Villa Farnese is an Italian estate near Viterbo,
around 55 km north-west of Rome. It stands on a hilltop site overlooking the medieval village
of Caprarola and was built for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, grandson of Pope Paul III, by
Jacopo Vignola and his successors from 1557 to 1583.
The interior contains a series of frescoes that
constitute one of the most important decorative cycles of the later 16th century.
The lower gardens were built between 1557 and 1583 to Vignola’s
designs, while the upper garden and casino were built around 1584 to 1586 to designs by Giacomo
- Architecture and decoration
The Villa Farnese was constructed on the foundations
of a fortress begun in 1521 for Pope Paul III by Antonio da Sangallo and Baldassare Peruzzi.
This accounts for its unusual pentagonal plan with arrowhead bastions, although the circular
courtyard at the centre of the structure was Vignola’s own design.
Vignola also designed the axial, terraced approach to the villa, with
a straight road ascending from the village to an oval forecourt with a rusticated loggia facing
a fish pond. The forecourt is embraced by two symmetrical semicircular horse-ramps rising to a
second, larger, trapezoidal court, with staircases leading up to the villa itself.
These elements provide a magnificent spatial setting for the drafted
masonry façade of the villa, articulated by two orders of pilasters in local volcanic stone.
The design drew extensively on architecture at the Vatican in Rome, the seat of the patron’s
power: the tripartite, fortified façade with central loggia (originally open) recalls Innocent
VIII’s Villa Belvedere (1480s), while the double-ramped staircase in front of the villa and the
triumphal-arch motif on the upper portico of the courtyard were derived from Bramante’s Cortile
The contrast between the solid, massive lower storey and the flat,
abstract, geometrical upper storeys, however, was characteristic of Vignola’s own classicizing
The ground floor and piano nobile of the villa were planned with two
sets of summer apartments on the north side and two of winter apartments on the south, each
with salon, antechamber, bedroom, dressing room and study. The basement housed service areas,
while the small rooms in the top storeys housed staff and retainers. In one of the angles at
the front of the building is a monumental two-storey spiral staircase; opposite is a guard room
and circular armoury on the ground floor and a loggia and circular chapel on the piano nobile
The summer apartments were frescoed by Taddeo Zuccaro and Federico
Zuccaro, although the illusionistic architecture on the walls of the Sala di Giove and the
vault of the armoury were designed by Vignola. After Taddeo’s death in 1566, Federico painted
the Gabinetto dell’Ermatena, the circular chapel and part of the Sala d’Ercole, all on the
He also painted the guard room and four rooms of the winter apartment
on the ground floor (excluding the salon). Jacopo Bertoia completed the Sala d’Ercole in 1569,
executed the vaults of the stanze della Penitenza, dei Guidizi and dei Sogni in the winter
apartment on the piano nobile, and began work on the Sala degli Angeli (also in the winter
apartment) shortly before his death in 1572.
The complex iconographical programme, glorifying the Farnese
family and addressing major political, economic, spiritual and intellectual concerns
of Cardinal Farnese, was worked out in consultation with the patron by such scholarly advisors
as Onofrio Panvinio, who devised the scheme for the Sala dei Fasti Farnese; Paolo Manuzio, the
Venetian and Roman publisher; Annibal Caro, the humanist secretary to Cardinal Farnese;
Cardinal Guglielmo Sirleto, the Vatican librarian, who wrote the programme for the Stanza della
Penitenza; and perhaps also Fulvio Orsini, the Farnese librarian.
The two walled lower gardens of the Villa Farnese
were laid out to Vignola’s designs, in square parterres, with sculpture and fountains
symbolizing the seasons and the regenerative cycles of nature. In the west garden—once linked
by a pergola—are statues of Autumn and Winter and the Grotto of the Rain, a cave seemingly
supported by six stucco satyrs with moisture dripping from the vault into a pond below. On the
terrace above the grotto is the Fountain of Unicorns.
The north garden contains statues of Spring and
Summer and the Fountain of Venus, with Venus flanked by two satyrs.
At the junction of the two gardens is the Fountain of the Shepherd; water was designed to
cascade down a rustic hill from two satyrs or fauns at the top, over a shell held by two nude
water deities, to two herms and two reclining river gods flanking a statue of Mercury as the
The upper gardens and casino were laid out by Giacomo del Duca in the
1580s. He incorporated into the design terraces, fountains and sculpture. They are remarkable
for the synthesis of natural and manmade elements.
The discovery of a new vein of water in 1616 led Cardinal Odoardo
Farnese to expand the upper gardens by adding two lower pavilions, 24 herms surrounding the
parterres in front of the casino, gardens and fountains at the rear of the casino, and ramps
connecting the front and rear gardens.
The architect was probably Girolamo Rainaldi. The programme of the
upper gardens has never been worked out in detail, but the major elements include statues of
Oblivion and Silence flanking the Lily Fountain, a dolphin water-chain flowing from the
Fountain of the Chalice, which is in turn flanked by two river gods with cornucopias, and two
unicorn and dolphin fountains.
Villa Farnese Map&Location
Villa Farnesina Address: Via della Lungara, 230, 00165 Roma, Italy. Get
directions using this map:
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