No one goes to Villa Farnesina.
By “no one” I mean “far fewer people than you would expect, considering its beauty, historical importance, and central location”.
When I finally visited Villa Farnesina, after years of thinking “I should really visit Villa Farnesina”, I practically had the place to myself. Where else in Rome can you find yourself alone with a Raphael?
This Renaissance villa in Trastevere was once the home of the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi – at the time one of the wealthiest men in Europe. His lover was the celebrity courtesan Imperia; after he dumped her, she died in mysterious circumstances (she may have poisoned herself), and Chigi paid for her lavish funeral. He then married his Venetian mistress, and had the wedding banquet in the sumptuous surroundings of Villa Farnesina.
You would expect a supremely wealthy banker to live in luxury, but what makes Chigi’s house unique is that it was decorated by none other than Raphael. One room has a fresco of the nymph Galatea – bearing an uncanny resemblance to Chigi’s former lover, Imperia – while the most famous room, the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche, has an extraordinary ceiling decorated by Raphael and his workshop. Cupid and Psyche celebrate their wedding feast on Mount Olympus, surrounded by gods, cherubs, and festoons of fruit and flowers.
Upstairs is the Hall of Perspectives – a room painted by Baldassare Peruzzi, where the walls depict colonnades and distant landscapes. One landscape is defaced by some graffiti from 1527, commemorating the Sack of Rome. Then there’s Chigi’s bedroom, which celebrates the theme of marital bliss (much like the Cupid and Psyche fresco downstairs) with a fresco of Alexander the Great’s wedding night.
I like the fact that Villa Farnesina is such an obviously personal project. The paintings clearly represent Chigi’s artistic tastes, as well as his life and loves. There’s even a representation of his horoscope on the ceiling.
Chigi has been more or less forgotten, but his house remains, as a testament to his wealth and taste for luxury. And we’ve got to feel grateful for him hiring Raphael, resulting in some rare examples of the artist’s secular work.
Although there are lots of Christian paintings that I admire – even love – some of my favourite works by Raphael are the secular ones. His painting of his mistress, La Fornarina (displayed in Palazzo Barberini, Rome), or even his self-portrait at the Uffizi. Of all the Renaissance artists, Raphael is the one I’d most like to have met. By all accounts he was charming and good company, and he just looks like a nice guy.
Don’t you think?
Villa Farnesina is open 9.00-14.00, Monday-Saturday, and there are occasional guided tours. Go early on a weekday morning, as I did, and you too might find yourself alone with a Raphael.