by Judith Anne Testa
Built by a sinful cardinal-turned-pope, Palazzo Farnese is one of Rome's most spectacular private spaces.
Among the numerous buildings in Rome labeled "palazzo" -- so many that you might imagine the whole city full of regal residences -- there's one that stands out as the largest, most impressive, most sumptuous and most perfectly placed of them all: the majestic Palazzo Farnese. In a city where just about any large building that's not a church can be called a palace, whether it's a bank, a school, a government agency or an apartment complex, Palazzo Farnese reigns supreme. Although not built for royalty, it's a residence fit for a king.
This grand monument owes its existence to Alessandro Farnese (1468-1549), a member of a wealthy but undistinguished family from northern Lazio, established in Rome since the 1300s. In the early 1500s, Alessandro's sister, a 16-year-old beauty named Giulia Farnese, became the favorite mistress of the 60-year-old Pope Alexander VI, and thanks to her influence with the pope, Alessandro was made a cardinal at age 25. Dropping his secular career as a notary and abandoning the libertine lifestyle that had already resulted in the birth of four illegitimate children to his various mistresses, Alessandro applied himself to his new career in the church. Although saddled with the nickname "The Petticoat Cardinal" because of the way he'd reached his high Church office, there was nothing petty about Alessandro's ambitions. Intelligent, shrewd and unscrupulous, he quickly obtained every financial advantage, licit or illicit, that being a cardinal offered, and sank a good part of his accumulating fortune into the construction of a grand palazzo.
Although previous cardinals had built luxurious residences in Rome, none before him had possessed the kind of outsized ambitions that fired Cardinal Farnese. He began around 1512 by purchasing a shabby old palazzo and its outbuildings that sprawled over a choice location in the Campo Marzio district, near the Tiber River, yet far enough away to be safe from flooding, and close to an important social and commercial hub of Rome: the market square known as the Campo de' Fiori. He then hired the city's leading architect, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, to reconstruct and greatly expand the original building. The cardinal also bought up many surrounding buildings and had them demolished to make room for his palazzo, a garden behind it and an ample piazza in front. He even rammed through a road that led out on a line from the front of the palace and joined up with the Via Papalis, the papal processional route to and from the Vatican. Clearly, Cardinal Farnese was thinking ahead.
Construction on such a vast scale moved slowly, but one of Cardinal Farnese's virtues was patience. Although he'd become a cardinal in 1493, more than 40 years passed before he finally attained the goal he had sought all along: in 1534 he was elected pope, taking the name Paul III. While still a cardinal he had persuaded Pope Julius II to legitimize his children, and his ambition was to use them to establish a family dynasty in Rome, one whose permanent headquarters would be the immense palazzo he was building. The Sack of Rome in 1527 interrupted work on the palace, as did the cardinal's chronic lack of funds sufficient to finance such a huge project. Personal tragedy also intervened -- the cardinal's younger sons died, leaving as the sole surviving heir the thuggish eldest, Pier Luigi, whose behavior (including the rape of a youthful bishop) later brought his father no end of anguish.
Cardinal Farnese's ascension to the papacy opened a vast new source of revenue for the construction of his palace: he could now dip deep into the papal treasury for funds and realize his building ambitions without restraint. He immediately ordered Sangallo to enlarge the palace. During his long years as a cardinal, Alessandro Farnese had covetously eyed Rome's greatest artist, Michelangelo, without being able to employ him. Now, as pope, he moved quickly to shower commissions on him. Among Michelangelo's assignments was Palazzo Farnese. In a humiliating insult to Antonio da Sangallo, the new pope dismissed the man who had designed his palazzo and overseen much of its construction, giving Michelangelo the task of designing the cornice, the heavy element that projects outward from the roof and crowns the building.
Michelangelo stayed on to complete the façade on the third story of the palace courtyard, and to plan a bridge that was to span the Tiber and connect Palazzo Farnese with another family property across the Tiber: the Villa Farnesina, or "Little Farnese." That project was never completed, and the single arch of the bridge that crosses via Giulia, behind Palazzo Farnese, is the only portion ever built. Michelangelo also broke into Sangallo's façade in order to insert a large central opening and balcony on the second floor, flanked by columns and surmounted by an enormous stone carving of the papal coat of arms crossed with that of the Farnese family. When Pope Paul III stepped out onto that balcony, the entire monumental façade became a setting for him -- an extension in architectural form of the power of both his family and his papal office.
Although Pope Paul III, who died in 1549, didn't live to see his palazzo completed, work continued under the direction of his nephews and grandsons -- his last remaining son, Pier Luigi, had been assassinated two years before his father's death. Two other distinguished architects, Jacopo da Vignola and Giacomo della Porta, contributed to the later phases of the building, which was completed in 1589. Della Porta, Michelangelo's star pupil, added a tall, triple-arched loggia to the magnificent garden façade that faces toward the Tiber. For visitors looking down at Rome from the summit of the Janiculum Hill, the loggia of Palazzo Farnese is one of the city's most easily identifiable landmarks. The patron for this aspect of the palace was Pope Paul's grandson and namesake, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589), known as "il gran cardinale," the Great Cardinal. Although, like his grandfather, he had an eye for the ladies, he was both a distinguished churchman and lavish patron of the arts, the man who also financed the façade of the Jesuits' mother church, Il Gesù, assembled the largest collection of antique statuary in all of Europe, and bought the Palatine Hill, turning the vast ruins of Rome's imperial palaces into a private Farnese family garden.
Despite Pope Paul III's efforts, the later Farnese spent little time living in the enormous monument their ancestor had bequeathed to them. Instead, they used it as a bargaining chip, allowing the diplomatic representatives of foreign monarchs to live there rent-free in exchange for favors from their governments to the Farnese family. Following the death of Cardinal Odoardo Farnese in 1626, the palazzo stood empty for many years. In 1656, during the reign of Pope Alexander VII, Queen Christina of Sweden -- a celebrated convert to Catholicism who lived in exile in Rome -- was allowed to lodge in the palace for several months, but she proved a most irresponsible tenant. After her departure, the dismayed papal inspectors discovered that her servants had stolen the silver, tapestries and paintings, smashed up doors to use for firewood and helped themselves to large sections of copper roofing. Repaired and refurbished, the palazzo continued to serve as a diplomatic residence throughout the 1600s and 1700s. In the 1800s it passed by marriage to the Bourbon rulers of Naples. After their exile from Naples in 1861, this impecunious bunch huddled in a few rooms of the palace and rented out the rest, hardly ever ventured outside, and raised chickens on the attic terraces.
In 1874, a few years after Rome had become the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy, the French ambassador secured Palazzo Farnese for his country's embassy, a function it has served ever since. The French government's purchase of the palace in 1911 for a very small sum raised a great outcry among Italians, and eventually negotiations worked out a plan by which the Italian state would buy the palace at the original selling price, and then rent it back to the French government for one* lira* (about one-tenth of a penny) per year. In exchange for this bargain, the French agreed to a similar rental contract for the Italian ambassador's residence in Paris. Like all rents in Rome, that for Palazzo Farnese has risen sharply -- the French now pay one euro (about $1.25) a year.
The interior of Palazzo Farnese equals the magnificence of the exterior, although only the entrance vestibule and four rooms still contain décor earlier than the 19th century. The vestibule, designed by Sangallo, impresses those who enter by recalling the form of an ancient Roman basilica, or law court, with twin rows of gray granite columns and a barrel-vaulted ceiling. It's easy to imagine how intimidating this introduction to Palazzo Farnese must have been to those who crossed the threshold in the heyday of Farnese power -- it fairly radiates aristocratic privilege and hauteur.
The chief artistic glories of the palace's interior are several very large reception rooms that, like the entrance area, were designed to awe visitors with the power and magnificence of the Farnese family. The main reception room has a ceiling almost 60 feet high -- thanks to Michelangelo's intervention, it rises through two floors and turns two rooms into a single, enormous hall. Vignola provided the designs for the richly carved wooden ceiling full of Farnese emblems, an expanse guaranteed to leave the visitor staring upward, open-mouthed. Today, the French ambassador's office occupies the Room of the Farnese Deeds, splendidly decorated with grandiose frescoes of the mid to late 1500s that glorify the Farnese males by linking them to Aeneas, the mythic hero of Virgil's "Aeneid," and the legendary founder of Rome. A somewhat smaller but still impressive room commissioned by Pope Paul III contains elaborately painted stucco decorations and frescoes on the upper walls that illustrate more ancient myths, along with a cycle relating to a symbol of the Farnese family, the unicorn. (Why a mythical beast symbolizing chastity should be an emblem of a family whose men were notorious for scandalous sexual escapades is anybody's guess.)
The most famous room in Palazzo Farnese is the Carracci Gallery, named after the painter Annibale Carracci, who around 1600 covered the ceiling with still more mythological frescoes, this series portraying the loves of the classical gods. Although a surprising subject to have been commissioned by a cleric, evidently Cardinal Odoardo Farnese felt that what he ordered painted on the ceiling of a room in his private residence was nobody's business but his own. In reality, the love scenes are quite tame; there are few glimpses of genitalia and none of the enthusiastic copulations that enliven the frescoes of the Palazzo del Te in Mantua (Fra Noi, March 2009). Despite the secular content, there are many references to Michelangelo's famous frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In Puccini's opera "Tosca," the heroine's confrontation with the evil Baron Scarpia takes place in this room.
Because Palazzo Farnese still serves as the French Embassy, it's difficult to visit the interior. Most travelers to Rome content themselves with gazing at the recently cleaned façade that looms over Piazza Farnese as a sterling example of the architecture of authority, and admire the twin fountains, made from gigantic granite bathtubs plundered from the ruins of the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla, that punctuate the piazza's space. But if you know three or four months in advance when you'll be in Rome, you can book a free tour (in either Italian or French) by sending an e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org. You'll receive a reply in French, stating the dates and hours available for your time frame, and reminding you that you must* bring your passport with you in order to be admitted. The tours take place on Monday and Thursday afternoons at 3 p.m., and it's well worth the advance planning to be admitted to one of Rome's most spectacular private spaces.