Guide to Villa Farnesina, Rome's Most Underrated Museum with Secret Raphaels
Updated: May 14
Here's my guide to visiting Villa Farnesina in Rome Italy. Designed by artist-architect Baldasarre Perruzi, Villa Farnesina is a magnificent off the beaten path museum, located in Rome's lovely Trastevere neighborhood. It's home to torrid love stories and secret Raphael paintings.
If you know me, you know I hate crowds. Blissfully, this small museum on a human scale doesn't have any. It's a quiet oasis of in situ art and architecture. The villa is decorated with racy mythological frescos by Renaissance painters Raphael, Peruzzi, and Sebastian del Piombo.
I think Villa Farnesina may be Rome's most underrated museum. If you're a Renaissance art lover, Villa Farnesina should be on your itinerary for Rome. It's small and an interesting alternative to the crowded Vatican Museums. You don't even have to budget much time for it.
If you can't explore Villa Farnesina in person, here's a virtual tour of the lovely place.
History of the Villa Farnesina: Chigi's Love Nest
Between 1506-11, the wealthy banker Agostino Chigi from Siena built Villa Farnesina, then titled Villa Chigi. Chigi was the richest man in Rome. He was known throughout Europe. He lent money to kings, princes, and cardinals. Chigi was especially cozy with the popes.
He was nicknamed "Il Magnifico" because of his luxurious lifestyle and flamboyant personality. With unlimited resources and good taste, he aimed to create a sumptuous Renaissance jewel and temple to true love.
Chigi's Villa Farnesina wasn't intended for casual teas. This was a show-offy party pad. Chigi wanted to entertain Roman VIPs in a beautiful space that was bright, airy, and infused with Renaissance beauty. He wanted the villa to evoke the classical world -- with star-studded art, rare plants, marble, and antique statues.
Chigi hired Peruzzi, a pupil of Donato Bramante, as the lead architect for his pleasure palace. Peruzzi located the villa just outside the city walls in what was then the suburbs of Rome.
He chose an unconventional style. Villa Farnese was a two story building with a central block, two wings, open loggias, and an elaborate terraced garden. The villa was nicknamed Viridario, which means "Roman pleasure garden" in Latin.
Agostino and Francesca, A Love Story
At the time, Chigi was married to the aristocrat Margherita Saracini. It was a marriage of convenience, intended to increase Chigi's social rank. Margherita died childless in 1508.
Chigi was a notorious ladies man, cavorting with many women, including the famous courtesan Imperia. But, in 1511, Chigi fell madly in love with a a poor girl from Venice, Francesca Ordeaschi.
Francesca moved into Villa Farnesina. To inaugurate their new love nest, Chigi hired Raphael to paint the story of Cupid and Psyche, a narrative referencing his love for Francesca. Chigi and Francesca would go on to have 5 children.
The pair were finally married in 1519 by Pope Leo X, who baptized and legitimized their children. When Chigi died in 1520, he was buried in his Raphael-designed tomb in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo. Francesca died 7 months later, possibly by her own hand ( or, more treacherously, poison).
After Chigi's death, his wayward heirs squandered the family fortune. In 1579, the villa passed into the hands of the powerful Farnese family. To differentiate it from their own Villa Farnese across the river, Villa Chigi was renamed Villa Farnesina.
Tour of the Villa Farnesina: Highlights of the Museum
1. Loggia of Cupid and Psyche: Love and Drama
The highlight of the ground floor is the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche. The beautiful and animated frescos will take your breath away. Cavorting gods and goddesses cover every inch of the walls. The theme is "love conquers all."
The room was intended to be a continuation of the garden. It was initially a loggia, or covered exterior gallery. Now, glass walls protect the frescos, separating the villa's interior from the exterior.
The room was designed by Raphel. The paintings are the work of Raphael and his workshop. Most of the figures were painted by Raphael's assistant Giulio Romano. The frescos were painted to appear like tapestries suspended from the ceiling by garlands.
There's a marked absence of religious iconography. This was a pagan setting for pagan frolicking.
The paintings depict the myth of Cupid and Psyche from the Golden Ass, a story in Metamorphoses, an ancient Roman novel by Apuleius. The frescos are colorful, fleshy, and erotic.
Psyche was the beautiful daughter of a king, whose looks aggrieved the goddess Venus. A jealous Venus asked her son Cupid to pierce Psyche with a love arrow, plotting to have Psyche see a monster when her eyes opened. But Cupid pierced himself instead. He falls deeply in love with Pysche.
To disguise himself, Cupid becomes Psyche's unseen lover and visits her only at night. When Psyche disobeys his order not to look at him, she loses him. To win Cupid back, Psyche is given a set of difficult tasks by a vengeful Venus. When Cupid can bear Psyche's torture no longer, he pleads their case to a council of gods.
The gods grant Cupid's wish. Psyche becomes immortal. The happy and reunited pair are married in heaven. This tale mimics Francesca overcoming obstacles to be with and marry Chigi.
The paintings are separated by a festoon of flowers and trees. They were executed by Giovanni Udine, the foremost botanical painter of his time and also a student of Raphael. The garlands show 170 different species of exotic plants, a botanical dictionary of the time.
Raphael's frescos later became the model for the racy frescos in the Te Palace in Mantua Italy. Te Palace is one of the world's most unique and beautiful buildings, a wildly inventive and theatrical feat of both architecture and decoration. The frescos were executed Raphael's best pupil, Giulio Romano, between 1525-35.
Raphael and Fornarina, Another Love Story
But there's another torrid love affair! Involving another famous ladies' man -- Raphael. While Raphael was painting the Villa Farnesina frescos, he began having a torrid affair with Fornarina, the baker's daughter who lived down the street. She was later immortalized in his famous painting (above), on display at the Palazzo Barberini.
Raphael's infatuation consumed him. He began to skip work to see Fornarina. Chigi grew frustrated. He even had Fornarina kidnapped to prevent Raphael from seeing her. But then a lovestruck Raphael simply grew depressed. This all stalled Chigi's grand project. Finally, Chigi gave up and had Fornarina move in to keep Raphael content.
In 1520, Raphael died abruptly at just 37. The diagnosis back then? "Too much sex," which caused him to spike a fever. His bedmate on his last happy night? Most likely, Fornarina.
Legend holds that Chigi used to host lavish banquets in the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche. To impress guests with his wealth, he would toss the gold and silver dishes in the Tiber River when dinner was over. After this party trick, his servants fished them out with nets.
At Chigi’s most lavish banquet, he served guests rare birds or fish from their own countries on silver dishes decorated with their coats of arms.
Chigi had plays performed in the loggia. His "court" of Renaissance men met there to read classical poetry and discuss philosophy and astrology.
2. Hall of Galatea
This room is striking in vivid blue and gold, colors intended to demonstrate Chigi's wealth and power. Sebastiano del Piombo painted the ceilings and lunettes in 1511. Chigi brought the promising young painter back to Rome after meeting him in Venice.
But the room's claim to fame is Raphael's Triumph of Galatea. It's a mythological scene of erotic pursuit based on a poem. It's a rare secular painting by Raphael.
According to the Greek tale, Galatea was a beautiful sea nymph with whom the mortal Acis fell in love. But he had a jealous rival, the clumsy cyclops Polyphemus, whom Galatea shunned. When Polyphemus killed Acis with a boulder, Galatea turned her lover into an immortal river spirit.
In Raphael's painting, Galatea is shown driving a shell-chariot propelled by dolphins to escape Polyphemus. The painting seems influenced by Michelangelo, given the physicality of the figures. Galatea is in a complex posture -- windblown hair, twisting body, and limbs wielding the reins. Everything in the painting points to Galatea's face.
In a funny bit, there's a little putti (angel) peaking out from behind a cloud at the top. And a dolphin biting an octopus in the bottom right corner. In an ancient treatise, dolphins were said to represent love and octopuses to represent lust.
The ceiling frescos in the Hall of Galatea contain astrological themes. But it wasn't until the 20th century that art historians realized that Chigi's birth date was cleverly hidden in the ceiling. The 7 planets and 12 zodiacal constellations are painted as they appeared in the sky over Siena at Chigi's birth on November 30, 1466.
Near the top of one wall, there's a remarkable monochrome fresco of a young man. It's done in charcoal. It was originally attributed to Michelangelo.
According to legend, Michelangelo -- a fierce rival of Raphael -- snuck into Villa Farnesina to check on Raphael's progress when the artist was gone. It was speculated that Michelangelo drew the portrait during his break in.
That's very romantic, of course. And it does resemble Michelangelo's frescos in the Sistine Chapel. But, later, during cleaning, the initials BP were found on the painting. It was reattributed to Peruzzi.
3. Room of the Perspectives
The first floor features the astonishing trompe-l'oeil Room of the Perspectives, completed by Peruzzi. The walls are painted to resemble a colonnaded loggia allowing the viewer to gaze out on an idealized landscape of ancient Rome. The views apparently corresponded with what was right outside. Chigi held his wedding banquet in this room.
4. Master Bedroom
One room over, high Renaissance painter Giovanni Bazzi known as Il Sodoma (the sodomite), left his mark in the master bedroom. In 1519, he painted frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Alexander the Great. The most famous one depicts his marriage to Roxanne (though it looks more like the honeymoon, than the wedding).
Chigi intentionally used the symbolism of a great king. Chigi compared himself to Alexander, bestowing a crown on Roxanne. Roxanne has the face of Francesca.
5. The Grotesque Frescos
You'll also see some "grotesque" frescos in a charming (blocked off) passageway connecting the Hall of Perspectives to the domestic areas of Villa Farnesina.
The grotesque frescos owe their name to Nero's Domus Aurea or Golden House. The ancient palace was accidentally discovered in the 15th century, when a boy fell through a crevice and found himself in a frescoed grotto-like cave. The word grotesque comes from the word grotto.
The frescos were full of fantastical and whimsical decorations, with hybrid monsters twirling amidst a white background. The grotesques attracted the attention of Renaissance artists, who went spelunking to see them. The ancient grotesques then became a popular form of decoration in the 16th century.
Practical Information & Tips for Visiting Villa Farnesina:
Address: Via della Lungara 230
Hours: 9:00 am to 2:00 pm, closed Sunday
Entry fee: 10 euros. The audio guide is included in the entry fee. There's a guided tour in English at 10:00 am on Saturday, You can buy tickets online here.
Pro tips: There are very few places to sit down, only a few chairs in the Cupid and Psyche loggia. You can take photos without flash.
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