Guide to Villa Farnesina, Rome's Most Underrated Museum with Secret Raphaels
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
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 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.