Saturday, September 18, 2004

The Villa Farnesina

Kara Dunn
Honors in Rome - Summer 2004

I. Introduction
"Key Figures: Patron and Artists of the Villa Farnesina"

The Villa Farnesina is a Roman villa built in 1509 for Agostino Chigi. At the time of its construction, the estate was located just outside of the city walls, and therefore considered a country villa. Today, it is only a short bus ride from the city center, located across the Tiber in the neighborhood of Trastevere. When considering the villa and its decoration, it is important to first consider the man it was built for. Chigi was a phenomenally wealthy banker from Siena. In fact, he was so incredibly wealthy and influential that he was honored with the title “Il Magnifico” by his hometown, was elected to be a senator, and was on intimate terms with Pope Leo X, who baptized Chigi’s illegitimate son (named Lorenzo Leone after the Pope) and eventually married Chigi to his mistress, Andreosia.

The Villa Farnesina
View of the Villa Farnesina from the gardens

The Villa Farnesina
View of the Villa Farnesina from the main entrance.

At this time, the Renaissance admiration for classical texts, art, and architecture had made the Roman villa fashionable again. In it’s classical ideal, it was meant to function as a retreat that could be devoted to quiet meditation and contemplation away from the city in the beautiful, rural countryside. Chigi, a business man first and foremost, had no desire to build a villa devoted to leisure hours and quiet reflection. Though Chigi did surround his villa with a large garden and fine stables, the building was meant to serve a business purpose as well. Being located so close to the city center, it was close enough for him to be able to return to the city in the evenings and his business there. The advantage of not being located too far away also allowed the villa to serve as a place where Chigi could lavishly entertain high prelates, noblemen, cardinals, and popes in a setting of wealth and grandeur. Comedies and poetry recitations were performed there for entertainment, and Chigi was famous for the extravagant banquets he held at the Farnesina. The most famous of these took place in his stables, when he tricked his guests into thinking it was his banquet hall by the lavish tapestries and decorations that were hung to conceal the stalls. At another famous banquet, he was said to have told the servants to cast the silver dishes each course was served upon into the Tiber after being used, to show his disdain for such trifles (though it is also said he placed a net below the surface of the water to retrieve the dishes with later). Whether or not they are true, the fact that these stories were circulated at all suggests the impressive scope and magnitude of his entertainments there. So, while the villa was built with classical architecture and function in mind, its true purpose was to impress upon guests the wealth, culture, and refined taste of the Chigi household.

Other key members involved in the construction of the Villa Farnesina include Baldassarre Peruzzi, an architect and painter, and Raphael Sanzi. Peruzzi was a famous architect who designed the Villa Farnesina and painted some of the frescoes as well. Like many great artists of his time, he was remarkable for the varied extent of his knowledge and skill. Not only was he a student of mathematics, a classical scholar, an architect, painter, and scientific engineer, but he also was a practitioner of minor arts such as stucco work in relief. The Villa Farnesina was one of the first works which brought renown to the young artist. On account of his success there he was appointed by Pope Leo X as architect to St. Peter’s, though his design for it’s completion was never carried out. Peruzzi continued to live and work in Rome and Siena until his death in 1536, when he was buried next to Raphael in the Pantheon. Raphael Sanzi, master painter of the Renaissance era, was commissioned to paint the "Triumph of Galatea", a beautiful fresco adorning what is now known as the "Hall of Galatea". Five years later, he was again commissioned by Chigi to decorate the ground floor loggia of the villa. A huge number of artistic works were completed or guided by Raphael during his regrettably short lifetime, and the Farnesina’s Galatea is considered to be one of his most accomplished pieces.

II. Description

Loggia della Psyche

The Farnesina is set in the midst of a beautiful garden of bergamot trees, cedars from Lebanon, cypresses, laurel bushes, and evergreens. On the ground floor of the Villa, an entrance hall leads to the Loggia della Psyche. The frescoes there were painted by Raphael and his pupils Giulio Romano, Francesco Penni, Raffaellino del Colle, and Giovanni da Udine. Raphael was commissioned to decorate the loggia in 1517, five years after painting the Galatea there. Like the Galatea, this cycle reflects the cultured atmosphere which had flourished in Rome under Pope Julius II and Leo X. According to his commission, Raphael was to decorate the large entrance loggia. This is a space which communicates between the living room and the garden outside. Raphael approached the individual character of this space by treating the roofed structure, which is a part of the main building, as an open pergola. He divided the space with magnificent, rampant garlands of exotic fruits that had been recently discovered in the explorations of the Americas. In fact, the garlands, painted by da Udine, were so admired by Pope Leo X that he commissioned the painter to decorate the first floor of the loggia in the Vatican with similar floral motifs. In keeping with the theme of the loggia as a pergola, Raphael also designed two large ceiling pictures that simulate tapestries stretched across the room. These huge awnings were painted so that we can see the straps “holding” the tapestries in place, and even the scalloped edges they create by stretching the material.

The frescoes around the ceiling represent episodes from the story of Cupid and Psyche as told by Aduleius in the “Metamorphasis.” Some of the remarkable frescoes include Venus showing Cupid her rival, Psyche; Cupid talking to the Three Graces; Venus going to Olympus on her chariot pulled by doves; Psyche competing the tasks set to her by Venus; and finally the story ends with the two psuedo tapestries on the ceiling which show the Council and the Banquet of the Gods, during which the marriage between Cupid and Psyche is arranged and celebrated. Although the preparatory drawings and the general conception of the stories are certainly Raphael’s work, the bulk of the painting was actually carried out by his pupils.

Loggia della Eros e Psyche
The Loggia of Cupid and Psyche was designed by Raphael.
Though much of the actual painting was done by his students,
Raphael's own hand in evident in the lovely face of Psyche
as she accends to Olympus with her lover, Cupid.
While completing the loggia, Raphael was supposedly so sick wtih longing
for his mistress that Chigi had her brought to stay at the villa in order to allow the artist
to focus on his work. It is thought to be her face that Raphael used as a model
for Psyche in this cycle of frescoes.

Hall of Galatea
To the right of the loggia is the Hall of Galatea, which contains the famous fresco depicting the triumph of the nymph Galatea, on a shell pulled by dolphins. The subject is chosen from a poem by Angelo Poliziano, a poet from Florence, which had also helped inspire Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. These lines describe how the clumsy giant cyclops, Polyphemus, sings a love song to the beautiful sea-nymph Galatea, and how she rides across the waves in a chariot drawn by two dolphins, laughing at his song while a company of sea gods mills around her. In the myth, Galatea refuses Polyphemus' advances because of her love for a Sicilian youth named Acius. Polyphemus eventually kills Acius with a boulder in a jealous rage, and a distraught Galatea turns his blood into the river Acius in Sicily.

Triumph of Galatea
Raphael's "Galatea" depicts the beautiful sea nymph riding across the waves on her chariot as she
laughs at the cyclops Polyphemus, who is singing her a love song (pictured elsewhere in the hall).

Hall of Galatea
The ceiling in the Hall of Galatea, designed and painted by Peruzzi, represents
the alignment of the stars on the day of Agostino Chigi's birth. His horoscope supposedly foretold a long and prosperous life.

All around the fresco of Galatea are delicate and idealized landscapes painted by Gaspare Dughet, and higher up on the wall there is a stunning Head of a Young Man. The charcoal colored head set against a rough background was originally attributed to Michelangelo, but modern opinion is inclined to credit it to Peruzzi. The lunettes, representing several myths, and the wide square near Galatea where Polyphemus stands, are the work of Sebastinao del Piombo. The vaulted roof, which was painted by Peruzzi, represents the twelve signs of the zodiac with planetary gods residing in some of them. Venus, for example, appears with the sign of Capricorn, and Apollo, the sun, with the the Archer. Star-charts of the northern hemisphere show that the constellations in Peruzzi’s fresco would have occupied this position on December 1, 1466. Since there is no documentation accurately pinpointing the date of Chigi’s death, though it was thought to be around the year 1465, it is generally believed that this ceiling represents the position of the stars on the day of Chigi’s birth. Peruzzi, an astrologer, would certainly have been capable of painting a precise horoscope for Chigi, and Chigi himself was known to believe in astrology, perhaps because his stars foretold and long and prosperous life for him.

From the windows on the first floor, there is a beautiful view of the gardens. A pleasant stroll under the laurel bower leads to a marble plaque which bears the inscription:

"Quisquis huc accedes: quod tibi horridum videtur mihi amoenum est; si placet, maneas, si taedet abeas, utrumque gratum" which translates to:

"Whoever enters here: what seems horrid to you is pleasant to me. If you like it, stay, if it bores you, go away; both are equally pleasing to me."

III. Function
"Function of Artwork: Impact on Viewer and Themes in Decoration"

The Villa Farnesina is rumored to have been built upon the site of the ancient villa where Cleopatra stayed when she accompanied her lover, Mark Antony, to Rome, and was built by Chigi for his mistress, the infamous courtesan Imperia (though it became the home of his second mistress, Andreosia, who eventually became his wife, after Imperia's death). Considering this history, it is not surprising that the decoration of the villa should have a common theme running through it - love.

The myth of Cupid and Psyche is an interesting subject matter for the loggia. Cupid fell in love with the daughter of a king, but had to remain unrecognizable to her and so came to her only at night. After Psyche had undergone many difficult trials, Zeus made her immortal and allowed her to marry Cupid. The unusual subject seems to be a reference to the much longed for marriage between Chigi and his mistress, Andreosia, with whom he already had four children. Of particular interest is the scene of Cupid with the Three Graces. It was said that only in the presence of the Three Graces could a young man recognize the charms of his beloved. Cupid is looking at the Graces and pointing with his left hand, not at Psyche, but at the loggia itself, the Chigi’s own domain. This is thought to be a compliment to the charms of Chigi's mistress, the lady of the house. The garlands of fruit are also charged with highly erotic overtones. Many of the fruits are bursting open, at their peak of ripeness, and there are several questionable vegetables, apparently an irregular variety of an elongated squash, scattered throughout the garlands.

The "Triumph of Galatea" also follows this theme of the pursuit of love, and demonstrates Raphael's remarkable skill in creating a fluid, harmonious composition of his figures. In this cheerful picture, every figure seems to correspond to some other figure, and every movement has a counter-movement to answer to. For example, there are small boys with bows and arrows aiming at the heart of the nymph. The ones to the right and left echo each other’s movements, and the boy swimming beside the chariot corresponds to the one flying above Galatea’s head. The sea gods also seem to be wheeling around the central figure, with two on the margins who blow their seashell horns, and two pairs in front and behind. Amazingly, all of these diverse movements around Galatea are also reflected in the figure of the nymph as well. While her chariot is driving from left to right across the sea with her veil blowing backwards, she is gazing back over the water in a counter-action to the forward motion of the chariot. Hearing the strange love song, she turns around and smiles, and all the lines in the picture converge on her beautiful face in the center of the picture, from the small boys arrows to the reins she holds in her hands. Through these artistic means, Raphael has achieved constant movement throughout the composition of the piece, without letting it appear restless or unbalanced.

The exquisite beauty of Raphael’s figures was also admired by his contemporaries and by following generations. When he had finished Galatea, Raphael was purportedly asked by a courtier where he had managed to find a model of such beauty in all the world. The master replied that he had not copied any specific model, but had instead followed “a certain idea” he had imagined in his mind. To some extent, Raphael had strayed from the faithful portrayal of nature which had been the ambition of so many artists at this time, and deliberately used an imagined type of regular beauty.

These themes of love found in the artwork of the Farnesina are also extended into the master bedroom, in a beautiful depiction of Alexander the Great presenting a crown to his beloved, Roxane, as she sits on a bed in a grand sleeping chamber.

These works of art, created by acknowledged masters of the day, would have been meant to impress upon the viewer the cultural attainments of the household. The grand style of the villa imparts a feeling of wealth and sophistication, and guests of Chigi would have undoubtably felt that they were in the presence of an influential and powerful figure upon entering his domain.

VI. Patron
"Functions of the Villa: Chigi's Motivations for Decorating Scheme"

It is intersting to note that the subjects for the villa's decoration were chosen from history or classical mythology, and there is no Christian imagery present in any of the decoration of the villa. One reason for this could be the fact that one of the villa's primary functions was to be a home for Chigi's mistress, a union which would have been considered "unholy" by the church. It would therefore make sense that Chigi would chose classical figures to celebrate their love, since there is no implication of an Almighty Father hovering in the heavens above, judging the activities going on in the villa below.

This leads into the second major function of the villa, which was to serve as a space where Chigi could host lavish parties to entertain his friends, clients, or other influential figures. This is especially evident in the decoration of the loggia. The theme is love, depicted with erotic overtones in the fruit of the garlands and the beauty of the scantily clad mythological figures. A banquet of the gods is presiding on the ceiling above the loggia, a party for the gods mirroring the parties that would have been taking place down below. As a palace built for banquets, love affairs, and entertainment, Chigi would not have wanted to include Christian symbols or figures that would remind the viewer of the church's stance on morality and values.

Some viewers might have found the villas decoration slightly shocking - the themes of love, eroticicm, and paganism without any sign of Christianity to contrast them. This is partly due to the Renaissance and the revival of classical texts and pagan mythology. These classical subjects would have been considered a sign of culture and education, not a sign of paganism or heretic beliefs. This can also be seens as a testament to Chigi's power. While the decoration of his villa might have caused a few reproving looks, nobody would dare reprimand an influential man like Agostino "Il Magnifico" Chigi for his choice of artwork. Chigi apparently believed himself to be above reproof, considering the inscription placed in the garden which implied that the viewer's opinion of his villa's decoration was of little consequence to him.

V. Conclusion
"The Villa Farnesina Today"

After Chigi’s death, the villa was bought by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, from whom the villa takes it’s name. It was passed to the Bourbon family in 1714 and then bought by the Spanish Ambassador, Bermudez de Castro, some time after that. In 1928 it was bought back from the Duke’s heirs by the Italian state and the major rooms were opened to the public for viewing, as it still is today. The Academia Nazionale dei Lincei is currently located in the Farnesina since 1944, and there is also a library there.

While the decoration of the villa may have been erotically charged and slightly radical in it's lack of Christian imagery at the time of it's construction, its artwork has lost that shock value over time. Visitors who return to the villa now are drawn there to view the work of Raphael, although those with more knowledge of Renaissance art and architecture are also interested in seeing the work of Peruzzi. Unfortunately, the Villa Farnesina tends to get lost in the crowd of historical sights, monuments, and museums that saturate Rome, and visitors today are likely to find themselves alone in the villa to appreciate its lovely artwork at their leisure.

VI. Personal Observations
A visit to the Villa Farnesina should be on every traveller's list of places to see in Rome, in my opinion. All of my research was completely inadequate in preparing me for my first experience of exploring the villa and seeing the decorations in person. Since the villa recieves very few visitors, even in peak tourist season, it feels almost as though the viewer is stepping back into a tiny bubble of Renaissance Rome as they wander the empty rooms, alone. The villa is unique in that it offers an opportunity to view paintings by Raphael in the setting they were meant to be viewed in. It is surprising how different the impact is, vieweing the "Galatea" as a part of the decoration of an entire room and not simply as a solitary panel on display in a museum. In this setting it is possible to see how the paintings were meant to work together within the overall scheme of decoration, and I found them more powerful when viewed together than they probably would have been if viewed individually.

VII. Bibliography
Hibbert, Christopher. "Rome: Biography of a City." London: Penguin Books, 1985.

Millard, George. "Rome." New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Johnston, David E. "Roman Villas." London: Shire Publications, 1988.