce the configuration of the heavens above Central Italy on the night of December 1, 1466, the presumed date of Chigi’s birth. Ultimately it has been suggested that the entire program of the room is alluding to all of the realms of the universe: the celestial symbols by Peruzzi, the mythologies of air by del Piombo, the sea by Raphael, and the earth through the open loggia, which exposes the gardens directly. This could then be interpreted to indicate that the stars and ancient heroes above blessed Chigi with good fortune, allowing him to acquire a vast amount of wealth which spanned the mines of Tolfa (on earth) and a mercantile fleet (on the sea), and thereby giving him the resources to finance a beautiful villa. In addition, it has also been suggested that the depiction of Galatea and Polyphemus is representative of the marriage that was being negotiated at the time that the pieces were painted. Chigi was attempting to marry the illegitimate daughter of Franceso Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua. Such a marriage would seal him within the nobility, though the negotiations were later ended in 1512. One interpretation of the portrayal of the myth is that Polyphemus represents Chigi, chasing after a woman that he could not win.

Sala delle Prospettive
The second room to be designed and decorated in an innovative way was that Sala di Prospettive, which was a project undertaken by Peruzzi from 1515-17. This is the impressive room that features a stunning panoramic illusion, created in order to compensate for the fact that the villa itself was not situated in a place with a view of interest. Peruzzi developed the idea of transforming the walls in the room into illusionary open loggias which looked out onto a view of the city and countryside surrounding the city. On the western side of the villa it is possible to see rustic scenes of the countryside, while on the side of the villa which faces the city there are excellent views of Rome as it would have appeared around 1515-17. It is possible to see the Torre delle Milizie among the buildings of the city, as well as the villa itself in the countryside. In addition to the loggias, the balustrades create the effect of a balcony extending the room out even further. The loggias feature dark, veined marble piers and Doric columns with gilded capitals that include the actual architecture of veined marble door frames; it can be difficult to tell where the real marble ends and Peruzzi’s painting begins. The room contains few windows, which amplifies the illusion by not interrupting the subject matter on the walls. Peruzzi’s unique composition used the effect of perspective in a new way, which would ultimately inspire many future artists to use the same technique. In addition, the great hood on the fireplace features Vulcan with his Cyclopean helpers working over fire to create an arrowhead for Cupid, who waits by the side. Finally, a frieze wraps around the walls depicting scenes from Ovid’s Metamophoses and other classics.

The themes present in this unconventional room speak to the wealth and importance of Chigi, though the room also features some significant pagan decorations. Only someone with access to a vast amount of resources could afford to build a villa in a place with such a “view.” Although the view is not necessarily a complete truth, there is also the factor that only a person of great importance would be able to commission someone to design something as fantastic as the Sala delle Prospettive. Furthermore the grandeur displayed in the illusion, such as the dark, veined marble piers and Doric columns, adds to the emphasis on Chigi’s wealth. Pagan decorations are also important components of the room, which remind the viewer again of the sensuous nature of this Renaissance villa, despite what might be expected on account of the patron’s connections with the papacy. One of the pagan elements is even a personal reference to Chigi himself. One of Chigi’s devices was a bundle of four of Cupid’s arrows, which a visitor at the time would have seen reflected in the painting on the hood of the fireplace with Vulcan and Cupid.

Sala di Sodoma
Adjacent to the Sala delle Prospettive is the Sala di Sodoma, a beautiful bedroom featuring the sensuous work of Sodoma that was completed in 1517. It is thought that the wall frescoes in this room were potentially based on sketches by Raphael, though historians are not certain. Although all of the walls are now frescoed, at the time of Chigi only two walls, those portraying the Marriage of Alexander and Roxana and Alexander with the Family of Darius, were decorated. The frescoes of Alexander and Bucephalus and the battle scene were completed years later by another artist. The Marriage of Alexander and Roxana depicts the story of Alexander the Great asking Roxana to marry him. This fresco also contains illusionistic elements, such as the way in which the floors of the room are continued into the scene with only a painted balustrade along the base of the walls to separate the actual floor from the floor in the scene. A break in middle of the balustrade with several painted steps invites anyone present to enter the scene. Roxana sits on the edge of a beautiful bed, featuring gilded Corinthian columns, as three putti appear to be helping her disrobe. Another putti pulls Alexander towards Roxana and the serving maids in the scene appear to be leaving the couple to have a private moment. On the far right is an almost-nude god of marriage along with a torchbearer, seemingly presiding over the event. The scene of Alexander with the Family of Darius tells the story of Alexander sparing the life of Darius at the request of his family, though this piece will not be discussed here in great detail.

This room plays on the theme of love and portrays characteristics of the patron, who is represented through the figure of Alexander the Great. In order to understand the themes as relevant to these frescoes, it is important to return to the love life of Chigi. After a trip to Venice, Chigi returned with a young Venetian girl, Francesca Andreazza, to be his mistress and raise their children. Although he intended to later marry into the nobility, the ending of the negotiations with Gonzaga family ultimately meant that his mistress was there to stay. The fresco of the Marriage of Alexander and Roxana shows Alexander, ruler of the world, falling in love with a foreign princess, which could certainly represent the way in which Chigi himself fell in love with a foreign princess, his mistress from Venice who would ultimately become his wife before the very end of his life. Certainly this type of sensuous theme would be very appropriate for a bedroom, proclaiming that the love of beauty can divert the conqueror. The second scene, Alexander with the Family of Darius, is thought to emphasize Chigi’s clemency or love of the people.

Loggia di Psyche
Finally, the fourth, and perhaps most famous room within the villa, is the Loggia di Psyche, which was designed by Raphael though executed by many of his students between 1518-19. This room served as the entrance to the villa and originally featured an open loggia, allowing guests to enjoy both the beautiful frescoes and the garden at the same time. The ceiling of the room depicts the legend of Psyche, as derived from the Golden Ass of Apuleius written in 200 AD. The two primary scenes portrayed are The Council of the Gods, where Cupid pleads with the Gods to grant Psyche immortality, and The Wedding Banquet, where Psyche receives the cup of immortality. The ceiling is especially noteworthy because of yet another illusion: the two primary scenes are painted to look like tapestries stretched between the garlands of an arbor. This ultimately creates the effect of a pergola, which is further enhanced by the painted blue representing the sky in the background. The garlands, known to be the work of Raphael’s pupil Giovanni da Udine, look extremely realistic and show flowers, fruit, and vegetables that perhaps reflect what was actually grown in the gardens of the villa. The ceiling has an additional level of detail within the interstices between the garlands which portray more scenes from the legend of Psyche. The starting panel depicts Venus in heaven pointing out to her son Cupid the location of Psyche on earth and ultimately it can be recognized that all of the smaller panels show all of the events from the legend that occurred in the heavens. Some of the scenes, such as that of Cupid pointing out Psyche to the Three Graces, are thought to reflect the brushstrokes of Raphael himself, who perhaps stepped in to complete tasks too difficult for his pupils. There are theories that the walls of the room were meant to contain the episodes of the legend that occurred on earth, though there is no way to know whether or not the room is actually incomplete.

This room reflects upon the theme of love, which, after examination of the prior rooms, is certainly a common thread throughout the villa and contains very sensuous pagan decorations. The theme of love is inherently recognizable as Psyche, driven by her love of Cupid, overcomes any and all barriers placed before her by Venus in order to attain marriage and immortality. Also, it is worth remembering that Cupid and Psyche had a daughter named “Pleasure,” who could symbolize the purpose of Chigi’s sensuous Rensaissance villa. As the last room completed, this represents the grand finale, although it is interesting to recall that this room served as the entrance and therefore would have been used continuously prior to its completion in 1519. For this reason it has been suggested that this special ceiling was commissioned in anticipation of a great event, which will be discussed in the next section. The ceiling can only be read in the correct order from the exterior upon entering and the level of detail within the openly pagan paintings demonstrates a vast knowledge and appreciation of classical mythology. This ceiling was also very sensual for its time, even in the most subtle of details. It has been noted that fruit on the ceiling in particular can appear quite suggestive, perhaps further reinforcing the way in which the role of the villa has changed over time.

Function of Villa Farnesina
Villa Farnesina functioned as an entertainer’s paradise, giving Chigi a place in which to gather his friends, amaze them with elaborate displays of his wealth and even share important milestones with them. Certainly the innovative decorations on the exterior and interior were excellent indicators of his resources, demonstrating the fact that he was able to commission the finest artists of the time to decorate his country home. However, the beautiful rooms in particular and the extensive gardens often served as backdrops for important events, such as exclusive dinner parties and even Chigi’s wedding. There are many stories about the ostentatious displays of wealth at his dinner parties in particular. It is rumored that one evening when Chigi entertained the Pope and a number of cardinals at his villa, he had silver plates created with the coat of arms of each individual. At the end of the dinner, in order to clear the plates, it is reported that he ordered all of the servants to cast the plates into the Tiber River, though it was also reported that he had servants with nets below to catch the plates as they fell into the water. Therefore, although Chigi was known for flaunting his resources, he certainly did not let them simply float down the river. Another significant event during Chigi’s lifetime was that of his wedding and will signing, which occurred on August 28, 1519. Pope Leo X and twelve cardinals attended a banquet in the Sala delle Prospettive, after which the pope himself married Chigi and his mistress. This act, which served to legitimize their children, enabled Chigi to then leave the villa to his sons and any future heirs.

Legacy of Villa Farnesina

The Villa Farnesina still stands today as a striking example of a suburban Renaissance villa and its influence upon the world of art and architecture continues. The interior frescoes in particular, such as Peruzzi’s Sala delle Perspettive and Raphael’s Loggia di Psyche, were especially revolutionary for their time. The use of painting to create the illusion of a panorama and thereby seemingly raise the height of the villa, offered new ideas to artists techniques by which to use the art of perspective. Additionally, Raphael’s creation of the tapestry effect to develop the illusion of the pergola in the entrance room to villa set new precedents for ways in which the transition from the garden to the interior in a villa. Although it is difficult to find specific examples of villas inspired directly from Villa Farnesina, it not difficult to note that in all art and architecture references Villa Farnesina is described as the epitome of a suburban Renaissance villa. The elegant classically-inspired exterior, innovative exterior, and sensual pagan imagery throughout Villa Farnesina have assured that its legacy will last throughout history as a site of significance.

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