Palazzo  Farnese (continuation), the Villa Farnesina and the S. Cecilia

Michelangelo did more than just steer away from vitruvian rules, his architecture is also dynamic. He expressly involves the space around the building. Furthermore, he bases his designs on the person walking through the building. It is not designed, as would be custom in those days, from the perspective on paper. Michelangelo often used clay for his designs. Perspective only works if you look at the design from one angle, like you have seen in the S. Ignazio or the Il Gesù with the ceiling pieces. Such an approach is by definition static. After all, one must stand on the porphyry disc in the S. Ignazio to be able to see the ceiling piece properly. Michelangelo had a grand plan that never reached fruition. It was too costly, and probably impossible to carry out.

Engraving based on Michelangelo’s design Anonymous (Antonio Lafreri) ‘Courtyard Palazzo Farnese’ 1560 large size Met
Battista Falda ‘Courtyard of the  Palazzo Farnese’ 1655 original and large size Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Vasari describes how masons and sculptors working on the Palazzo Farnese made an important discovery, namely:

[…] in the thermae of Antoninus [Teg: Caracalla] a block of marble was uncovered, with each side measuring seven ell [Teg: 4 meters] and in which the ancients carved a Hercules in relief who held a bull by the horns atop a mountain, assisted by another figure, and adorning the mountain were a myriad figures of shepherds, nymphs and animals – most definitely a work of extraordinary beauty, so perfect were these figures, carved from a single block of stone, of which people assumed it was a fountain – and Michelangelo advised to bring this stone to the second courtyard [Teg: of the Palazzo Farnese] and have it restored to make it spout water again like before: this was deemed an excellent idea. […] And during this same time, Michelangelo planned to have a bridge cross the Tiber straight across  from this palace [Teg: Farnese], so one could move from here to their other palace [Teg: bordering the Villa Farnesina] and their garden in Trastevere. […].

Giorgio Vasari, Lives.

This is the reason why Michelangelo designed a spacious vista at the back of the courtyard. For the ground floor and the piano nobile, he designed an open loggia of three bays to offer an exquisite view over the garden, the fountain, the bridge and the family’s other palace. The artist for the engraving was likely a Northern painter. He depicted a landscape with ruins as was popular in those days. In addition, Michelangelo also made a design for the paving in front of the Palazzo Farnese facade. His design illustrates clear lines in the paving that lead to the entrance, and a spectacular vista up to the other side of the Tiber. Naturally, this massive undertaking was halted. Not even the Farnese family’s money pouch was big enough. Vignola and Della Porta have modified the loggia on the piano nobile in some of the chambers and closed two of the three openings on the ground floor.

Battista Falda ‘Coutyard of the  Palazzo Farnese large size      Study Farnese Hercules in the courtyard Palazzo Farnese
Giovanni Paolo Panini Hercules         Giacomo Quarenghi Hercules
“The two statues of Hercules featured in this engraving may have been copies of classical statuary (the caption calls them “exact images”).  The one on the right is recognizable as the so-called Farnese Hercules, a 3rd century Roman sculpture copied from a 4th century BCE original by the ancient Greek sculptor Lysippos or one of his circle.  It was recovered from the Baths of Caracalla in Rome by Alessandro Farnese and moved to the Farnese Palace in 1546, where it stood in its own room for generations.  In 1787, the statue was moved to Naples and now is in the Naples National Archaeological Museum.  The statue on the left strongly resembles a Hellenistic or Roman bronze reduction of Hercules found at Foligno, Italy, and now in the collection of the Louvre.”

Source: George Glazer Gallery

We walk back to the Via Giulia and cross the Tiber at the Ponte Mazzini to head into the Via dell Lungara.

Ponte Mazzini
Ponte Mazzini Rome


Via della Lungara
Via della Lungara trastevere Rome

It could be that we visit the Villa Farnesina earlier than is indicated here, because of the opening hours. If it would take too much time because of the route we’re following, there is one option left: you can visit the Villa on your day off, namely Friday.

This street was commissioned by Sixtus IV (Day 6: Piazzo del Popolo and the new streets). At our left hand side we finally arrive at the Villa Farnesina.

Villa Farnesina large size
Villa Farnesina facade Rome

This villa was constructed by Baldassare Peruzzi between 1508 and 1511 in commission by Agostino Chigi. We enter through the back entrance. In the 16th century, one would enter via the Loggia. It used to be open, but these days the arches are closed off with glass. We don’t just visit this palace because of its architecture, but mainly for the couple of famous frescos by painters like Raphaël, Peruzzi, Sebastiano del Piombo and Sodoma (Bazzi). Our first stop is the Sala di Galatea (see layout; the first floor has the frescos by artists like Peruzzi). This gallery, too, used to be connected openly to the adjacent garden. The arches were later closed off and given windows. The ceiling, the lunettes and the walls of this sala have frescos by artists like Peruzzi, Beccafumi, Sebastiano del Piombo and Raphaël.

Sala di Galatea
Villa Farnesina Sala di Galatea Loggia di Galatea
Sala di Galatea    Baldassare Peruzzi ceiling
Sala di Galatea Loggia Villa Farnesina

picture:  Franco Cosimo Panini Editore

The hall was named after Raphaël’s famous fresco titled Galatea. It is a rather strange hotchpotch. The intent was to only depict mythological stories on the walls and that the ceiling would be painted a sky-blue. One of the lunettes has a monochrome face.

Baldassare Peruzzi large size    Paintings Peruzzi Sala Galatea lunettes
B. Peruzzi monochrome face Sala di Galatea Villa Farnesina

The story goes that Michelangelo made this was Raphaël was working on his Galatea. He wanted to know is his young rival would be a threat. Michelangelo dressed up as a farmer and headed for the villa. After insisting for a while, and a small bribe, the farmer managed to get inside. He then allegedly used a piece of charcoal to create the head in the lunette and …

When Raphaël returned and saw the drawing [Teg: see the above image] he asked who had been in this chamber while he was gone. The guard said no one, just a farmer, and that he only allowed him entry because he persisted for so long. He did not know who it was. “Then let me tell you who it was,” Raphaël said. “It was Michelangelo. Because there is no one who can draw this sort of thing!” as he pointed to the drawn head. When the client, Agostino Chigi, later on expressed wanting that particular round plane to be painted, Raphaël refused: he pointed out that the drawing was of such an expert level that no one could improve it, that he would not dare touch it and that it was to stay intact as a full-fledged piece of art.

As told by Houbraken in his: ‘De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen’. Cited from: Antoon Erftemeijer p. 67.

The head in the lunette is currently attributed to Peruzzi. Contrary to what Houbraken writes about Raphaël, Agostino Chigi does intervene at times. For instance, he had the nude Polyphemes (in the lunette) covered with a blue mantle. Allegedly, his wife was not very fond of a nude, large giant.

Sebastiaan del Piombo ‘Polyphemes’ large size    Polyphemes in situ
Sebastiaan del Piombo  ' Polyphemes' Villa Farnesina Sala Galatea

Sebastiano del Piombo Polyphemus and  Raphaël the triumph of Galatea
Large size
Sebastiano del Piombo Polyphemus Raphaël the triumph of Galatea Villa Farnesina

This hall was named after Raphaël’s fresco for a reason. In a letter from 1514 addressed to Castiglione, Raphaël comments that he required many other beautiful women to paint this beauty. This clearly has a resemblance to the story about the Greek painter Zeuxis. In that regard, Raphaël is a vastly different painter than Caravaggio. Raphaël was a child of the Renaissance like Michelangelo. In those days, nature was to be displayed in perfection, as Michelangelo’s statues show.

Raphaël placed the face of Galatea in the dead centre of the image. She is pulled along, standing on a shell, by two dolphins. Her body is displayed in a rather complex contrapposto. The stance is far from being realistic if you imagine being dragged along the waves on a small shell. Looking at the composition, you will see it is made up of various diagonals. For instance, pay special attention to the cupids with their readied bows and arrows. The arrow of the left angle continues into the reins used by Galatea to steer the dolphins. The arrow of the other angel continues into the harassed woman: a water spirit. The tritons to the left and right blow their horns to announce Galatea’s arrival. Raphaël’s final work in this hall was admired by all. But it was not so obvious to make, because in those days…

[…] the artist has a friend whom he dearly loved. The client for the paining, wealthy banker Agostino Chigi, noticed that Raphaël was getting a little distracted. Not knowing what else to do, he allowed the beloved to live in the palace. And so the assignment reached a satisfactory end. After a wild night, Raphaël allegedly met the girl in a bakery where he stopped to buy something to eat. The girl, la fornarina, became the ‘ideal model’ for his painting of sea god daughter Galatea on a giant shell.

Cited from: Antoon Erftemeijer p. 73-74.

Villa Farnesina back loggia
Villa Farnesina back loggia


foto:  Franco Cosimo Panini Editore

We subsequently walk to the Loggia di Psiche, also on the ground floor.

Loggia di Psiche
Loggia di Psiche Villa Farnesina

Most frescos on the ceiling were designed by Raphaël, but painted by his students including Giulio Romano ,Francesco Penni, Del Colle and Giovanni da Udine. These frescos were restored very recently. And that was a good thing, as some parts of the chalk layer were beginning to get loose from the surface. Prior restorations had attempted to solve this problem by adding t-shaped copper clamps to the loose chalk layers.

Looking at the vault, you will see how Raphaël came up with a pretty nice frame to tell the story of Psyche. He paints a pergola, kept together by garlands of flowers and fruit. The centre has painted canvases to shield against the bright sunlight.

  Raphaël Loggia di Psiche
Raphaël Loggia di Psiche Villa Farnesina


Raphaël Loggia di Psiche and pendentives

These canvases depict the story of Psyche. This used to connect beautifully to the open loggia. The story is based on the Metamorphosis by Apuleius. It is about a woman named Psyche, so beautiful that men admired her more than the goddess Venus. Needless to say, the goddess wasn’t pleased. She was out for revenge and sent her son Eros, god of love, to deal with poor Psyche. Eros was to make her deeply infatuated with a miserable and deformed little man. But as it turned out, the son of Venus became completely captivated by Psyche’s beauty at first glance. He kidnapped her to live together with his new wife. One day Psyche was intent on finding out who her husband really was. She dripped some hot oil from the lamp onto her beloved. Eros woke with a startle and fled. He now had to confess his sins to his mother. After hearing what had transpired, Venus went berserk. The girl had to be punished, one way or the other. But time and again, Psyche, with the aid of other Gods, managed to flee. Eventually Jupiter intervened to ensure the beautiful Psyche would stay safe from harm.

Vasari describes the frescos as follows:

And on the ceiling he made the Council of the Gods in Heaven, wherein, in the forms of Gods, are seen many vestments and lineaments copied from the antique, and executed with very beautiful grace and draughtsmanship. In like manner he made the Marriage of Psyche, with ministers serving Jove, and the Graces scattering flowers over the table. In the spandrels of the vaulting he executed many scenes, in one of which is Mercury with his flute, who, as he flies, has all the appearance of descending from Heaven; and in another is Jove with an air of celestial dignity, kissing Ganymede; and in another, likewise, lower down, is the Car of Venus, and the Graces, with Mercury, drawing Psyche up to Heaven; with more other scenes from the poets in the other spandrels.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives.

For a beautiful website about the 160 plant types that are seen in the pendentives and the spandrels: click here.

We head up the staircase to arrive at the Salone delle prospettive.

Salone delle prospettive large size
Villa Farnesina Salone delle prospettive

picture: Franco Cosimo Panini Editore

Baldassare Peruzzi see-through and  salone delle prospettive large size
Detail see-through lage size
Villa Farnesina Salone delle prospettive doorkijkje Peruzzi
Salone delle prospettive see-through
Villa Farnesina Salone delle prospettive Peruzzi

foto: Lionel Lacour

This is where Peruzzi painted the walls. We have seen something similar on Sunday in the home of emperor August atop the Palatine. You can clearly see that Peruzzi was influenced by the classic wall paintings. But there is still a big difference: Peruzzi had mastered perspective. His vistas that seem to break through the wall are perfectly executed. This is not true for the painter who worked in Augustus’ house. There is no consensus, but it is likely that classic painters did not yet fully command the laws of perspective.

We leave the villa and continue south, walking towards a church built on a villa from antiquity. As we arrive in the Via dei Genovesi, we take a right turn to stand in the narrow Via di S. Cecilia. We then continue underneath a gate where we stand near an enclosed garden, with a large antique vase in its centre.

Giuseppe Vasi ‘Santa Cecilia’ 1710 large size
Giuseppe Vasi Santa Cecilia 1710
Santa Cecilia entrance  large size      Aerial picture
Santa Cecilia entrance to courtyard Rome 
Santa Cecilia entrance
Santa Cecilia entrance Rome

This church was likely built on the home of one of the first churches. These were really regular homes from Roman times, used as a Christian church during fixed times. Beneath this church lies a well-preserved home from Roman times. According to some this was the house of St. Caecilia.

Santa Cecilia courtyard and the other side and an aerial picture     Large size
Santa Cecilia courtyard and the other side Rome

pictures: Terena Faircloth and  (mouseover) Fernando Fuga

nave and apse
Santa Cecilia nave Rome

pictures: 21stcenturycatholic

Cecilia was a devout Christian who converted her husband and brother. The three of them looked after the martyrs. When her brothers convert an officer, things take a turn for the worst. Both are executed. Of course, Cecilia would not escape unscathed either. First the Romans try to end her life as she is sitting in her bath tub. It failed as Cecilia continued chanting hymns. A sword was drawn next against this tenacious Christian lady. The executioner swung his blade three times, but this too caused a lot of problems. Her head was not entirely separated and Cecilia lived for several days more. In that time, she managed to convert many a heathen.

Stefano Maderno 'Cecilia'  1600 Santa Celia church
Stefano Maderno ‘St. Cecilia’  1600
Catacomb di San Callisto St. Cecilia
Video catacombe van  San Callisto (3.49 minutes)
Catacomb di San Callisto St. Cecilia

As we arrive inside the church and the main altar to see the famous statue Stefano Maderno, we can see where the sword struck her body. At times you can hear the nuns chanting the hymns of Cecilia. The sound is coming from behind bars to the left in the aisle. On Cecilia’s saint day, many Christian choirs perform cantatas in her name.

Stefano Maderno, ‘St. Cecilia’, 1600, marble, length 130 cm Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. Unfortunately, we cannot see the work of 13th century painter Cavallini at this hour (on Tuesdays and Thursdays only from 10-11 AM and Sundays from 10-12 AM). Ring the bell here, left side of the courtyard, for a visit to the frescos (picture: nightingaleshiraz). The Web Gallery of Art has a digital version of the fresco.We can probably still see the work by 17th century Dutch painter Paulus Bril.

We walk towards the back to the right aisle, with a door leading to what was likely the bathroom of Cecilia. This is where she was allegedly cemented in for her to suffocate, but that never happened. You can still see the terracotta pipes used by Romans as piping for their baths. Next to a fresco by Bril we see a fresco by Pomarancio.

Insula home from Antiquity below the church
Santa Cecilia insula home from Antiquity below the church Rome

Finally, we head for Cecilia’s home under the church. We first walk back to the entrance. To the right, in the aisle, we can access a small staircase leading down. In the church it is S. Cecilia who watches over the faithful, but in the ancient villa below the church is it the goddess Minerva who watches over the visitor.


As we arrive downstairs, we first look at the crypt where St. Cecilia lies buried. Unfortunately, everything has changed quite drastically around 1900. Our Dutch catholic writer Godfried Bomans was not very pleased, judging by his commentary. He wrote:

one of Rome’s horrors, a sight for those who value the deepest, to which clerical bad taste may ruin it.

Cited from: Georgina Masson p. 624

You should see for yourself if Bomans was right. Cecilia was first buried in the catacombs of Calixtus (and according to some others in Praetextatus). In 821, her body was transferred to the crypt we are now standing in. In the late 16th century, by rule of Clemens VIII, her sarcophagus was opened and to their amazement her body was still intact and wrapped in a gold blanket. The sculptor Stefano Maderno was present and he immediately sketched a drawing. He used this drawing for his statue. Finally, we take a look at Cecilia’s house, which is still in good condition. Although, to some, it’s been restored a bit too nicely.

We must definitely leave this church by 18.00, or else we’ll find ourselves in darkness. It happened to me once. I didn’t like it.

We return to the hotel by foot or by bus.